This January was the 21st anniversary of the London Short Film Festival. It’s a big deal: hundreds of films—fiction and non-fiction, British and international, archival and contemporary, experimental and populist—united by their concision and brevity. Yet, beyond niche networks, short films are rarely seen, rarely written about. There was a time when they were regularly broadcast on television (Nick Park’s Creature Comforts originally appeared as a five-minute short on Channel 4 in 1989); these days they’re not even shown before the main feature at UK cinemas, perhaps because it’s more profitable to screen ads.
Many well-known directors first came to attention through short films. Christopher Nolan has never been as rollicking or uninhibited as he was in Doodlebug (1997), a 3-minute thriller he made at university that channels The Incredible Shrinking Man as it follows a bloke juddering around his apartment trying to thwack a bug with a shoe. Equally, Steve McQueen has never made anything as gorgeous or tender as his 65-second Exodus (1992-1997) that tracks two black gents, weighed down with outsized potted plants, as they attempt to cross a street in East London.
A short film I can’t stop thinking about is Oluwale by Manchester-based director Jeremiah Quinn. It’s a pensive examination of the life and afterlives of David Oluwale, who was born in Lagos around 1930 and arrived in England as a stowaway two decades later. Whether because he was ill or struggling to cope with the cold and indifferent environment in which he found himself, he had stints in jail and in a mental asylum. For long stretches, he slept rough.
A police charge sheet from three months before Oluwale’s corpse was discovered in a Leeds river in 1969 had “BRIT” crossed out; his nationality replaced with a handwritten “WOG”. This “social nuisance” went unmourned to a pauper’s grave. It later transpired that senior local officers had regularly tormented him—hosing him, urinating on him, dumping him in local woods. The case ultimately led to the first successful prosecution of British policemen for involvement in the death of a black person.
Oluwale is just over 22 minutes in length but contains multitudes
Over the years, Oluwale’s story has been told in speculative fragments by the likes of Jeremy Sandford (screenwriter of Cathy Come Home), historian Kester Aspden and the novelist Caryl Phillips. But, perhaps because only one photo of him has come to light, or because his death was so wretched, he has never stuck in the public memory. He gets remembered—and then reforgotten. Quinn (one of whose earlier films was a biographical portrait of Charles Hills, a regular contributor to Prospect in its early days, who later hit the headlines after being convicted for hiring hitmen to kill his mother’s handyman lover) grew up in Leeds, but had never heard of him.
Oluwale is just over 22 minutes in length but contains multitudes. It begins with an eerie sonic memory—the youthful Quinn hearing a terrace chant, “The River Aire is chilly and deep. Ol-u-wa-le. Never trust the Leeds police. Ol-u-wa-le.” There, hidden in plain hearing, is the ghost of the dead Nigerian, his spirit increasingly hard to conjure after the slicking-up and rebranding of the northern city in recent times. Another reverberation to which Quinn draws attention is that Leeds may have been the birthplace of British cinema: as long ago as 1888, Frenchman Louis Le Prince shot Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge.
What impact can a short film make? Is it just a throat-clearing, an early draft for the real—aka feature-length—thing? Quinn does something unusual, something at odds with current political discourse: he highlights the crucial intervention of a young, white police cadet named Gary Galvin who became a whistleblower and reported two of his seniors, who were later jailed on charges of manslaughter. Yes, there was corruption within the local police force—something that became more public after the ghastly handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case later in the 1970s—but there is, as Oluwale makes clear, another story worth telling.
With hundreds of thousands of short films being uploaded to social media every day, this should be a golden age for the form. Yet such a visual deluge makes it hard for individual titles to gain attention.
Still, Quinn’s has already made an impact: the West Yorkshire Police is now using it as part of its diversity training for officers. Freely available online, it may even reduce the risk of Oluwale being reforgotten in the future. A short film, then. But a hefty intervention.