Two local shorts screened in competition to packed houses at this year's installment of the celebrated film festival.
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8 Mar 2011 - 11:51 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 6:33 AM

One can devote a portion of February to guessing which films are likely to win heavy golden statuettes of streamlined naked men in Los Angeles, or spend that time more profitably at the world's most noteworthy festival devoted entirely to short films in Clermont-Ferrand, France. During the 2011 edition of the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival nearly 150,000 tickets were sold in 9 days. Not bad for a town with a population of 143,000.

A pro-Antipodes vibe reigned, with a six-program retrospective of shorts from New Zealand. The Opening Night ceremony showcased Wishery, Australian musician and artist Pogo (Nick Bertlee)'s creative hijacking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which fit right into this year's sidebar on fairy tales.

Australia fielded two films in Competition – one harrowing and easy to grasp, the other harrowing and confusing.

The Kiss (pictured) is – to use a technical term – terrific. If it were a feature film rather than a short and I were a quote whore aiming for the poster, I'd say, "As scary as that lesbian sex scene in Black Swan only subtler and way more convincing."

Two young women who are best friends and confidantes are riding their bicycles down a remote-looking path one night. They've been drinking – are still taking swigs from a bottle of liquor, in fact – and are feeling loose and reckless. They're apparently on their way back from a party. And like that fellow in 127 Hours, nobody knows where they are. It's hot even though it's the middle of the night, and the only light source is the moon. We feel their joy at cycling in flimsy dresses by moonlight. They turn off past a sign that says 'Fire Water' and park their bikes alongside a huge metal tank sunk partly into the ground to hold water for fighting fires. (For the record, fire water is also what Native Americans call liquor – it burns the gullet and perhaps burns off a layer of common sense.)

At first they sit on the rim of the circular tank in their bras and panties. Then one of the girls dives into the water. The other hesitates then joins her with a splash. It's a refreshing setting. Cool yet sensual, the images do a fine job of depicting sensations as the young women float and frolic in the pleasant liquid. We see their faces above the water line, their dog-paddling bodies below. We feel as if we're in the water with them, which is why we feel a chill of empathy when they realise they can't get out of the tank. The audience – 1400 strong – made a collective, audible gasp.

The metal ladder on the inside of the tank is way out of reach and the inner walls of the tank are smooth. It's possible on dry land for one person to get a productive boost up by standing on someone else's shoulders but, as the girls discover, that's an ineffective approach in
liquid. The 'booster' gets pushed underwater and is in danger of drowning. As in 127 Hours, they're in serious physical trouble and need to be rescued but nobody knows where they are or even realises they're missing. Our panic as viewers builds along with theirs. The film's sound design is highly evocative: splashing, the sounds of frantic hands slapping against metal.

It's a real setting, a real dilemma and a real relationship. A piece of gossip revealed in the tank gives rise to strong feelings. Filmmaker Ashlee Page (who adapted a story by Peter Goldworthy) prolongs the anxious mood, creates new dangers, new fears, exposes latent yearnings. The depiction of tension is incredibly effective.

Shot on location in South Australia, The Kiss won Best Feature Short at the MIFF 2010 and got lively applause in Clermont-Ferrand.

The other competing film from Australia, writer-director Mischa Baka's Last Beautiful Friend, also takes place in one location, in this case the shabby living room of a divorced professor named Land. He may not be stuck in a tank of water with no handhold or foothold, but he's definitely stuck. His cute young daughter is there for a visit until her mother comes to get her. An attractive female student comes to visit, too. Their relationship is nebulous.

Over the course of 24 minutes, Land is lonely whether by himself or entertaining company. He dances around to rhythmic music, pretends to be a dog on all fours for his daughter's amusement and, when alone in his shabby living room, expresses his frustration and dissatisfaction via powerful body language. The catalogue description, in its entirety, reads: He is jealous of her future. She is jealous of his past.

A portion of the audience booed at the end, which is unusual in Clermont-Ferrand although not unheard of. There was also scattered applause. In a room that holds 1420 people you're bound to find folks who disagree.

The most enigmatic portion of the film takes place when the female student not only brings a male student to the professor's living room when he's away, but appropriates some of his earlier dialogue for her guest's benefit.

One is left with the feeling that Last Beautiful Friend could have been called Bad Vibe Living Room.