Glasgow Short Film Festival 2023

Two interconnected themes emerged for me at this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival. The first was machine learning (otherwise known as weak artificial intelligence), represented by the Rise of the Empathy Machines strand. The second was the idea of taking control of your own life or the tools you use. These themes intersected interestingly across the short films I managed to see and perhaps express something essential about our contemporary cultural moment.

The Rise of the Empathy Machines strand showcased “experimental films and artists’ moving images made mostly by, on, using, or in collaboration with algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.” Ben Nicholson of experimental film platform ALT/KINO introduced the strand as intensely topical for online discussions around the potential of machine learning while highlighting the objects of artists like Nick Cave, who spoke about weak AI’s “grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”

Attending this strand, I saw several short films categorised as exploring how a non-human intelligence might comprehend and view the world, most of which were made using machine learning tools to one degree or another. For example, Anna Ridler’s TRACES OF THINGS used a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to produce an imagined photographic archive of Malta. By using historic photographs of Malta as input, Ridler’s GAN was able to output a slideshow of images of what a complete photographic archive of Malta might look like. Mike Tyka’s EONS similarly used BigGAN to create a short animation representing the passage of time on Earth. Nikita Diakur’s BACKFLIP, by contrast, used Cinema 4D software from the company Maxon to create a 3D physical environment in which a computer avatar can simulate cartwheels and backflips.

For me, these films produced with machine learning showed an inverse relationship between their quality and how much control the software tools were given over the creative process: the more “control” the weak AI was given, the less interesting the films were. TRACES OF THINGS is a slideshow of blurry sepia images that creates a grotesque mockery of a photographic archive. Cristina Iliescu’s A.I. POETRIES OF FEMALE AND NON-FEMALE BEINGS IN GAS STATIONS AT NIGHT (POEZII A.I. DESPRE FEMEI ȘI NON-FEMEI ÎN BENZINĂRII NOPTEA) imagines an artificial intelligence watching a petrol station through CCTV footage and creating poetry. However, the concrete poetry (produced using Apple’s iOS predictive text function) only highlighted the paucity of meaning at the heart of machine learning. The images and texts produced by weak AI tend to blur together indistinctly because the tools’ outputs are all broadly similar. There’s a clear lack of intentionality when we imagine how a machine learning tool sees the world precisely because there’s no subject behind the perception; there is only the object of perception.

Alina Manolache’s film 3 DIALOGUES ABOUT THE FUTURE emphasised this void of subjectivity. This montage film looks at dialogues between machine learning chat tools like Cleverbot or the visual detection software of something like the Curiosity Mars rover to examine how a piece of software might view the world. The effect is to see the world as nothing more than data points, reducing an image of two people kissing to contextless data. Through montage alone, it advances an argument against the so-called ‘intelligence’ of weak AI tools by showing the lack of subjectivity in their interactions with the world.

The more interesting machine learning films all used the tools to enhance human expressions of creativity rather than allowing the tools to control the direction of the art. Robert Seidel’s HYSTERESIS uses visual processing software similar to Midjourney or Stable Diffusion to create kaleidoscopic abstract patterns over footage of queer performer Tsuki dancing. At times, the weak AI seems to be attempting to bury the human performance under its layers of visual noise, but the human dance joyfully bursts through the patterns to emerge as artistic expression. Similarly, BACKFLIP is a hilarious and poignant highlight of this strand precisely because of how much humanity was clearly involved in its production. There is clear human intervention in the 3D modelling of the director’s avatar learning to perform a backflip, and it’s evident that the software has been used as a tool in service of their creative narrative.

Films like HYSTERESIS and BACKFLIP, therefore, expressed the second theme I saw over this year’s short films by taking control of machine learning tools in service of human creativity. These joined other films expressing a sense of people taking control of their lives despite the difficult circumstances in which they found themselves. João Gonzalez’s beautiful hand-drawn animation ICE MERCHANTS (nominated for an Academy Award this year) sees an enterprising father and son using their vertiginously-positioned mountain home to make and sell ice to the townsfolk below, then making a choice when things go bad. Jack Guariento’s short meditation BELLSMYRE CALEDONIA features a Dunbartonshire man trapped in Covid lockdown and choosing to take control over his thought patterns.

This theme of taking control is powerfully expressed in one of the festival’s many Lebanese short films. Programme Director Sanne Jehoul identified this year’s focus on the “social, political and spiritual dimensions of spaces and places” with a spotlight on Lebanese short cinema in collaboration with Beirut Shorts International Film Festival. Fresh from its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Best Short Film award, WARSHA (ورشة), directed by Dania Bdeir, follows a migrant worker Mohammad (Khansa), who struggles to get a moment’s peace and so volunteers to operate the tallest and most precarious crane in Beirut to escape the noise down below. Away from the eyes of others, Mohammad’s fantasy erupts in bright, joyous, and queer beauty that allows him to express who he is, even if only in private far above the city.

Despite the festival’s focus on imposing human ideas of intelligence onto technology, it was a film that imposes the metaphor of technology onto the human mind that emerged as my favourite from this year’s festival. CORRUPTED (CORRUPTO), directed by Juan Cifuentes Mera, follows Andrea (Javiera Missiacos), who has suffered severe memory loss and disorientation due to receiving electroconvulsive therapy. The film uses digital distortions like bursts of static and areas of broken pixels to create the sense that Andrea’s mind has been corrupted like a digital file. Andrea gets lost while driving, forgets the family dog, and reflects on her experiences through the fog of her corrupted mind. This experiment with the form of digital cinema is not only a profound expression of how the character feels drawing on the digital technology we use every day but an important piece about electroconvulsive therapy, a brutal physical treatment for mental health issues including depression and schizophrenia. Despite the risk of permanent memory loss as depicted in CORRUPTED and a small mortality risk, a meta-analysis by John Read, Irving Kirsch, and Laura McGrath found that there is no evidence that electroconvulsive therapy is even effective. CORRUPTED powerfully expresses this through an engaging experimental short film.

This year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival brought these disparate films together wonderfully and brought home that artistic creativity connects most profoundly when the human is allowed to take control rather than being driven by machine learning tools. As in HYSTERESIS, the beautiful and messy subjectivity of the human always bursts through the static and noise of AI-generated emptiness.