They call the annual festival in Clermont-Ferrand "The Cannes of Short Films" — which means that, as the saying goes, it's an honour simply to be invited to compete. Need we add that it's a brag-worthy accomplishment to win a prize?
Which is what Frazer Bailey's 16-minute long Australian comedy Glenn Owen Dodds did on February 6, closing night of the event's 32nd edition. The Canal+ award for best foreign film – from a line-up of 78 contenders culled from over a thousand submissions – means the French pay-TV giant will purchase the film and telecast it in France and Spain.
Whereupon viewers will learn that not only is there a God but he lives in Australia.
In Glenn Owen Dodds a young man spots some people queuing up as they wait to step through the undistinguished door of a rather ordinary building. Curious, our hero joins the queue and is eventually admitted. The title character welcomes the visitor into a small office cluttered with the filing cabinets and paraphernalia characteristic of any small business.
Small talk with large consequences ensues. Our hero has never laid eyes on his host, but Mr. Dodds is uncannily well informed about his unscheduled guest.
Where does this guy get his information, anyway?
Glenn Owen Dodds is a comedy. A genuinely funny one that, judging from audience reaction, is amusing to people from many cultures.
The festival programmers, some of whom have been working together for over three decades, aren't particularly dour in real life. But a great many films they choose are hard hitting, upsetting, melancholy or enigmatic. When a funny film with a punch line comes along, audiences are appreciative.
When I say "audiences" I'm not referring to a few dozen people who like short films. The population of Clermont-Ferrand is 143,000. This year's festival sold over 150,000 tickets. The closing night awards ceremony, held in an auditorium that seats 1,420 people, is so popular that it's repeated three times in a row and each seating sells out. There are 14 other venues in which short films are projected from 9 in the morning until well past midnight.
Fifty-eight countries were represented in this year's International Competition, for a total of 78 films. Two of which were from Australia.
The other, Ben Weir's The Neighbour, plays with space and expectations to devastating effect. As jet planes glide overhead, the camera shows us a few houses, a driveway, a white shed with two double doors and insects going about their business in the surrounding foliage. It's hot and sunny.
A man's voice asks an unseen woman what she'd do if she learned she was pregnant with a radically deformed baby. The topic sounds serious but the tone is teasing and frivolous.
It turns out that the voices belong to a young, sunbathing couple keeping themselves amused with "What if?" questions about monster babies and vaginal reconstruction.
They hear a woman's laughter and the tell-tale signs of bedroom action from the direction of the neighbour's house. After the neighbour's wife shows up, the frivolous couple aren't surprised when the overheard laughter stops.
But what happens next surprises the whole neighbourhood. Oddly enough, when you're wasting time on a nice day, those same ticking minutes can be a matter of life and death just over the hedge.
The Neighbour garnered fairly enthusiastic applause.
In addition to the International and French competitions, the festival hosts a "Labo" (for 'laboratory') competition tailored to unconventional and experimental work. The Australian entry in the 9th annual Labo series, comprised of just 42 films, grabbed viewers by the throat.
Cicada, a searingly intense documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, consists almost entirely of one Daniel P. Jones, a man in his 40s or perhaps 50s speaking directly into the camera with sit-up-and-take-notice fury. His language is colourful and direct as he recounts what happened to him when he was 5 years old.
Jones' mother worked at a hotel bar in Melbourne where he was accepted by and fussed over by the clientele. So far as he knew, a bar was a safe place where people drank and talked and played darts.
As he tells it, one day a man with a sawed off shotgun came in and blew a customer's brains out right next to our onscreen narrator.
A thing like that can scar a kid's psyche. Just hearing about it is harrowing. And in less than 10 minutes, we have a greater understanding of the physical and emotional aftermath of witnessing a murder.
Each line-up of shorts plays five or six times during the fest which this year ran from January 29 through Feb 6.
Clermont-Ferrand delights in programming thematic retrospectives. This year there was one devoted to Moroccan shorts and one devoted to zombies and the undead. Australia has the hang of fangs in The Long Night, Richard Williamson's 2008 venture in which a vampire sips coffee and does crossword puzzles while waiting for a ray of sunshine to put an end to his unpleasant existence.
But, the undead aside, Australian filmmaking was alive and well in Clermont-Ferrand.