NFF Review: ‘Women In Film’ Strand

Norwich Film Festival’s ‘Women In Film’ strand shows an array of female-directed shorts. Many of these shorts’ cast and crew are occupied by women with narratives centred on the portrayal of women on-screen. From supportive sisterhood to a Russian murder investigation, the ‘Women In Film’ strand is host to many diverse stories of womanhood.

Still from Dawn in the Dark: Dawn, a young child is tucked into bed. Her dark skin is lit by her nightlight, covers wrapping her up.
Still from Dawn in the Dark

Dawn in the Dark – Dir. Runyararo Mapfumo

Dawn (Livia Nelson) is tucked up in bed, she pulls the blankets up over her face and shuts her beady eyes in an attempt to forget the memories of earlier this evening when her Father collapsed in the kitchen. She is a little too young to comprehend what is happening but old enough to try and bargain her way into visiting her Father. Nate (Percelle Ascott), Dawn’s uncle, is handed the responsibility of the bedtime routine while her parents are at the hospital.

Gazing up at the glow in the dark star stickers on her bedroom ceiling, sleep is the last thing on Dawn’s mind. Writer-director Runyararo Mapfumo lingers with child-like wonder at the details of Dawn’s bedroom: a vibrant space of trinkets and instruments to amuse her restlessness.

Her mothers’ terrified shouts and the voice of an ambulance operator echo in Dawn’s mind and soundtrack an empty kitchen which moves as if there are people present. Mapfumo finds sublime originality in shooting memory in this impressive opening sequence. Performances from Ascott and Nelson also bring a tender beauty to Dawn in the Dark. They are effortlessly natural as they assume roles of adventurous child and concerned adolescent. This affectionate short finds an enclosed visual intimacy as the collective tries to protect a young girl from the nightmares of life.

Still from End-O: Jaq has a blonde bob with dark brown roots, she is wearing a purple bra and staring into the camera with a terrified face. She is standing in a lounge with a picture of red fish against a white background not he wall behind.
Still from End-O

End-O – Dir. Alice Seabright

Endometriosis is a condition where cells develop a womb lining outside of the womb, this can lead to painful periods and become inflamed during or after sex. In End-O, two sisters are in a battle with their own reproductive systems. 

Jaq (Sophia di Martino) sits in a hospital waiting room, hugging her teddy bear hot water bottle while children in the hallway play together, she stares over at them, repulsed. Her sister, Claire (Lisa Jackson), plops into the seat beside her. The sisters are waiting for Claire’s hysterectomy, Jaq has come for moral support and ends up distracting her sister by recounting the events of her date last night. Making sure to include the details of her menstrual cycle and how, during sex, she can be numb to pleasure. 

In telling the stories of both women, End-O remarks on the state of female consent when it comes to their own bodies. Both Claire and Jaq encounter issues when it comes to their own bodily autonomy, whether it be doctors listening or uncomfortable bleeding. Where they put the advice ‘grin and bear it’ to the test and conclude there is nothing embarrassing about menstrual blood. Alice Seabright expertly navigates the bleeding bodies of both these adult women in this impressive short.

Still from Our Sister: Tasha, a nonverbal autistic teen is wearing a yellow jumped and is lying under a crocheted white blanket. she looks upset.
Still from Our Sister

Our Sister – Dir. Rosie Westhoff

Our Sister is a tale of grief and adjustment. Centred on Tasha (Achanti Palmer), a nonverbal autistic teenage girl, processing the loss of her younger sister. Tasha and her older sister (Lauren Corahsearch) search for a semblance of normality as they try to continue their lives. Tasha is hesitant to the changes that surround her, trying to carry on as normal: buying three chocolate bars even though there is only two of them now and waiting outside the dance class her sister once attended. Tasha’s older sister is trying to move on, finding Tasha’s trepidation hard to watch.

In different ways, both sisters are swallowed by grief, yet the strength of sisterhood unites them against the horrible ordeal the face. Westhoff’s strong direction centres Tasha’s longing to find her sister in the spaces she once was at the heart of this tender narrative. As a young autistic woman, Tasha’s perception is a personal journey. Disabled representation is so important and Our Sister makes that point even more strongly with Palmer’s performance, an autistic woman herself. Palmer carries this short with a brilliant performance that is both sincere and grounded. Her navigation of grief is given time to ebb and flow, mourning in her own way.

Still from Scrum: A young girl in a rugby sports uniform holds a rugby ball staring into the eyes of her mother who stands opposite. They look like opposites: from the young women's sports outfit and brown hair against her mother's blonde bob and pale blue silk dress.
Still from Scrum

Scrum – Dir. Kate Graham

Jodie (Emma Wrightson) is unapologetic with rugby, a sport her mother Michelle (Kelli Hollis) forbids her playing. Jodie leaves the rugby pitch one afternoon, splattered in mud and with a face gash, to be greeted by her disapproving mother. The dynamic between them is instantly visualised: Jodie is willing to get dirty in a scrum while Michelle sees rugby to be damaging for her precious daughter, banning her from continuing to play. 

This mother-daughter focused story is beautifully shot against the backdrop of Leeds, Yorkshire. Scrum’s sound design is also standout, Matt Gill is due credit for Scrum’s fantastically balanced score. Thumping drums are the perfect accompaniment to one visually abstract scene where Michelle stands in the middle of a rugby field, cradling the ball, as her teammates come charging towards her. 

The short tracks Jodie’s realisation her mother may never fully approve of her decisions and Michelle comes to terms with the fact her daughter may not become who she dreamt she would be. The expectations of these women wrestle through Scrum; motherly instinct battled against a young determined drive. 

Still from Sulphur: Two women are sitting in a field. The woman to the left is blonde in a grey cardigan while the brown-haired women on the right is a policewomen in uniform. In the background are factories with smoke going into the sky above.
Still from Sulphur

Sulphur – Dir. Lana Vlady

Based on a novel written by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Sulphur is a stirring psychological thriller. There has been a murder in Norilsk, Russia; the suspect and the victim’s wife, (Anna Slyu) is brought in for questioning and sits opposite a young policewoman (Natalia Chumburidze). This claustrophobic short quickly becomes surreal. The suspect shift between being a victim and perpetrator, describing a hypothetical murder before outlining a possible motive. In trying to unpick reasoning for the murder, the young investigator gets drawn further into the mindset of the woman sat across from her. 

Writer-director Lana Vlady is an actress herself, one can assume it is this attribute that leads Sulphur to be such a performance-focused narrative. The intense mental battle as they both race to outdo one another escalates quickly into a psychological discussion of reality and vivid imagination. Wider thematic treatments of air pollution and domestic violence against women float in the peripheries of discussions. 

Delivering into the dramatics of a social drama while continuing the visuals of a thriller, the human psyche comes under examination. Sulphur pushes at the limits of both women physically and, predominately, mentally through smart editing choices and concentrated performances in this theatrical short.

Still from Take Me: Lena opposite her date. They are sitting in a bar, both have a beer and a bowl of chips between them. A red suitcase-bag sits beside Lena.
Still from Take Me

Take Me – Dir. Claire Norowzian

Single mum Lena (Margaret Clunie) is on the phone to her mother, discussing this evening’s plans while her four-year-old son (Raphael Bishop) hides in a suitcase. Lena is at a loss: she has a date scheduled but the babysitter has cancelled. Painting her nails a deep pink and applying red lipstick. She enters the bar dragging a suitcase that begins to wiggle throughout the evening. Lena tries to conceal the moving bag, bribing it with chips. What begins as a comedic concept quickly becomes terrifying.

Writer-director Claire Norowzian’s charming short shows a single mother balancing her dating life and caring for her young son. Norowzian manages to fit an entertaining, concise narrative in only a few minutes. A brief insight into this unusual connection leaves you wanting more. 

The ‘Women in Film’ strand is not the only place you can find female-directed work at Norwich Film Festival, but in this collection of shorts, the lives of women are at the forefront.

Norwich Film Festival runs throughout November. This year, the festival has moved online to continue to celebrate independent film and support filmmaking. To find out more and view over 150 shorts, head to Norwich Film Festival’s website.

All images courtesy of Norwich Film Festival 2020