In Short, Europe: Best of Best review – heady celebration of European short film-making

<span>Loop by Pablo Polledri, part of In Short, Europe.</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
Loop by Pablo Polledri, part of In Short, Europe.Photograph: PR

With the EU recently passing the world’s first artificial intelligence law, this year’s trawl of European shorts from cultural organisation Eunic London doesn’t miss a trick by dwelling on matters algorithmic in much of its first section, Smile You’re on Camera – most prominently the ongoing wrangle between tech and labour in the workplace. It’s the one overtly topical strand alongside four others (Hard Decisions; People on the Precipice; Psychodrama; and the kids’ animation section Why’s the Sky Blue?) that stick to the more abstract themes into which Eunic typically packages up Europe’s film-making grassroots.

The longest work here, the 23-minute I’m Not a Robot, by the Netherlands’ Victoria Warmerdam, doesn’t quite live up to a canny premise: the music-company worker whose inability to pass a Captcha test means that she is, in fact, a robot. Ellen Parren, in a sharp performance, twitches with affront at the suggestion in this sitcom-y spin on Blade Runner’s existential riddle. But, as her boyfriend weighs in and mansplains her newfound dronedom, it devolves into a talky slog that adds little beyond MeToo frills to the black box of the sentience question. And – through no fault of the film-makers – it’s also the one most tenuously related to the theme of being watched.

A Major Tom-like exile in an orbital research station holds a vigil over mankind on the ravaged planet below in the Maltese animated offering Somewhere, directed by Fabrizio Ellul. The onlooker descends to salvage a memory of the before-times – a retro-styled terra firma as cool, chromatic and defined as Ellul’s payoff is elliptical and slight. The strand’s other animation, Loop, from Spain’s Pablo Polledri, hammers it home by comparison in a splendidly upbeat scarlet-and-black dystopia that, instead of the swastika or hammer and sickle, operates under the infinity sign. An elopement threatens to interrupt this perfect loop of eternally deferred pleasures (AKA capitalism) – so the overseer sends out his pinhead minions to restore rhythmically satisfying order. If the next generation of the Matrix was programmed by Oompa Loompas, it would look like this.

Austrian entry Hardly Working, from “pseudo-Marxist media guerrilla collective” Total Refusal, takes place fully inside the mainframe, in this case the 2018 western videogame Red Dead Redemption 2. This pseudo-documentary observes four of its non-player characters – a carpenter, stable hand, washerwoman and street sweeper – as if they were gazelles in an Attenborough documentary, only ones running on predetermined loops. A robotic-sounding narrator comments wryly on the absurdities, like the carpenter sinking just two nails every time wherever he works. Slowly, the limitations of this reality start to feel like a damning illustration of the parameters of our own; this sprawling sandbox role-playing game shrinks down to a puppet show of modern labour and class relations. It’s a great approach, executed with ideological bite, and relaying the uncomfortable truth that non-player character syndrome, not the main character variety, is what most of us live with.

Johannes Büttner and Steffen Köhn’s Platform, from Germany, also dips into virtual space to raise a fist for the proletariat, but dares to rewrite the script. Berlin Deliveroo rider Luis is rendered both in live action and, to emphasise his status as node in the app-verse, video game-style segments. But as he reveals his emancipation plan to an empathetic customer, busting out a set of nested narratives that rally his fellow globalised gig-economy serfs to his cause, the film upholds a strong human line. The sequences pile up like too many tabs open in a browser; in the penultimate one an African-Korean courier speeds to make a pizza delivery in neon-tinted Los Angeles in time for the revolution. Shot with a Fight Club-like attachment to the surfaces of the zeitgeist, Platform feels half in love with the algorithmic overkill of late capitalism – and the radical possibilities of riding it out til the wheels drop off.

In Short, Europe: Best of Best is at Glasgow GFT on 20-21 April and Cine Lumière, London on 26-28 April.