LONDON’S LATEST film festival has received entries from Britain, Spain, Iran and Venezuela. They include documentaries, thrillers and experimental art films; the running times range from under a minute to over an hour. But they all have one thing in common—they were made using the kind of camera which most people carry around in their pockets. The London International Smartphone Film Festival (SMart for short) is the first major film festival in which at least 50% of every film was shot on a mobile phone.
“We have had 130 entries, which is pretty good going for such a specific area,” says Adam Gee, one of SMart’s two organisers along with Victoria Mapplebeck. “They’re extremely varied, but the quality is extraordinarily high. There was barely a dud amongst them.” The pandemic may have boosted the numbers. One reason why 2021 was picked as SMart’s inaugural year is that social distancing and other safety protocols have made conventional film-making tricky, and some frustrated directors have turned to their phones instead. At the same time, the pandemic has disrupted cinema screenings, too, so the first SMart will be a “virtual” festival. The best of the entries, as chosen by a panel of judges, will be free to watch online.
Mr Gee and Ms Mapplebeck had the idea for the festival after working on a smartphone film together. Prior to that Ms Mapplebeck had been a documentary-maker, but when she became “a broke single mum”, in her words, the requisite long hours and international travel were impossible. “I had to leave the industry,” she says. “There was no way I could keep going.”
In order to keep her eye in, she used her phone to chronicle her day-to-day life, including her breast-cancer treatment and her efforts to contact her son’s estranged father. She then realised that the footage she had amassed could be edited into documentaries with exceptional spontaneity and intimacy. “You’re invisible when you’re shooting with a smartphone,” Ms Mapplebeck explains. “They’re so ubiquitous that you can use them on the tube or the bus or in a hospital corridor and it doesn’t matter. People just think you’re reading a text or taking a selfie. You can look like an amateur and shoot like a professional.”
One of the films Ms Mapplebeck shot on her phone, “Missed Call” (pictured), was commissioned and produced by Mr Gee. It went on to win the BAFTA for Best Short Form Film in 2019, making it the first ever smartphone film to win a British Academy Film Award. The victory “felt like a bit of a landmark”, says Mr Gee. “We’ve all got phones which are capable of making high-quality images, the software is cheap, and we’ve all got free access to distribution [via YouTube and other sharing platforms], so it boils down to the key qualities of having talent and having vision. Otherwise, everyone’s on a pretty level playing field.”
Mr Gee and Ms Mapplebeck, now a professor in Digital Arts at the University of London, set up SMart to foster and publicise smartphones’ “amazing democratising potential”, says Ms Mapplebeck. There has been much hand-wringing in recent years about the film business’s need to be more diverse; though grants and initiatives have their place, smartphone cameras are a revolutionary way for aspiring film-makers to break into the industry by creating a body of work on a budget. Nor do they need to abandon their phones once they’ve broken in. Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (2015) was shot on an iPhone, as were two films from Steven Soderbergh, “Unsane” (2018) and “High Flying Bird” (2019).
Will other Hollywood directors swap truckloads of expensive equipment for the handheld alternative? Mr Gee thinks this is the wrong question, given that smartphones allow people to craft and distribute their work without fitting into a commercial mould. It’s all very well to cite Mr Soderbergh and Mr Baker, but “the really interesting and inventive smartphone film-making is on TikTok”. Ms Mapplebeck, however, believes the ever-increasing quality of smartphone images, and the ever-decreasing cost of the accompanying software, mean that mainstream cinema can’t afford to ignore the new technology. “People will use smartphones as another camera lens, so you get the best of both worlds: traditionally beautiful scenic shots that took five hours to light, and fluid, spontaneous, atmospheric footage shot with a phone.” Whatever the size of a film’s budget, a smartphone may sometimes be the smart choice.
The London International Smartphone Film Festival runs between June 21st and 25th