Edinburgh Film Festival: Auteurs at play in ‘Historic Center,’ and other short treats

One of the pleasures I”ve allowed myself at this year”s Edinburgh fest is more time than usual to graze the handpicked short film programme – annually a point of pride for the festival, though inevitably swamped in the attention stakes by even the most negligible features in the lineup. That”s understandable: it”s hard to cover films that your readers have no certain way of accessing, and even with advances in online exhibition, distribution of shorts remains a niche affair. Taking aside from the annual release of those fortunate shorts rather randomly singled out by the Oscars, civilian cinemagoers are unlikely to see any at all.

That”s a shame, since a film like “Vultures of Tibet,” from Austin-based director Russell O. Bush, is one of the standout documentaries of the festival, length be damned. This 20-minute study of the fascinating, somewhat poetically macabre Buddhist ritual of ‘sky burial” – whereby a human corpse is sacrificed to carrion vultures, birds believed to house the souls of spiritual elders – belies its length with remarkable depth of interpretation, as anthropological observation gives way to sobering socio-political commentary. Coupled with the poised, panoramic sweep of Drew Xanthopoulos”s lensing, it”s a reminder that “short” and “small” are not interchangeable adjectives.

Others make a virtue of the form”s limitations, like Karin Hammer and Stefan Hafner”s nifty gallery experiment “Funny Games Ghost,” a series of synchronized, overlaid scenes from both the Austrian and American versions of Michael Haneke”s brutal home-invasion chiller. In feature form, it”d be a gimmicky endurance test; at 10 minutes, it”s precisely as long as it needs to be to convey the eerie oppressiveness of repeated narrative, proffering the remake as a form of voluntary confinement.

I”ve also seen more snazzy animated shorts than I can list here, the range of techniques and effects between them driving home the point of just how aesthetically conformist most feature animation – even at its most expensively hi-tech – can look by comparison. I was particularly taken with “Woody,” the debut short from Australian animator and editor Stuart Bowen. A monochrome stop-motion charmer about a wooden artist”s mannequin whose lifelong dream of becoming the next Liberace is thwarted by his fingerless, paddle-shaped hands, it”s jauntily animated and shot through with mordantly goofy Down Under wit: most inspired is an instructional montage demonstrating appropriate lines of work (air traffic controlling, pancake flipping) for the non-articulated likes of Woody. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle Film Festival a few weeks ago, which, if I remember correctly, qualifies it for Oscar consideration: I wouldn”t be surprised to see it pop up in that race.

One way of ensuring wider attention for shorts – if only those by the name auteurs who tend to participate in these endeavours – is the trusty old portmanteau picture. There”s at least one of these patchwork affairs at almost any major festival: an omnibus of shorts linked by a common theme or cause, bound together as a feature-length film. They invariably receive (and deserve) the “mixed bag” label, but the strike rate is pleasingly high in “Historic Centre,” an alternately whimsical and mournful anti-travelogue commissioned by the Portuguese city of Guimaraes to celebrate their appointment as 2012″s European Capital of Culture.

A Portu-portmanteau then, if you like – though Finnish eccentric Aki Kaurismaki and elusive Spanish master Victor Erice have been tapped alongside local luminaries Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa to offer their peculiar interpretations of Guimaraes”s heritage. The good news is that three of these veterans are enchantingly on their game; the bad news is that Costa has opted to set his turgidly off-topic segment almost entirely in an elevator.

Significantly more enjoyable than Costa”s marathon 30-minute misfire was his amusingly sour pre-screening introduction, in which he made no attempt to disguise his disdain for the enterprise: “It”s the kind of thing they make when they have money they don”t know what to do with,” he said with a shrug. It”s tempting to imagine that he agreed to participate as an act of perverse sabotage; that possibility at least makes his unpromisingly titled film “Sweet Exorcist” – a dour post-colonial conversation between the protagonist of Costa”s colossal youth and the bronze-painted spirit of a battle-weary soldier – interesting in its impenetrability.

In far better humor, clearly, is Kaurismaki, who kicks off the project with the wholly delightful “Tavern Man,” a brief but deliberately sketched portrait of a lonely restaurateur attempting to embrace the city”s growing culinary revolution with hilariously inept results. Abetted by his hangdog leading man Ikka Koivula, Kaurismaki strikes his trademark Chaplin-esque balance of the droll and the doleful with sweeter precision (and better sight gags) than any of his last few features: our chef”s version of bouillabaisse alone would redeem the effort of sitting through three more “Sweet Exorcists.”

Also bettering his recent longer-length work is de Oliveira, the oldest filmmaker at work today (or, perhaps, ever): the last and shortest film of the four, “The Conquered Conqueror” is a single, perfectly timed skit that pokes fun at the glib, fleeting engagement of passing tour groups. Pondering the daily indignities inflicted upon a noble statue turned prime holiday-snap hodder, de Oliveira strikes the tone of half-amused, half-desolate resignment that rings awfully true coming from a 104-year-old artist.

At 72, Victor Erice is a mere stripling beside de Oliveira, but there”s graceful world-weariness in his contribution, “Broken Windows” – the most substantial and emotionally rewarding of the four, as you might expect from the poetically inclined director of “The Spirit of the Beehive” (one of the greatest films ever made, in my book). Erice hasn”t made a feature since 1992, though he also won the portmanteau game in 2002″s “Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet.”

The only documentary in the compilation, it”s a formally simple piece, the cumulative power of which is hard to convey on paper. In the canteen of a vast, now-disused textile factory, former workers offer bruised personal testimonies about their times there, shot and structured by Erice as a series of “screen tests”; in turn, they each reflect on a photo of an earlier generation of workers, contemplating their predecessors” yearnings much as we contemplate theirs. “At 77, I still don”t know what happiness is,” says one tiny, wiry woman without ceremony or self-pity. “Joy, sure. But not happiness.” At 38 minutes, “Broken Windows” is perhaps the single most extraordinary thing I saw at Edinburgh this year. “Historic Centre” left me wishing some directors would make more shorts, and that Erice would make more, period.