'Baltasar'.

Work hard, make enough money to fund your passion projects and have courage.

That was advice given to filmmaker Brietta Hague during a 2016 workshop with Werner Herzog in Cuba, which ultimately gave her the guts to make her first narrative short three years later.

It paid off: Hague’s Baltasar was awarded Best Australian Short Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) Shorts Awards yesterday evening.

The jury, comprising journalist Osman Faruqi, writer/director Natalie Erika James (Relic) and Arcadia Films’ head of acquisitions and distribution Alexandra Burke, deemed Hague’s directorial debut as impressive, exploring the racial prejudices over Spain’s Three King’s holiday with “nuanced and vibrant writing, an unflinching eye and empathy for all.”

“Babou Cham is compelling as Aziz – a migrant father working to provide for his family in Senegal – and beautifully captures his quiet dignity and heartbreak in the midst of displacement. This is assured storytelling that lulls you into a false sense of security before going for the jugular,” the jury statement reads.

Baltasar emerged when Hague was working in Spain as a freelance journalist, readying a documentary for Al Jazeera about West African street sellers. That project fell through, but the process had introduced Hague to a number of migrants living in Barcelona unofficially. In conversation, they mentioned the irony of the Spanish’s love for Baltasar of the Three Kings, who is sub-Saharan.

“He’s known as the favourite of all the kids in Spain; he’s this elevated figure on this one day. They said ‘It’s ironic, because the rest of the time we’re invisible’,” Hague tells IF.

“I thought that irony was very confronting, and I wanted to move away from documentary and explore it in a narrative setting. So I started to write. I had collaborators in the West African community, including my incredible lead actor, Babou Cham.”

Hague is among the directors currently participating in the MIFF Accelerator Lab, an industry program for short film directors seeking to make the transition to features. Alumni include Justin Kurzel, David Michôd, Shannon Murphy and Taika Waititi.

The journalist and filmmaker is currently working for ABC’s Foreign Correspondent on a documentary about migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. In narrative, she is exploring stories of the colonial past, particularly a story set in South America, and another set in her hometown of Nundle, New South Wales.

“I’ve done some really scary things as a journalist, but making a fiction film was the most emotionally confronting thing for me to do because it was baring my soul as an artist rather than being the measured, balanced journalist. It was a big thing for me to emotionally have to deal with, but I loved it. It was an amazing experience and now I’m addicted.”

Among the other local winners at the MIFF Shorts Awards was Jordan Giusti, director of Reptile, taking home the Award For Emerging Australian Filmmaker for his film about a group of schoolboys whose tomfoolery turns primal.

“Propelled by extraordinarily natural and confident performances, Reptile is both a darkly funny and terrifying interrogation of male aggression and toxicity,” the jury said.

“The film does a superb job of setting up charming, relatable protagonists and a scenario that seems harmless enough, before demonstrating how something as innocent as school children playing a game can descend into brutality when men are left to their own devices. The tension and the chaos continue to ratchet up until the characters eventually realise that, even though they are the architects of their downfall, they can’t escape.”

The winner of the Best Short Film prize was Swiss short The Game, from Roman Hodel; Best Fiction Short Film, Zou Jing’s Lili Alone, from China, Hong Kong and Singapore, and Best Documentary Short Film Listen to the Beat of Our Images from France’s Audrey Jean-Baptiste and Maxime Jean-Baptiste.

MIFF shorts programmer Mia Falstein-Rush, who has curated the shorts line-up for the last four years, commended the jury for their varied selections.

This year’s shorts program was whittled down from 2,500 – 3,000 entries, and features 21 world premieres and 37 Australian premieres. All are available to watch for free on virtual platform MIFF Play.

“It’s a great place of discovery. Particularly in Australia, there is no real opportunity to see short films with this kind of platform,” Falstein-Rush tells IF.

“It’s a highly important piece of the MIFF puzzle, particularly for our local filmmakers.”

While MIFF’s necessary pivot to online may be disappointing for emerging filmmakers who dreamed of having their films play in cinema, Falstein-Rush says the shorts program is the most watched on MIFF Play ‘by a mile’ – particularly the Australian Shorts and MIFF Accelerator Shorts.

“We’d love to be back in cinemas, but it’s great that these films can be seen across the country through the platform. That’s a silver lining of being in lockdown.

All winning shorts are Academy Award eligible. MIFF ends this Sunday, August 22.

‘Reptile’.

2021 Winners

City of Melbourne Grand Prix for Best Short Film
The Game (Switzerland) Dir. Roman Hodel 

Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film
Baltasar (Australia, Spain) Dir. Brietta Hague 

Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker
Dir. Jordan Giusti Reptile (Australia) 

Award for Best Fiction Short Film
Lili Alone (China, Hong Kong, Singapore) Dir. Zou Jing 

Award for Best Documentary Short Film
Listen to the Beat of Our Images (France) Dir. Audrey Jean-Baptiste and Maxime Jean-Baptiste 

Award for Best Animation Short Film
Gravedad (Germany) Dir. Matisse Gonzalez 

Award for Best Experimental Short Film
Happy Valley (Hong Kong) Dir. Simon Liu 

Blackmagic Award for Best Cinematography in a Short Film
Lizard (Nigeria, UK) Dir. Akinola Davies Jr

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