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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Documentary Shorts 2011

Submitted by on February 26, 2011 – 9:20 AM4 Comments

FINAL SCORE: Sarah 54, Death Race 2; 22 of 24 categories completed

None of the documentary-short nominees really caught fire for me. I didn’t hate any of them, not something I could say for my fellow Program A attendees at IFC Center — oy vey with the texting and the crunchiest-sandwich-in-the-West-Village-eating and the pointed look-how-much-I-get-it tsking! If you don’t want to be here, here’s a radical notion — DON’T FUCKING BE HERE! And if you do want to be here, how’s about you let the others who want to be here WATCH THE MOVIES TOO?

…Anyway: I didn’t love any of the doc shorts, either; across the board, the films had potential, but not enough vim.

“I started to boil, from the inside”

Killing in the Name is about the mission of one Jordanian to convince Muslim suicide bombers that their missions go against the teachings of Islam. Ashraf’s take on it is interesting for several reasons, the first of which is that his own wedding got hit by a suicide bomber in 2005 (the attack killed his father and both his wife’s parents, among others). The second is that he’s willing to take it straight to the madrassas, and talk to the parents of alleged “martyrs” as well as to terrorist-cell recruiters (and that the documentary gets an al-Qaeda recruiter, “Zaid,” to participate on-camera is quite impressive). The third is that he’s not interested in discussing the overall loss of human life, or whether it’s acceptable to kill Americans or whomever else; he only wants to point out to anyone who will listen that suicide-bombing a venue that contains Muslim faithful is against the very beliefs the bombers purport to fight and die for, and will consign them to hell. (This is my understanding of Ashraf’s point; my understanding of the actual scripture involved is functionally nil, so feel free to correct me in the comments.)

Ashraf is a pretty cool customer. He’s willing to go to the other end of the world, Indonesia, and ask a woman widowed by a bombing to come with him to a madrassa and address the students. And if I have understood his angle correctly, it’s actually pretty smart. It would gross me out to have to say, substantively, “Let’s leave your anti-Semitism and blood-lust aside and talk about how you’re wrong even on the narrow point” — but he seems to think it’ll work.

The short is well paced, although the score is a bit overdone, but it needed to be either shorter or longer. Or it needs a sequel, because I want to see how Ashraf does with this.

“This is the longest walk I have come across in my life”

Sun Come Up definitely needed to be shorter — not much, but shaving a few minutes off would have helped a laggy middle section. The entire population of Carteret Island has to relocate to the nearby island of Bougainville because climate change has basically eaten their own island; the doc doesn’t focus on the whys and wherefores of that, or do much to illuminate a culture whose hybrid of Western and island influences is going to be new to most viewers. The story it’s telling is of the small convoy sent to Bougainville to ask for land to live on, which isn’t uninteresting, but I wanted to hear more about other things — what exactly is happening to Carteret, physically; how the Cartereters still pay for things with wampum and pigs, but also have polo shirts; the Bougainville civil war. To get to the story I really wanted, I had to go home and Google…which I guess isn’t a bad result.

“I’m 87 and I never tell lies”

I felt like I’d seen The Warriors of Qiugang before, somehow; it just seemed familiar. A group of Chinese villagers pulls together to try to punt a chemical plant out of the area for polluting. …Enh. The lady responsible for the quote above is pretty awesome, but she’s not onscreen for long, and melodramatic animation, intended to liven things up in the absence of real footage, is merely cheesy. TWoQ (heh) might have been more compelling if better doc short about environmental concerns hadn’t come right before it; as it is, while it’s not bad, I didn’t feel like I learned anything or met anyone new.

“The VA office in Buffalo had lost her paperwork”

Oh my God, this girl, this girl. Poster Girl is maddening, because it starts out so tight — Robynn went to Iraq at 19 a strong woman, and the Army sent her home a broken girl. Then the VA wouldn’t process her disability checks (shocker), much less help her in any meaningful way to get past her depression and PTSD. When you first meet her, it’s legitimately tense; you spend the first ten minutes kind of thinking she might kill herself in front of you, or try to, and praying that she gets something, anything she needs for that not to happen.

Then all of a sudden she gets into making art out of her training manuals, the Rochester VA pulls its shit together and starts sending her money, and everything gets much more hopeful. The resulting whiplash is unfortunate, and this one would have worked better as a feature; it’s nice that things look up for her, because you do root for Robynn, but it’s abrupt, and a lot is left out.

“If you write about it, it does make you feel better — yes, it does”

I liked Strangers No More, despite a certain PBS-iness to the tone. (Don’t get me wrong, I watch a shit-ton of PBS, but after enough Frontlines in a row, I just want to watch six hours of Duran Duran videos and eat candy.) This amazing school in Tel Aviv, a true international school that works hard to mainstream recent refugees, and takes a wholistic and cheerful “no problem” approach to education, is commendable, and the students’ little victories warm the old cockles. But this is another doc whose length worked against it; if it’s not going to get more into how this amazing school got built, stays running, and manages to deal with various problems from language barriers to malnutrition-related learning delays to providing eyeglasses for poor students to the funding to prevention of teacher burnout, well, okay. You don’t have to make Shoah. But if that’s the case, choose one student narrative to cut, because at 40 minutes, it gets repetitive and loses contrast.

But this is an issue for all the short-subject documentaries — that, with one exception (TWoQ), the filmmakers chose feature-length subjects but tried to do them in short-subject time. I understand how that can happen, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some true shorts in the category next year, i.e., under half an hour, and not just because I have 50-60 movies to watch, either. Heh. I do think it’s possible to do a newsy, serious doc in 10-12 minutes, introduce the audience to some new info, and keep it lively.

What wins? No clue. Killing in the Name is the best-made, I think; I liked Poster Girl the best, although it should have been much better; but it’s probably Sun Come Up.

And that’s that. Thanks for playing along, and if you also ran the ODR, or a modified version — congrats! Good for you. I hope you saw something you liked that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

I’ll have a predictions list up tomorrow or Sunday AM.




  • JamieS says:

    This is the first year I’ve watched documentary shorts, and I only got to see the first three. With all three, I felt like they were leaving out way too much but they still all felt too long. It made me really want to see a short (as in around 20 minutes) documentary done well. I’m not sure how someone could pull that off; with non-fiction you can’t just ignore things or combine characters for the sake of brevity. Out of the first three, I liked Sun Come Up the most. It was so interesting to step into a world where the island’s money supply of shell necklaces was being stored in a metal Office Max file cabinet. Of course, that wasn’t really what the short was about, so I’m not sure that makes it the best one. I just liked it the best.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I would have watched a movie just about the evolution of their creole. Not that you can film that, so maybe a book.

  • clinky says:

    What were the 2 movies you didn’t get to? (Although, 54 finished is very impressive.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Country Strong and The Tempest.

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