Short films, by their inherent nature, encourage and enforce simplicity. The challenge put forward to the filmmaker is to create a complete and concise story. Sure, some short films appear like proof of concepts for a feature film, and while that works with regularity (without Monster, we wouldn’t have The Babadook), it’s the short films that tell stories that could only live within a short film narrative that stick in your mind. Call Connect. and Mwah both excelled at utilising every second of their screen time, managing to create a complex and deep narrative that simply thrives and flourishes within the short film format. It’s with great pleasure that I can say that Chris Elena’s short film, Audio Guide, sits comfortably alongside those films as being some of the finest shorts made in Australia in recent memory.
Audio Guide features a stunning silent performance from Emma Wright as someone visiting an art gallery. Initially this is a fairly innocuous visit, with Emma’s character perusing the art while listening to the titular audio guide. As the voice (Nyx Calder) describes the various art pieces, Emma’s character soon finds that it’s not just the art on the walls that’s being described. As she passes other people in the gallery, the audio guide starts informing her about who they are, what they will do in their life, and, in the most unsettling point, when and how they will die.
What makes Audio Guide work so well is how assured and knowing the direction by Chris Elena and the writing by Lee Zachariah is. Treated like a mini-Twilight Zone episode, Audio Guide presents an idea – if you could find out the secrets of the world, would you want to find out your own secrets? – and carries it through to its natural conclusion. Chris’ direction is patient and measured, allowing us to sit with each narrative beat long enough so its immensity is felt completely.
After realising what the audio guide in her hand is telling her, Emma’s character stumbles out onto the street, dazed and startled. Here, in her hands, is the future of the world. She bumps into a stranger (Lisa Malouf), and immediately the audio guide delivers this strangers life story with all of the frank and brutal reality that comes with it. In this moment, it is clear that Emma Wright is an actor to keep an eye on, as she manages to convey a wealth of emotions, from confusion, to hurt, to a recognition of the importance of the responsibility of truth and secrets. In that moment, you can tell that she wants to inform this stranger, this person she has only just met, of her fate, of what her future will hold, but a grand realisation falls on her face that she knows the absurdity of what is happening to her. She knows what this strangers reaction would be, and with an ever increasing anxiety, she moves on.
The dramatic tension that exists in each moment is palpable, only amplified by the fact that the narration by the audio guide is the only sound we hear. We are existing within the same world as this unnamed character, and in turn, we are seeing a world of strangers full to the brim with their own lives and pains and struggles. If there’s a salient reminder within Audio Guide, it’s that while we pass strangers on the street every day, we have no idea what is going on in their mind and lives, and while we may all fail to acknowledge it, we’re all united by the uncertainty of fate. It then asks the question, if you could know the future, what would that change about the present?
While Emma Wright’s performance is reason enough to seek this short film out, I want to touch briefly on the visual aesthetic of Audio Guide. Full of muted colours and inhibiting an almost dusty quality, it’s clear that this was shot on film. The importance of this is amplified by the plot that reflects the notion of a changed world. We’ve become so used to the digital sheen of modern filmmaking, that when a film shot on film comes along, we can’t help but be startled by the warmth that it creates. Look, I may sound like I’m just talking technical aspects because I want to talk about technical aspects, and sure, there’s a little bit of that, but it’s important to note how Chris Elena, alongside cinematographer/editor Kym Vaitiekus, has used the physical format of film to reinforce the warmth within the story itself. This is a deeply caring and sympathetic film, one that embraces the notion of empathy and understanding. These emotions and feelings are inherently warm emotions and feelings, and they’re amplified by the way Audio Guide is shot. For most viewers, this may mean little, but that’s why we’re the viewers and not the filmmakers. A filmmaker knows what tools to use to tell their story properly, and in the relationship of the filmmaker and viewer, we trust that the filmmaker is going to guide us through their narrative in the best way possible.
There is so much to appreciate and admire about Audio Guide, but this is the key takeaway from it – as a group, Chris Elena, Lee Zachariah, Emma Wright, and Kym Vaitiekus, have all crafted a powerful short film that will no doubt act as a vital calling card for their talents, combined or otherwise. If you’re not paying attention to the Australian short film circuit, then you’re missing out on taking down the names of the next generation of great Australian filmmakers. This is where the future is.
Director: Chris Elena
Cast: Emma Wright, Nyx Calder, Lisa Malouf
Writer: Lee Zachariah