Not so very long ago, most documentaries were short films and most shorts were documentaries. The Berlin International Film Festival – the Berlinale – introduced the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at its sixth renewal in 1956, and the first thirteen winners were documentaries. It wasn’t until 1971 that a live-action fiction triumphed: Paul B. Price’s 1501½.
Nearly five decades on, the tables have decisively turned. At the 68th edition of the hugely popular festival that ran from February 15-25 this year; 22 shorts vied for the Golden Bear – 13 of them fiction. But even this ratio far exceeded the features slate, in which only one of the 19 contenders could be classed as a documentary.
Of the 21 directors in the Golden Bear features competition, four were female (19 per cent). Among the shorts, however, the gender-balance was almost exactly twice as healthy: 9/24, or 38 per cent. Among these, two documentary standouts dealt most directly and powerfully with women’s experiences: Jayisha Patel’s Circle and Maris Curran’s While I Yet Live.
In each instance, the directors deploy the short-film format – both films run roughly a quarter of an hour – to explore subjects and topic that could easily form the basis for a picture of conventional feature-length duration. Their works take differing but similarly productive approaches to the economy and brevity of their chosen medium.
Circle – Indian inter-generational exploitation
Born in London in 1987, Jayisha Patel studied economics at Nottingham University and documentary-making at Cuba’s International Film & TV School. She returned to the Caribbean island to make A Paradise, which competed for the Golden Bear in 2014, and also Adentro (2015). A commission from Al Jazeera resulted in the same year’s Power Girls, chronicling the exploits of India’s ‘female Red Brigade’ –an urban anti-rape vigilante movement based in Lucknow – the bustling capital of the northern state Uttar Pradesh, India.
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