LIFF 2020 Highlights: Benjamin, Benny, Ben

Programme: Black Sun: International Short Film Competition 3

Director: Paul Shkordoff

Starring: Anwar Haj

Length: 8 minutes

Country: Canada

The Leeds International Film Festival 2020 has kicked off, meaning that its vast, intriguing programme of films has finally been unleashed upon the internet. Among its many pleasures is a rich and diverse short film programme that comprises multiple individual collections and short film awards. As a Virtual Volunteer at this year’s festival, I am working my way through several of these screenings and picking out the best of the bunch.

My LIFF 2020 experience begins with Black Sun, one of six programmes that feed into the Louis le Prince International Short Film Competition. The films vary in length, but usually stay around the 15 minute mark. The exception is Paul Shkordoff’s Benjamin, Benny, Ben. At just eight minutes, it is the film that makes the biggest impression in the shortest time, taking a simple premise and spinning it into a formally intriguing and emotionally involving experience. In a strong selection, it is the film I felt myself most wanting to discuss.

The film’s plot, if you can really call it that, is simply following a young Black man as he makes his way to a job interview. He is incredibly anxious, constantly rehearsing what he will say when he arrives, with this nervousness nicely imparted by the tremble in Anwar Haj’s voice. His name is Benny, but he thinks perhaps he should call himself Benjamin in the interview, or even Ben, trying out a different version each time he rehearses his speech. The journey to interview is made by foot, with Benny possibly unable to afford other transport, and involves woods and country paths as well as passing through busy roads and city streets.

That’s about all there is to know, really. The film’s set-up is incredibly simple, but the way Shkordoff tackles it demonstrates a great filmmaking skill that makes Benjamin, Benny, Ben surprisingly engrossing. The storytelling decisions he makes are interesting ones and make for a better film overall. There’s one particular hurdle Benny faces you can see a mile off, but it is still well-handled, and feeds into an ending that leaves the audience with a healthy dose of ambiguity.

There are smart decisions like this all over Shkordoff’s work. For instance, when our hero encounters others during his quest, they are all pretty nice, understanding people. The sight of an anxious young man who has clearly struggled to get a job is in itself perhaps an indictment on our society, a social commentary that is implicit in the film’s very premise. Therefore, the decision not to surround him with unfeeling, judgemental people as well stops the film from becoming too nihilistic or straying into all-out preaching. There is perhaps a place for this, but Shkordoff is wise to know that it is not here because, as an eight-minute short, his attention must stay on Benny, showing the personal, emotional side of his story.

The film’s existence as such a short film is crucial to why I have selected it for special mention within this programme. It is a perfect example of something to be treasured in a short film: an acute awareness and exploitation of its form. This idea, of following a man as he walks from one place to another and slowly readies himself for one of the biggest days of his young life, could only work as a short film. It is a cinematic experiment, essentially, an approach that can impart a lot of information and emotion in a short amount of time, and so works as a self-contained piece of art. It is entries like this that make short film festival programmes so enticing, offering hundreds of little bite-sized nuggets of creativity.

Despite the filmic idea behind Benjamin, Benny, Ben being a straightforward one, there’s some nice aesthetic choices here that elevate it. Visually it is interesting, giving us shaky shots and slightly disorientating movement, the camera awkwardly trying to keep up with Benny as he rushes to his interview. Even better is the sound design, altered at various points by Shkordoff to clearly demarcate the stages of Benny’s journey. First we get the heavy breathing and clumsy footsteps of his rush through the woods, followed by a cacophony of revving engines in a brilliant evocation of what it is like to walk through any Dirty Big City, and then finally an eery near-silence, the calm before the storm.

Benjamin, Benny, Ben is one of the more rough-looking films in this collection, but it leaves its mark on the viewer as an accomplished piece of filmmaking with a clear approach and goal that it reaches with style. It is joined here by some other exceptional shorts, with Ali Asgari’s Witness and Agnieszka Chmura’s Border Crossing both impressing. It is Tomer Shushun who perhaps takes top prize here, though, with the gut-wrenching White Eye. At first the story of a man trying to reclaim his stolen bike, it morphs from an interesting depiction of human communication into a moving take on illegal immigration and privilege. Daniel Gad deserves special mention for his work in the lead role too.

Throughout the Black Sun collection there is a lot to admire, and a good variety of filmmaking styles on display. It is a good place to appreciate what can be done in spite of and, often, because of limited screen time, and for that it is well worth a watch. 

Black Sun: International Short Film Competition 3 is available on the Leeds Film Player until the end of the festival on 19th November.

Andrew Young