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A testament to a thriving independent scene: Bristol Independent Film Festival 2023

'It was heartwarming to see a sold out theatre: a testament to the people of Bristol's continuing love and appreciation for independent art.'

By Epigram Film & TV Team

At the end of November, Bristol Independent Film Festival came to the Bristol Aquarium to deliver its purpose of 'Celebrating Independent Vision, One Frame at a Time' and in the breadth of talent it put it on display, it certainly did not disappoint.

Epigram's Film and TV team went along to cover the screenings of a remarkable selection of the winners of their annual awards.

Best Student Documentary: I Am More Dangerous Dead, by Majiye Uchibeke

This heartbreaking documentary focused on the sheer injustice of Shell's ruthless exploitation of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. It details the way Ken Saro-Wiwa (an environmental activist, campaigner and writer) passionately spoke out against this injustice and amassed the support of his people, only to be unjustly convicted for organising a peaceful protest, leading to his eventual death in prison.

The documentary was very well crafted in its inclusion of old clips of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s poetic speeches mixed in with emotional tributes for the legacy of a man whose ideas will live on beyond his unjust imprisonment. You could see that the project was made with so much love and thought in order to make a change in the Nigerian community and highlight the destructive consequences of the oil industry which has been wreaking havoc in vulnerable communites for decades. It was incredibly fascinating hearing a non-Western perspective and it was a fantastic project for this accolade to be awarded to.

Courtesy of Arron Kennon

Best Short Documentary: Live to Win, by Jacques Lockwood

Jacques Lockwood’s, Live to Win, won the best short documentary award at Bristol’s sixth independent cinema film festival. Using an ethnographical approach, Lockwood succeeded in unravelling the fascinating social dynamics present in the world's most successful esports teams.

 Live to Win is a story of Counter-Strike, a popular first-person shooter which has occupied a dominant position in the world of esports since its inception in 2012. The thirty-three-minute documentary follows three Counter-Strike esports teams, Vitality, Heroic and Into The Breach, and their journey to success.

 From the onset of the documentary, the audience, like the esports competitors, has its eyes fixed on the Paris Major tournament. This competition is the ‘World Cup’ of global, competitive Counter-Strike, with teams playing for a $1.25 million prize pot. Lockwood does well to build suspense and anticipation for this event as we follow the hurdles that each team must overcome to reach the finals of the competition. This personalistic approach does well to convey the grit and dedication one needs to have to be able to compete at the highest level.

 But it is the cinematography and artistic skill which makes this documentary so compelling. Lockwood, in an interview at the festival, expressed the vast amounts of footage he had to sift through in order to create a coherent story. Choosing to use gameplay provided the audience with a richer understanding of the mechanics of the game in what viewers likened to an action film. It was this balance between in-game footage and the emotion of a human story which earned Live to Win the title of the best short documentary. 

Courtesy of Arron Kennon

Best Feature Film: The Last Witness, by Piotr Szkopiak

Piotr Szkopiak’s The Last Witness is a chilling yet emotive depiction of the extremities taken to bury the truth about the Katyn massacre in which twenty-two thousand Polish soldiers were slaughtered by the Soviet Union, including Szkopiak’s own grandfather. Alex Pettyfer portrays the investigative journalist Stephen Underwood as he chases a story surrounding the suicides of multiple Polish soldiers. Underwood soon learns there are much larger stakes at play as lives are lost in the push to uncover the truth of the Katyn massacre.

Much of The Last Witness is filmed in Bristol, the Clevedon Pier recognisable as it bookends the film both as the opening and closing shot. The foggy and cold presentation of the pier is representative of the atmospheric tone that will prevail throughout the feature film. This movie’s importance is obvious in theme and sentiment but highlighted by Szkopiak’s own words: 'film educated me because it moved me'. This piece does so in a prolific way. Since its release in 2018, it has gone on to win 44 festival awards, its latest being the Bristol’s Independent Film Festival award for Best Feature Film.

Courtesy of Arron Kennon

Best Actress: Bethan Waller in Caretaker, by James Hood

A heartbreaking, surreal take on the emotional toll of caring for loved ones who are suffering. Bethan Waller shines through in a remarkable performance, ranging from the subtle to the bizarre, in her exploration of identity through an attempted reconnection with her ageing mother.

James Wood's ethereal directing style incorporated a dissonant, invasive soundtrack which enhanced the dreamlike, uncanny visual sequences of mental and architectural deterioration, all coming together in this impactful, haunting story.

The script featured only one word: 'I', uttered only once by Waller in the final moment. Not only was this a commendably unique and utterly sparing use of speech which only left the audience with more questions than answers, as all great pieces of art do, but it is also a testament to Waller's performance which thrived in its emotive display using only the tools of her body and expressions.

A thoroughly deserved win for Bethan Waller in one of the most eerie acting performances we had seen this year.

Courtesy of Arron Kennon

The festival was a testament to the enduring power of independent filmmaking and why it is vital that it is an industry which is continued to be supported on a local and global level. It was heartwarming to see a sold out theatre: a testament to the people of Bristol's continuing love and appreciation for independent art.

A full list of this years winners can be found here.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Arron Kennon

What are your favourite independent films?