These four short films by five directors (one is co-directed) were commissioned by BBC Films and Film 4 as part of the London 2012 Festival – the celebration of the arts running alongside the Olympics. If you consider the five's most recent feature films you get a snapshot of British cinema now: 'Senna' (Asif Kapadia), 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' (Lynne Ramsay), 'StreetDance 3D' (Max & Dania) and 'Another Year' (Mike Leigh). For this project they were given an entirely open brief, but the Olympics hang over each of their films in very different ways.
Ramsay is the only director to focus on a physical pursuit – albeit in typically leftfield fashion. She films a free swimmer in a rural river but frames him within a gorgeous, black-and-white portrait of surrealism and serenity, with music and sounds from British films ('If...', 'Lord of the Flies'). The shortest of the films in the collection, 'The Swimmer' is the most experimental, ditching dialogue in favour of beautiful imagery and a strange soundscape.
Leigh looks to capture the sport of everyday life and aims for the final-act frenzy of a 'Life is Sweet' in his colourful portrait of a chaotic East End family (Eddie Marsan is a car-dealer, Sam Kelly his cabbie dad), in which folk are constantly jogging in the background. The director described the film, 'A Running Jump', as 'a bunch of gags', and that's what you get - including a punchline that involves the first ever helicopter shot in a Mike Leigh film. (It's also the first of his films shot entirely on digital film.) The result is fun and hyperactive.
Max & Dania ask what young people might learn from the Olympics: if the Olympics included rapping and street sports. Their simple but inspiring moral tale 'What If...' (like Ramsay's it’s also black-and-white), has a young boy on a west London estate being shown around by a guardian angel (Noel Clarke) who recites Rudyard Kipling's 'If...'. The duo tackle the over-familiarity of the poem by giving it a context that couldn't be more relevant to young London now.
Kapadia's 'The Odyssey' is the only film that you could say is directly 'about' the Olympics. He considers London from 2005, when the city won the Olympic bid, to 2012, the year of the Games. Voices of Londoners, famous and anonymous, are mixed with compelling, sometimes mysterious aerial shots of the city shot by Kapadia and archive footage of key events in this period and highlights of human achievement at past Olympic Games. It's all lifted by a pounding score from Antonio Pinto, who also worked on 'Senna'.
The four short films inevitably reflect the five directors' individual styles and interests more than any overarching theme or statement. Also, each film is an experiment of sorts: there's a sense of these directors – each used to making features – breathing a sigh of relief and trying out new things without the stress of holding an audience for 90 minutes and packing out cinemas. Each finds a personal way of thinking about the Olympics but never resorts to making a work that feels awkwardly like a commission or a promotional work.