The National Film and Television School has a reputation for creating some of the best stop-motion shorts around – BAFTA-winners Edmond, A Love Story and Poles Apart are a testament to this. Attending the school’s grad show every year, you’re guaranteed to discover at least one standout stop-motion, in 2019 that film was Isabel Garrett’s Listen to me Sing.
Set in an isolated, rundown hotel, the story follows entertainer Sophie (in a similar state) as she struggles to find her place in a confusing world. That is until a walrus mysteriously appears in her bathtub one night and she forms an unexpected bond with it. As the hotel’s guests instantly become obsessed with the tusked creature, our downtrodden protagonist realises she is its only hope of being rescued – cue one of the most memorable final scene I’ve seen in some time.
“I wanted to make a film about a sort of abstract symbiosis between a woman and animal”
As that brief description probably points out, Listen to me Sing is based around a surreal storyline and as expected the inspiration for this came from an equally surprising place – humanity’s separation from the natural world and Garrett’s time working in a service station:
“We’re living in a time where we exist very separately from the natural world, and I think this affects us a lot more than we realise”, the director explains. “I wanted to make a film about a sort of abstract symbiosis between a woman and animal, where the two sides; civilised and primal, are represented in physical form, eventually merging together”.
As if the premise isn’t strange enough, the film’s setting works to amplify the dreamlike nature of Listen to me Sing with the hotel’s unusual location and decor inspiring more questions regarding exactly what is going on here. As previously mentioned, the hotel is based on a service station where Garrett used to work and she cites their “transient and lonely” feel as inspiration, describing them as “a strange meeting ground where anything goes”.
We’re always looking for novel approaches to storytelling here on Short of the Week and Listen to me Sing certainly ticks those boxes. The impact of the storyline will very much depend on your personal tastes and I could understand if some found it too abstract. However, the one element of production that doesn’t feel like it’s up for debate is the short’s impressive craft.
Aiming to create a “soft, tactile feeling to the world”, the character and set design mean however odd this universe truly is, you totally buy into it for the 11-minute duration of the film. The attention to detail in both is incredible, from the spots/freckles on Sophie’s face to the name tags of the employees, it feels like creating the world of Listen to me Sing was a real labour of love and it’s certainly important when it comes to the impact and enjoyment the short delivers.
Despite the surreal approach to its storytelling Garrett’s film works because of the emotional attachment you form to both Sophie and the Walrus. Even if you don’t quite understand what’s going on (Sophie’s stage act is surely one the weirdest ever committed to screen), you understand their struggles and you support their efforts to break free of the chains (figurative and literal) holding them back. As their orchestral roars blend together at the end, there might even be something primal within you that wants to roar along with them – or was that just me?
Listen to me Sing is released in collaboration with distributor Autour de Minuit. Garrett is currently co-directing a new short film with artist Daisy Collingridge, commissioned by the Sarabande Foundation.