Emphasis Entertainment // 2009 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // December 4th, 2009
Friends are they guys that know everything about you and still like you.
Fast and cheap, but definitely in control, Courtney Fathom Sell shows a sure hand and a steady vision in each of the short documentaries on Hi-8. These films are short, direct, and effective at giving us clear insight into his subjects through their voices without interjection of the director's own. Hi-8: The Short Documentaries of Courtney Fathom Sell presents us with four of the director's films.
My Dying Day
Bradley Sell (the director's father) was given only a few months to live after prostate cancer diagnosis. He outlived that prediction by almost seven years, but eventually began to succumb to the disease. His final months play out in the ten minutes of this documentary as he deals with the certainty of his demise.
In a post-Katrina New Orleans, Sell visits Andrew "Squirrel" Pickett, a guy who lives in the city. Whether he's trying to score drugs or driving through the streets with a loaded pistol, Squirrel just doesn't give a damn; he's too busy being Squirrel.
Long Way Back to Paradise
Out of Providence, RI, performance punk weirdos The Viennagram take the stage in the longest piece on this collection. They're a motley crew if there ever was one and, even if they aren't the greatest musicians in town, they know how to rock a house party. Drunk, rambling, and kind of obnoxious, these kids live their stage bit with Sell catching them at their best and worst.
Under the Bridge
Underneath the Crawford Street Bridge in Providence during the cold Rhode Island January, a tent city popped up almost overnight. Set up by the homeless for the homeless, they stick together in the coldest of nights, protecting and helping each other through their tough times. Sell, who has spent homeless nights of his own during his travels, interviews those who started this work and gets a unique, and all too often unheard, inside perspective on the problem of the homeless.
The subjects of each of these documentaries are very different, but there's a continuity in the collection that comes from more than just the extreme budgetary restrictions placed on the filmmaking. Sell uses those restrictions to his advantage. Without frills or tricks, he presents an unfiltered view his subjects that feels both detached and intimate at the same time. He is trying for complete objectivity and, though that's an impossible task and the films are uneven in how closely they achieve his goal, he has some remarkable successes worthy of the renown he has received in his young career.
My Dying Day is Sell's most personal work, a given since the subject is the death of his father. The one film in the collection shot in black-and-white and the most aesthetically-mind of the quartet, it is also the moodiest and, strangely, the funniest, as well. Bradley Sell is an interesting subject for the director. He is presented unbelievably accepting of his condition and is a heroic figure. Because of his relationship to the filmmaker, however, it's hard to tell how much Bradley puts on his happy face for his son or how much the director edits out any negativity. It's certainly understandable, but it's not very objective. Still, it's a lovingly shot, emotional film that works as a backdrop for the other, less personal, pieces in the collection.
White Clover comes the closest to Sell's ideal. He had traveled to New Orleans to document the city in its post-Katrina tragedy. That film, called No Place Like Home went on to win awards and was designated as part of the Dogme95 film movement (if that means anything to anybody these days). In his return to the city, he follows these same lines as he trails Squirrel, who isn't the type you bring home to meet the family. Sell gives us the reality of his subject's meandering life but, as a result, the film feels aimless. In the sense of subject matter, this is the hardest, most in-your-face film in the set. It is the hardest of the four to take seriously, however, because Squirrel is such a laughable figure.
Long Way Back to Paradise is the other side of the White Clover coin. In this case, the subject, Providence art-rock group The Viennagram, contributes to a decidedly unrealistic feeling in the documentary. They're a group of weirdos who know how to fill the seats, but they live the bit both on stage and off. Because the members aim to say the most outrageous things they can whenever the camera trains on them, it's never clear what can be taken seriously and what is play-acting. The point of the film isn't the truth, though; Sell gives us a portrait of this act and The Viennagram presents us with the image they want. If that doesn't represent the real people behind the band, so be it, I'd still go see them. By far, the longest film on the disc, it is also the most detailed and shows that Sell can hold the viewer's interest at thirty minutes as well as he does at ten.
Under the Bridge is the final film, and the most important, on the set. In ten short minutes, Sell encapsulates the issue of homelessness by talking exclusively to the people in the predicament. The men who have started this tent city have done so through their feeling of self-worth and their love for their fellow people. After a man froze to death under the Crawford Street Bridge, they built their city as a tribute to him and to ensure that nobody would die there again. It has only been a few months (the man died in January '09), but they have built something special here and Sell obviously has a great affection for these people.
Hi-8: The Short Documentaries of Courtney Fathom Sell has been given an adequate release from Emphasis that is as sparse as the films it represents. All four films were shot on cheap cameras, so there's a natural lack of clarity in the image, but there are no errors in the transfer. The stereo sound is rough, but generally clear; any problems with the sound come from the original recording. The extra features amount to three total minutes. In an interview, the director discusses some of his intentions with filmmaking in general. He is as straightforward has his films would suggest. A ninety-second montage displays some of Sell's visual prowess and is presented as a portfolio do demonstrate his abilities.
Courtney Fathom Sell is a very promising young filmmaker who can give both a realistic portrait and prove a point. Hi-8 is recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Emphasis Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: My Dying Day