The short documentary is often constructed around a narrative quite different from the longer documentaries. DOX took at closer look at the short docs on offer at the two US festivals, Full Frame and Silverdocs.
Short documentaries seem to come in three categories. First, there are the little “bits,” the three to ten-minute pieces that tell a quick story. Experimental or straightforward, they are a brief introduction to a person or place. Second are “content” shorts that run between twenty and forty minutes. Their purpose is to convey an idea or issue in a content-driven and straightforward manner, laying out the information in a well-crafted way. Lastly, there the twenty to thirty-minute shorts that seek to tell a story in a far more artistic manner. These tales are often less superficial and evoke deeper questions.
None of these categories is isolated, however, and as filmmaking evolves, more cross-breeding happens. I took the opportunity to see what types of short films were playing at two US-based documentary film festivals this spring: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina and Silverdocs in the Washington DC area.
Of the 72 films in the general competition at Full Frame, 18 were short films. In past years, Full Frame has had a dedicated shorts programme, but this year all the shorts were programmed with the feature films. Perhaps because of that, only five films ran twenty minutes or longer but to me they were the strongest works.
The Wash (USA, Lee Lynch and Lee Anne Schmitt) is a beautiful and pensive look at development around a California river wash. Schmitt lends much of the voice track, meditating on how she used to play there when she was young, and the Super 8 cinematography, which evokes the past, makes you feel like you’re there with her. The film chronicles the changes as never-ending development in the United States encroaches on the open spaces that are so often full of childhood memories.
Send Me Somewhere Special, a UK film sponsored by the BBC, is another example of a film that transcends the details and muses on larger questions. Filmmaker Darren Herscher, desiring an “experience”, asks a man on the street to give him a place to go. The man chooses the village where his father lived. Herscher journeys there and explores the village by asking people questions about their personal lives. Herscher asks a man he’s just met, “Are you happy?” In a moment of pure intimacy and trust, the man says, simply, “No.” What’s striking is how up front these people are in talking about their feelings. Does the camera prompt that intimacy? Or is it the fact that Herscher is a stranger? There is no context for who most of these people are, how he has met them or what their lives are, yet the rawness and simplicity of the personal dialogues make the film work.
Peter Jordan’s Stand Like Still Living (USA) is an example of the cross-breeding of short doc styles. In theory, this is an advocacy film – the story of two people in Botswana affected by HIV. In fact, it is being used in Botswana to raise awareness of the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Yet “Stand Like Still Living” is unlike most advocacy films. The imagery is hauntingly beautiful. Jordan’s eye and patience allow him to film the quiet moments, the ones that contain far more than action. Some segments are shaky, but we find out later that the two main subjects used the cameras themselves to record intimate moments. This makes the film feel even more real. The result is a beautiful, slow and understanding film about the worrisome space between life and death.