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.
The Jury Award for Short Film went to No Umbrella: Election Day in the City (USA), Laura Paglin’s subtly biting look at one US district’s difficulties on Election Day 2004. City leader Fannie Lewis struggles to manage an overwhelming voter turnout with a lack of voting machines and support. The cinéma-vérité style allows the audience to feel the mounting frustration as her requests go undelivered and the voters wait on endlessly long lines. The only drawback is that the 26-minute piece seems to be lifted out of another film – there is hardly any context or set-up at the beginning and then it is over without any real ending.
The final two lengthier shorts were both products of the UK. In The Angelmakers (reviewed DOX #63), Astrid Bussink captures the quirky and unusual story of mass arsenic poisonings in a Hungarian village in 1929. Eve Weber won the Student Award for her film “The Intimacy of Strangers”, an expertly shot and edited musing on cell-phone conversations in the public ear.
One very short film also stood out: Erin Hudson’s Afloat (USA). It is an ethereal look at water aerobics and the four elderly people who speak about life with much insight. The camera work is beautiful and it transports you to this elegant world for a few moments.
Silverdocs had a high percentage of shorts, numbering 21 out of only 40 films in general competition. In addition to the shorts paired with feature films, there were four film blocks devoted entirely to short films. These blocks played twice during the festival, including once each at midday for free-to-the-public lunchtime screenings.
One of the best shorts, rewarded with the Grand Jury Sterling Award, was Seeds (Wojciech Kasperski), a Polish/Russian film portraying the difficult life of a Siberian family. The piece is filmed and edited with glorious restraint, slowly revealing the family’s love and tensions. This is an example of a film that takes you to another place, one you’re not even sure you want to visit. At first, the father’s gentility in dealing with his daughter is striking – his patience, his wisdom, his strength. As it becomes clear just how much he has to handle on a daily basis, you admire him even more for handling it with such grace. It is a beautiful journey filled with moments of joy and also extreme sadness.
Vángelo Monzón (Argentina/Sweden, Andréas Lennartsson and Beatriz Ramírez Blankenhorst) is a look at Señor Monzón, who has been crafting bricks from mud in Argentina since childhood. Like “Seeds”, the film transports you to Monzón’s world. The cinematography is incredible, capturing the warm sun, the dry bricks, the hard work of his hands and the dignity of this man who lives the same simple life he has been living for decades.
Jim Varga’s El Charango (USA) is another example of a content-driven film treated artistically and raised to another level. It’s the history of a tiny guitar, el charango, that originated in the Bolivian mountains where the silver miners work. The cinematography is bright, colourful and inviting, bringing you right into the community. The story lines are intricately woven among history, ritual, religion and music, offering a compelling documentation of this unique culture.
One of the most talked about shorts was Man Up (USA) by Arturo Cabanas. In only six minutes it powerfully reveals the schism between a father’s view on how to raise his son and the son’s perspective on how miserable his childhood was. The editing jumps between sound bites from father and son, intercut with a few action shots. This creates an almost chilling dialogue between the two, yielding the big question, “If you grow up to be a ‘man,’ does it mean the tough-love approach worked and is acceptable?”.
Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre’s McClaren’s Negatives (Canada) is an extremely well-crafted capsule of Canadian animator Norman McClaren’s work. The film uses McClaren’s own animation techniques to present an interesting and creative story. The excellent animation earned the film an honourable mention from the shorts jury.
The jury awarded two additional honourable mentions to US films Aluminium Fowl by James S. Clauer (a bizarre look at a family of brothers living on a chicken farm) and “A Girl Like Me” by Kiri Davis (a young black woman meditates on colour and the body). The audiences also loved “A Girl Like Me”, voting for it to share the Audience Award with “The Sheriff of Gay Washington”. John W. Poole’s film takes a look at the charming and hard-working sergeant of a police department’s Gay and Lesbian Unit. Poole allows the sergeant to tell his own story and manages to capture the sergeant’s personality as well – by the end of the film you feel like you’ve personally met him.
While both Full Frame and Silverdocs had a wide variety of short films, one thing was clear: no matter what “category” a short falls into, if it is well-crafted and creative, it will remain in your mind long after you have watched it.