DOX continues it series on short docs, this time looking at the many short docs featured in various parts of IDFA’s programme.
To define a “short film” is complicated. There is the industry’s definition that anything under 50 minutes is a short. Or the rules of many festivals where shorts are less than 40 minutes. There’s the TV half-hour, which runs approximately 26 minutes, and the typical student film, often 10 to 20 minutes. Unlike features, where the length affects the content and pacing but rarely the overall direction of the film, the short film is often moulded by the timeframe containing it. To pack it with creativity and enough substance to keep it from being superficial while keeping it complex and enjoyable at the same time are difficult tasks to accomplish in a short period of time.
There’s a vast difference between a 10-minute and a 49-minute short. Since 2005, IDFA has recognised this by creating a short-format category within the Silver Wolf competition. Whereas previously all competition films under 60 minutes were grouped together, the past two years have seen a selection of short films under 30 minutes gathered in the Silver Cub competition, thus offering a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the creativity of short films in each other’s company. IDFA featured dozens of short films of all lengths in the Paradocs programme, which was billed as containing documentaries that border on traditional filmmaking and art, truth and fiction.
The Silver Cub competition featured thirteen short films under 30 minutes in length. The highlight was James Longley’s Sari’s Mother (USA, 21 min.). Longley directed Iraq in Fragments, a striking meditation on Iraq in three parts. Sari’s Mother was shot with the idea that it would be included in Fragments, but Longley felt it didn’t flow with the other segments. The decision to screen it separately was smart, as the film was very moving on its own. The film follows a 10-year old boy who has contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and his mother who is fighting to get proper medical care for him. The cinematography is stunning and compassionate and the story unfolds with much care. Although the film ends a bit abruptly, that is only because Longley was forced to leave early for safety reasons. But the look, feel and power of the piece succeed, even in its 21-minute length.
Another powerful film is Mark Aitken’s Until When You Die (UK, 29 min.). It recounts the story of a woman’s escape from North Vietnam via Hong Kong to London. Most historical narratives use archival footage and family photos to recreate the past. Here, Aitken uses a unique combination of the subject’s narration (you hear her words, but not her voice as she’s still afraid of being identified) with images of Vietnam today. The combination is evocative and moving, allowing the viewers to visualise the experience with their own imaginations.
The Silver Cub Award went to Erlend E. Mo’s “My Eyes” (Denmark, 19 min.). The film is a touching look at two blind girls, 16-year old Katja and 8-year old Catherine, and their reactions to sights and sounds. It also highlights a beautiful relationship between Catherine and her mother. Mo manages to bring the viewer into the point of view of these girls, to experience how glorious, and frightening sounds can be. Some audience members questioned the ethics of setting up scenes where young Catherine becomes visibly distressed, but Mo explained that everything was done with the subjects’ cooperation. The jury justified its choice by saying that “the unconventional structure of this short film creates a poetic meditation on blindness and intimacy.”
Shit and Chicks (The Netherlands, 10 min.) is far less edgy than its name might suggest and is a simple film about a farmer in Ghana who feeds his chickens using an age-old technique of collecting maggots in cow dung. Yet its beauty lies in both the observational style and the respect the film shows for the farmer and traditional agricultural practices.
The Paradocs section highlights documentaries that are unusual in terms of subject matter, style and format. As the IDFA catalogue says, “You won’t generally find these films on television; they are more likely to be found in museums, galleries or at art events.” The Paradocs films don’t employ traditional documentary techniques, like interviews, voice-overs or talking heads. They are more creative in their approach, more stylised in their observations. Many of the films capture just a few moments in someone (or something’s) life. Since it’s far easier to be creative with short formats than features, 37 out of the 39 films in this section were under 40 minutes, with many of them running less than 10.
The Fence (Spain, 12 min.) offers a mesmerising glimpse of tuna fisherman in the Mediterranean Sea, reminiscent of Vittorio De Seta’s Peasants of the Sea, shot in 1955 off the coast of Sicily. Filmed in sepia tones, The Fence makes viewers feel as though they’re watching an ancient ritual. The film captures the gradual arc from the calm sea to the violent turbulence of the tuna (as the boats fence them in, leading to the death of the tuna) before returning to the calm sea.
In Artel (Russia, 30 min.), the black and white cinematography accentuates the coldness of the environment where men set up their nets to ice-fish on a frozen lake. The slow pace conveys the tediousness of their task, yet there’s something beautiful about it all. Just what they’re fishing for is never revealed, an omission that seemed to bother some of the audience members during the Q&A.
Dan Monceaux uses grainy visuals and animation to imagine a world of blindness, the world of the three women who are the subjects of “A Shift in Perception” (Australia, 16 min.). While the women tell their stories and recount their daily lives, the evocative imagery lends resonance to what they’re saying instead of defining it.
There were a number of very short films that stood out for their unusual nature. All the Time in the World(UK, 5 min.) takes data on seismologic activity in Northumbria and expresses them visually, albeit in a compressed timeframe, reflecting how land moves over time. This film actually garnered the most laughter of any short film I saw.
In addition to the Silver Cub and Paradocs sections, IDFA also featured numerous short films throughout their other sections. Silvio Mirosnicenko’s Travelling on the Path of Fear (Croatia, 25 min.) was screened in the Jan Vrijman Fund programme. The film tells the story of a woman killed by a moving train – from the point of view of both the husband and the train driver. It’s a devastating manifestation of how a simple accident can deeply affect the lives of ordinary people on both sides of the incident. A standout of the Reflecting Images: Best of Fests programme was Views of a Retired Night Porter (Austria, 38 min.). Director Andreas Horvath seeks out the subject of Kryzysztof Kieslowski’s Night Porter’s Point of View (1978) and revisits his home and the factory where he used to work. The years that have passed have not necessarily changed his opinions but they have changed him as a person.
IDFA has always featured unique and compelling short format work. No matter how the films are grouped or what awards they’re eligible for, it’s impressive to see their diversity. The films truly come from all over the world and the selection runs the gamut from very short blips to in-depth contemplations on people or experiences. IDFA provides a wonderful chance to explore the many definitions of “short film”, all of which unfortunately have too few opportunities for regular exposure.