Iris Prize 2021 – Resilient

Baba

Written and directed by Sam Arbor and lead actor Adam Ali, living in the tunnels beneath Tripoli a queer Libyan teenager, Britannia, dreams of escape to a better life, but an unexpected discovery forces him to question whether to stay or flee from his homeland and his friends. Also starring: Colette Dalal Tchantcho, Elysia Kozinos, Usaim Younnis and Ali Gadema.

The fascinating thing about Baba is its mix of directorial style and tone which almost feel like a political thriller set against a story which is heart-rending and nostalgic. It sounds as if it wouldn’t work and yet it does, perfectly. It intensifies the separation and rejection felt by Britannia (Adam Ali), while never taking anything away from its intimacy. One of the exceptional things it achieves is to explore the more complex relationship of those turned away from their religious families because of their sexuality or gender identity. Even in just its 18-minutes, it definitively gets across how it’s not a black and white issue, the love is still there even if its buried between layers of complicated emotions.

Sam Arbor and Adam Ali also brilliantly manage to strike a balance of a darkly edged sadness and a hopeful spirit. It acknowledges the distressing nature of the story but has a focus on the future, the tone is one which accepts the trauma of the past but doesn’t let it stop Britannia from moving forward. All of which is embodied by the performance from Ali, there’s a lot of layers to fit into its 18-minutes but there’s an openness and honesty to the way Ali portrays Britannia which makes that an easy task. He hits some familiar notes in his vulnerability, the ecstatic and overt nature fighting against his emotional turmoil and genuine fears, masking his reality in a cheerful blend of colours but he’s still an original feeling character.

What Arbor and Ali have put together here is a fantastic short film which strikes right at the heart, it blends an intimate story with a gripping directorial style. It’s exactly the type of film which you’d love to see expanded because there’s such potential in this story.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯ | 10/10

Winner of both the Iris Prize 2021 and the Best British Award


Three Letters

Directed by Ian Smith, following the deaths of his stepmother and grandmother, disability and LGBT+ rights campaigner Paul Davies attempts to write to the father he feels rejected by, hoping to find resolution and peace.

Paul Davies was very generous to let viewers into this intimate and incredibly personal moment of his life. It’s an experience which is both specific to him and explores relatable themes of loss, grief, acceptance and distance. Its story leads with the emotions over explanations, Davies’ situation becomes clearer as time goes on but the feelings that go along with it are present from the beginning.

Smith’s direction is very well done, atmospheric shots of the surrounding town, great landscapes and a variety of angles. However, it begins to stand out slightly too much, gradually it feels less connected to the type of story this short is exploring. The sincere intimacy it holds doesn’t match the separation and frequent distant shots of the direction, as though it’s pulling away from Davies. Whereas it calls out for an up close and personal style, to go along with the baring of his personal life.

That’s not to say it undermines the emotions of his story, things simply don’t go hand in hand as well as you’d hope. It also doesn’t really have enough time to delve more deeply into this complex personal history, it’s a shame not to get a few more levels of detail on their relationships. It’s sweet and moving but feels as though it had more to offer.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½ | 7/10


Acrimonious

Written and directed by Olivia Emden, co-written by lead actor Joey Akubeze, a non-acrimonious but sudden divorce wrenches the gay, working-class born Emeka out of a decade-long hiatus living the middle-class dream, landing him back in the childhood council house he hoped he’d left behind. Also starring: Tia Bannon, Bradley Banton, Donna Berlin, Celyn Jones, Shaniqua Okwok and Shubham Saraf.

Acrimonious sets an extremely modern tone, Emeka (Akubeze) feels like a great example of gay men today, particularly in that he doesn’t hit the usual stereotypes. Emden and Akubeze have created a character who feels original, he’s intelligent, confident and funny, but also has his flaws. He can be slightly selfish and a touch pretentious, Joey Akubeze gives him a big presence, he gives a commanding performance while keeping a casual air. Olivia Emden’s directorial style matches that extremely well, its opening shot feels like a homage to classic rom-coms.

However, it feels as though it’s missing a driving force, a recent break-up isn’t quite enough. Similarly, it’s funny and sweet but not in a strong enough manner to lead the story. Acrimonious is well shot, stylish and witty but it’s missing something to give it an extra edge.

Verdict: ✯✯✯ | 6/10


Split Sole

Written and directed by Barnaby Boulton, in the housing estates of London’s urban sprawl two young men (Daniel Larkai & Taz Skyler) text one another to arrange a clandestine meeting on the stage of an empty theatre. Also starring: Alex Gok, Michelle Greenidge, Samiah Khan and Iman Marson.

Jumping into this story it immediately hits the classic London tones, and the typical banter of youth. It uses that tone to subvert stereotypes of lads on the streets but feels as though it could have been used more effectively. It’s handled fairly simply, the complexities of its emotions are left to the side while it applies a more sentimental approach. It’s something which particularly stands out as it moves into the dance portion, the transition doesn’t feel impactful but overly sweet. Coming across as cute rather than touching and lacks a bigger commitment to the journey it’s trying to explore.

Daniel Larkai and Taz Skyler have a good chemistry but the time that they get together isn’t enough to build a tangible relationship. There’s a flirtatious edge and understanding but it’s kept vague which undermines its impact. However, the visual style is well done, it has a variety and adjusts as the tone of the story evolves, going from a coldness to warmth. It simply feels as though Split Sole leaves too many things unsaid, takes too long to arrive at its key scene and needed to commit more to the story of these two men.

Verdict: ✯✯½ | 5/10


Lesbian.

(Previously reviewed as part of ‘Beyond Carol’)

Directed by Rosemary Baker and based on the poem by Lisa Luxx, Lesbian. is a poem about the word itself and the decades of toxic connotations it’s acquired, featuring a cast of real queer women (Luxx, Victoria Brown, Leilah-Jane King, Saima Razzaq, April Welsh), this is a fierce call to arms to reclaim it.

Short film is a perfect vehicle for bringing to life poetry, to give such well-written words a platform to connect on an even deeper level. What already began as a powerful poem, gets further enhanced with Rosemary Baker’s graceful, textured and colourful visual. The presence which Baker’s direction builds is impressive but it’s even more so when paired with the voice of Lisa Luxx.

Luxx gives a commanding performance, it walks the line of both being refined and perfectly down to earth. Similarly it balances being even toned and expressing the appropriate anger in response to the common homophobia all queer people have experienced at one point or another, whether directly or indirectly. Lesbian. creates a mix of poetry, performance and art piece, it has a compelling patter and pace, gripping throughout and leaves you still thinking of its meaningful message after the credits have rolled.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯ | 10/10


You can watch all these shorts as part of Iris Prize’s ‘Resilience’ selection, available online until 31 October


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