Shorts On Tap present: IMITATION OF LIFE @ 93 Feet East

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It’s been a hot few months for the short film power house programmers, but IMITATION OF LIFE particularly struck a cord with us in the back room of the dark, dingy and much loved 93 Feet East on Brick Lane. Sometimes you need to strip away the quirky event layers and dedicate some film watching time to simple, hard hitting drama. After all, that’s what we all love about film, isn’t it? The drama that it enriches our lives with, maybe even inspiring us to take action or make changes. Film is, first and foremost, an imitation of life.

Films on offer this week were, as always, eclectic, exciting and in relation to this nights central focus of casting, full of talent. They ranged from the comical yet deeply disturbing NO STRINGS ATTACHED (Kieron Clarke), a short but rather sickening look at the dangers of online chat rooms, to the quiet and tragic MORE THAN TWO HOURS (Ali Asgari) about a young couple desperately searching for a hospital to help them. As well as this, the night aimed to explore shifting sexual boundaries in CURTAINS (Nathan Evans) and the monotonous life of the office worker and what happens when you decide to reclaim yourself in ALONE WITH ME (MK Casey). A vast selection that showcased what great short filmmaking can be; simple, gritty, thrilling.

The event was aimed at highlighting the importance of the casting process, in partnership with Casting Networks who found all the talent in all the films shown that evening (Thabo Mhlatshwa was there to give us the lo-down). They create business solutions for entertainment professionals who benefit from an offering of communication, scheduling, media management, marketing, career development, and talent scouting tools. The aim is to create an environment that will make it easier for these professionals to find work and get their jobs done. 

“It’s very time-consuming for anyone to find the talent they’re after”, says Filippo Polesel, producer of SOT, on the film casting process. “It’s like entering a huge library.. you may know what kind of narrative you like but how do you pick a book? By its cover of course! The internet is a big haystack and if somebody shows you where the needle is..you go for it.
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That’s why Casting Networks is so revolutionary: most of the cast and crew for any production of any kind is usually compiled through word of mouth. This casting brain hub has the potential to change the landscape; democratise it; diversify it.

“I think the internet has indeed democratized things IN THEORY. But the amount of information and names and faces is now so broad…Supply is very diverse, demand is probably more conservative.”

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The name of the event on Thursday was actually named after the REM song – “songs, records and similar are a great inspiration for our titles!” says Filippo – as opposed to the movie. But the song itself was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1959 classic story, the heightened drama of which was a thematic strand in the brilliant short films shown at 93 Feet East on Thursday.

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Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker)
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Sarah Jane begs her mother to leave her alone so she can hide the routes of her ethnicity
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Sarah Jane left beaten and dumped by her white boyfriend when he realises her mother is black
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Sarah Jane and Susie (Sandra Dee) argue over who has to play with the black dollie

IMITATION OF LIFE (the Douglas Sirk version, 1959, which was a remake of John M Stahl’s 1934 one) is the ultimate melodrama. The story – two mothers and two daughters who live in the same household but are separated by the racial and social contention of their time and place – was light years ahead of its time and still takes my breath away to this day, being both a product of 50s racism and a subversion of it. However it’s rarely talked about or promoted as the radical depiction of class and race relations in 50s suburban America that it is. Look at the DVD cover (the version that’s on sale in HMV, anyway):

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…So this film is about Lana Turner, her pert breasts and her two lovers, right?

The first time I saw this on the shelf, after reading the back a few times to make sure it was in fact the same film, I made a noise like a rhinoceros and dropped it back into the wretched place from whence it came. I couldn’t understand how the love triangle element of the film – unremarkable, Hollywood, and so I thought only serving to highlight the degree to which the struggles of black poor Americans and white rich ones differ – had been chosen to represent its message. It’s a typical star-driven cover but it speaks absolute volumes about what it’s not advertising.

Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece is indeed a Hollywood melodrama, featuring a sassy star wearing over a million dollars (highest budget for costumes at the time in cinema) worth of wardrobe. But it’s impossible to put this kind of glossy melodrama next to depictions of a young black girl struggling to find her identity, rejecting both her mother’s piousness and a world that classifies her against her will, coping with physical and racial abuse and the weight of public hatred, and take it seriously. To call this film a ‘romantic melodrama’ is a pathetic misjudgement.

IMITATION OF LIFE is a good starting point in understanding the history of dramatic filmic representations of our biggest social issues, because it subverted the system from within the system itself. If “supply is diverse” and “demand is more conservative”, representative drama is the tool we can use to raise awareness and influence public perception. And that’s exactly what SHORTS ON TAP are doing by showcasing such moving shorts – hooray!

All SOT photos by Luigi Cianfarano

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