"I find the documentary form to be one of the most vital means of
expression in film"
It's a shame that the documentary film is not more widely respected amongst your average film fan. Apparently, whenever the notion of non-fiction cinema comes knocking at a moviegoer's entertainment doorstep, they move away from the window and hide behind the curtains like it's Avon or Amway calling. There are those rare occasions where publicity and a healthy sense of lemming-like curiosity leads the great unwashed to stories of the real world told without dramatic tinkering. Michael Moore and his self-promoting feats of fact, like Bowling for Columbine or Roger and Me, do receive some manner of mass acceptance. But that seems to be the limit to the amount of time and patience the general public is willing to spend on stories where things don't blow up or cartoon characters come to mediocre life. Buried in the hundreds of reality-based movies that make their way into art houses and college festivals are stories that need to be told…and more importantly, need to be seen and heard. Living in a blockbuster mentality without experiencing anything the rest of the world, let alone existence, has to offer, is to be a slave to the mass media by way of its most mindless mall culture messages. Thankfully, the digital revolution gives audiences in desperate need of a cinematic reality check a chance to witness some of the most intense, interesting, and spellbinding works of motion picture magic ever to function without a Hollywood hack script. The Full Frame Documentary Shorts DVD here offers seven examples of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. And as is the case with almost all the work here, it is twice as compelling.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was started in 1997 by Nancy Buirski, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and editor at the New York Times. Over the last six years, it has quickly become the premier showcase for non-fiction filmmaking in America. Holding an annual three-day festival every April in Durham, North Carolina, it offers hundreds of artists and thousands of fans a chance to see and experience a number of startling, fresh visions: stories of the world and the people who populate it, all told in the truthful POV style of reality. With a board consisting of such filmmaking luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Ken Burns, Jonathan Demme, D.A. Pennebaker, Martin Sheen, and John Sayles, the quality of films is remarkable. The DVD release Full Frame Documentary Shorts is a kind of greatest hits package, a sampling of some of the most outstanding short films to be presented at the festival over the last few years. Averaging between 25 and 35 minutes in length (with one clocking in at a mere 123 seconds), these films run the gamut from astonishingly personal to universally obtuse. As an overall package presentation, this is a fantastic DVD sampler. Individually, the films each have their positive (and occasionally negative) attributes. Discussed and scored separately, we begin with:
The Laughing Club of India (1999)
Dr. Madan Kataria is the Pied Piper of Pleasure. Taking inspiration from the classic section in Reader's Digest entitled "Laughter: The Best Medicine," he is on a worldwide crusade to champion the healing power of belly laughs. No, Dr. Kataria is not charging that a snicker a day will keep the doctor away, but he does believe that laughing together, in a group with other people, has a mental and physical therapeutic power. So in the heavily gender and class conscious population of India, he has managed to create a kind of comic cult where people from all walks of life meet to drop their pretense and cackle uncontrollably. The Laughing Club ideal has swept this nation of nearly one billion and Dr. Kataria plans on spreading his message of merriment to the rest of the planet. As we explore the club dynamics more deeply, we meet people whom have been forever changed, who have discovered themselves or rediscovered life as a result of these public displays of amusement.
Dr. Kataria's documentary, directed by noted Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love), does what documentaries do best: it introduces us to an entire culture and a subset within it that your average global citizen has no earthly idea even existed. In this case, it's the human zoo of India and the relatively new social/exercise/spiritual enterprise of Laughing Clubs. The notion of attending a meeting to pretend giggle at each other at first seems so stupid as to be downright silly, but once it is seen in action, it becomes so ingenious that you wonder why no one has thought of it before now. The people we meet and the places we travel to, from the widow reawakening to life after her husband's devastating death to the "old Uncle" who lives with nearly thirty others in an incredibly small space, underline the real reason why Laughing Clubs and the film made about them, are so effective. They all stand for the wonderful escape and healing release of happiness and the power of the non-fiction film.
Originally produced for HBO and shot completely on digital video, The Laughing Clubs of India looks very good for what is essential a glorified home movie. The video image bleeds occasionally and suffers from flares and drop out. But all of this is forgivable since a documentary is indeed what its word stands for: an artifact of some truth. None of the image issues or mini-camcorder sound concerns ruin the visual or aural experience of the film. While not some stellar optical masterwork, The Laughing Club of India is still a colorful, carefully constructed trip into the unknown.
Why Can't We Be a Family? (2002)
There is nothing more devastating than the effect of drugs and addiction on the lives of children. When a mother wants to get high more than she wants to be with her biological offspring, there is a kind of emotional resonance that is painfully universal. In the sad case of Danny and Raymond, their mother has battled crack addition for over a decade. Abandoned and eventually living with their grandmother (the circumstances of how they ended up there are truly harrowing), the boys want to be reunited with their mom. But even after several court ordered attempts at rehabilitation, Kitten is still a slave to substance abuse. But the final act may be about to play out. Child welfare is recommending that Kitten's parental rights be terminated. Will she be given one more chance? And better yet, will she do something with it this time, should she get it? For Danny and Raymond, all there can be is hope…and the love of child for parent.
Why Can't We Be a Family? is a powerful piece of filmmaking, expertly crafted for maximum impact. Unfortunately, in a world full of news magazines, talk shows, and Lifetime movies of the week, this true life tragedy playing out in the streets of Brooklyn and courtrooms of New York City becomes rote and cold. We know that Kitten is never going to stop using drugs. She enters endless rehabilitation programs and skips out for contraband each and every time. The boys' faith in their mother is so agonizingly pure that when a splinter in the façade starts to appear, you want the abandoned children to run with it. About the only startling aspect of this film is the final title card, which says that when asked by the judge what they wanted to happen to their mother's rights, the boys told the court they wanted Kitten to have one more chance. While it may seem harsh to say it, the culture of enabling apparently reaches all the way to the ghetto as well. It's the lack of a stark, brutal, or uplifting resolution that leaves Why Can't We Be a Family? feeling unfinished and unsatisfying. You cannot deny its real life power. You can avoid its hopelessness.
Shot on video over a period of years in the lives of the characters, Family looks wonderful in the full screen image offered here. The print is clean and the overall motion picture has a fabulous continuity. Sound wise, we get a clear, crisp soundtrack that suffers from only occasional overmodulation.
We Got Us (2001)
The lives of little old ladies: filled with afternoons sipping sherry over a game of Mah jongg? Or dishing the dirt about love, sex, and grief? Can't it be both? Well, it is in Joan Brooker's mesmerizing memorial to aging gracefully, if not necessarily meekly. We meet Glemma, Toby, Barbara, and Roberta as they play their weekly game of tiles and reminisce about lovers and husbands, divorces and death. Each woman tells her own tale with a wisdom born of truth, and through the use of scrapbook and personal photos we travel backward and forward in time with them as they chronicle their individual triumphs and tragedies. And these old bats are refreshingly obscene, using language and illusions that would make porn stars blush. Though it really tells nothing more than a story of friendship and survival in a youth oriented world, We Got Us also points out that age has its own rewards: the life well lived.
Sometimes, all a documentary needs is a great premise to succeed. Other times it can meander around a central theme or idea as long as there are compelling characters to gravitate toward and lead us around. The reason that We Got Us is so unbelievably fantastic is that it offers, not one, but four undeniably gripping women whose lives are as universal in their hurting and bliss as they are individual in their specifics. There is just something completely gripping about these four ancient, wrinkled, spotted faces, heads donning wigs and hair sprayed up into unrealistic sweeps, discussing sexual positions, drinking, and the individual traumas in their lives. While one could conject that this all leads to a lesson of survival and strength, in reality it showcases the dramatic power of the average human life. Everyone's story is potentially fascinating. We Got Us exemplifies this perfectly.
About the only disappointing aspect of We Got Us is the sound and vision. Obviously filmed on a cheaper model camcorder, the colors fade in and out, details sharpen and then dull, and the sound can occasionally resemble a cacophony of parrots barking like seal lions. While never unwatchable or unprofessional, the movie still has a handheld captured randomness that tends to lessen its visual impact. Thank goodness for the great people featured.
Lucy Tsak Tsak (2000)
Through a series of clapboard shots, we witness the mysterious visage of Lucy Tsak Tsak, so named for the sound the on-screen marker makes when it slaps a mark. She has been involved in Bulgaria's movie making industry for thirty years and has clapped the slate a total of over 495,000 times in her career. As split second shots of her shoot across the screen, we see an enigmatic, dark haired figure whisked to and fro before our eyes, like a lost ghost in the machine.
God, what a great story there is here. Lucy Tsak Tsak was/is, apparently, an integral part of the Bulgarian film industry for decades, running the clapboard for all their motion picture productions. She must have tales to tell and anecdotes to inform with. But all the actual documentary called Lucy Tsak Tsak represents is one big riddle, a joke we learn the punch line to only after endless moments of wondering what all the build up was for. The images are indeed disconcerting in their quickness and lack of lasting impression. But then once the scrawl come up over the end to illustrate we have just watched this jewel of the Eastern European movie making community clap her way through the decades, we feel relieved and intrigued. And then we get anxious all over again, as if to internally say "that was it? This woman is an important figure in Bulgaria's entertainment industry and all we get of her is 90 seconds of film leader?" Sure, Lucy Tsak Tsak can be seen as a loving tribute to a heretofore unknown entity in world cinema, but once you experience the reveal, you want to know more than what is offered here. Like a magician's trick explained, Lucy Tsak Tsak loses a lot of its luster once we understand what it's all about.
Relying on several different stocks and the editing of various ages of film, Lucy Tsak Tsak looks, not surprisingly, like a flea market movie, made up of scraps and end pieces. This adds a visual charm that no optical or special effect could recreate on screen. Since there is no sound but that of the clapboard and some music, there is no real issue with the aural presentation.
Family Values (2002)
A lesbian couple runs a small business with a decidedly odd twist: they clean up after gruesome crime scenes. When a suicide or accident or murder has occurred, Becky and Donna (with the help of Donna's older son) respond to clean up the blood, brain matter, and other noxious elements. Even though they are involved in what seems to be a disgusting and disturbing enterprise, everyone seems well adjusted—so much so that the filmmaker, Eva Saks, incorporates 1950s educational film material into the visual narrative to underscore how "normal" these homosexual janitors of gore really are.
At first, Family Values is a fascinating documentary. It highlights aspects of daily life we rarely if ever get a window into and it does so with style, wit, and accomplishment. Becky and Donna do come across as an average couple (just of the same sex) and the scenes of cleaning up after crimes are handled in a very non-confrontational manner (the black and white photography helps). But the problem with Family Values is the same problem that many "short form" documentaries have. It merely glides over both intriguing stories presented to only offer a Cliff's Notes version of events. We never understand how Becky and Donna met, or how they've managed to live their life in a society as prejudiced as ours. We also never learn how successful (or not) their business is. They seem to be doing well, but there is no outside voice (friend, business associate) to offer the perspective needed. Sure, the job they do is inherently absorbing (and repellant at the same time), but without some idea of how often these women must stare death in the face, everything here is a tad superficial. Wonderfully filmed and edited, but shallow nonetheless.
Shot in full frame monochrome and mixing several divergent stock types, Family Values looks surprisingly good in this digital presentation. There are even times when the old educational footage matches the material shot in the present day perfectly. There are some grain and image issues, but nothing that will severely affect one's enjoyment of the film. As for sound, well, this is a student film, and occasionally we hear the hard "p" sounds of bad microphones or the distant echo of space, meaning the recording equipment was too far away. Again, however, we don't miss a great deal aurally.
The Sunshine (2000)
Like the porn theaters and grindhouses that used to litter 42nd Street, long ago labeling it a kind of boulevard of broken dreams, the New York City Bowery flophouse is seeing itself real estated into extinction. One of the last ones to avoid "yuppification" is called the Sunshine Hotel, and it houses an odd assortment of humanity's extreme outer layer. There's Bruce, who believes in his day runner for the rest of the residents work ethic so completely that he has a philosophy and mantra—as well as a major alcohol problem. Then there's Vinnie, an electronic voice box using resident who loves his birds. They are his only connection to anything remotely humane. Vinnie's day is a mapped out series of trips to the methadone clinic and stops at the pet shop for birdseed. We meet Tony, a tired man simply waiting to die in his cramped, cluttered cubicle. And then there's Cashmere, a transsexual who represents, in her words, "the only female presence in this place." From the inner workings of manager Vic and his front desk cage to the reasons why the hotel still exists (if only temporarily), The Sunshine captures a lost aspect of crowded urban life that is soon to become just another memory.
Good Lord, is The Sunshine depressing. And fascinating. And a marvelous bit of filmmaking. It takes courage to let strangers unflinchingly capture your life in freefall for the world to witness, but the brave battered men who reside in this dark, dank hole at the ass end of Manhattan offer stunning representations of the human instinct of survival. Better than any "immunity" challenge riddled entertainment game show, this example of people desperately holding on to their basic existence and their dignity finds surprising nobility in one of the seediest, saddest places on Earth. The Sunshine can be viewed as the final nail in the coffin of the patriarchy, where the male of the species is sent off to die in their own inebriated elephant's graveyard. But it can also be seen as a cautionary tale for the troubled, aging, and rejected of society, a story that highlights how quickly and completely the world fails to care what becomes of you. But what it represents most is the story of lives lost, of people so disconnected from the rest of the world that they seek, in this final haven, a comfortable place to get about the business of dying. There is power and poignancy in the story of The Sunshine, but it is a truly gloomy exercise in emotional endurance.
Filmed on location, with natural light and a limited crew, the visual aspects of The Sunshine are equally impressive. The full screen image is sharp and crisp, so much so you can read the articles from the newspapers some residents use as wallpaper in the background. Sonically, there is a great deal of distortion and chaotic ambient atmosphere. But what else would you expect from a film shot entirely in the bowels of New York City?
Mojave Mirage (2002)
When we first see it, it stands out from its surroundings: an oddly technical entity in a barren arid world. Then we notice that there are people congregating near the object, marveling at it, taking pictures of it, utilizing its service. As the scattershot approach continues, we start to pick up bits of factual information: it was placed in its present location as a convenience for miners. Tourists started responding to its actions. A cult of followers journey out to the location on a scheduled basis to interact with it. To all of them, it means something. And what is the great "it" we are talking about? It is that modern miracle of mass communication—the telephone. In the middle of the Mojave Desert is a phone booth housing the sole telephone for 16 miles in any direction. And people actually use it. More so, some have turned it into a global question for togetherness by spending hours fielding calls from all over the world. We meet people who keep journals of their calls, individuals who want to simply answer one or two rings and others who simply can't believe that, out in the middle of nowhere, there is a working phone. Or at least was a working phone. The Mojave was made into a national park a while back, and the park service had the booth removed. This action resulted in a worldwide response, both over the Internet and among organizations, to get the booth back. Unfortunately, the efforts have failed so far.
Mojave Mirage is yet another example of "you've got to be kidding me, really?" storytelling. It takes the highly unusual tale of the isolated Mojave Desert phone booth that turned into a kind of communal shrine for people and provides just enough information to intrigue the spit out of you. The narrative is a happenstance collection of real events, scrapbooks collages, mixed voice over narrations, actual phone calls, and personal interview footage. It is then all mixed up, superimposed over and around each other to create, what the directors consider, an avant-garde approach to documentary filmmaking. Mojave Mirage may have been a better film had a more linear manner been taken with the story, but it would probably not be more evocative. The montage style allows the filmmakers to "free up" a lot of the material, removing its current meaning while suggesting another. So the calls are not really the focus. Nor are the regulars who camp out to answer them. The impression is one of community, of the world coming together to speak to one another. Granted, there is a wealth of back and after story that could have been explored here. But for what it wants to accomplish, Mojave Mirage does a fantastic job.
The image quality is pretty impressive too. Utilizing the montage style allows for a far more interesting, compositionally complex picture and the full screen presentation on this disc is crisp, clean, and very impressive. Even when images are merged and shadowed over one another, the print looks marvelous. The sound portion of the movie is even more striking. Having to mesh telephone, voice over, interviews, and "found" noises all together to create an aural backdrop to the visual story, the sonic canvas is wonderfully captured on this disc.
Overall, the short films on Full Frame are exceptional. While it seems to damn entertainment when you mention it, these films are educational in a breathtaking way. They paint worlds and show people previously unknown to the viewer. One can't help but feel how limited their experience and understanding of the human condition is when confronted with the stories offered here. From the friendly, frantic faces seemingly laughing their troubles away to the sad dejected citizens of the last hospitable place within their cosmopolitan society, we experience a whole new set of rules, regulations, conditions, and beliefs. Certainly, the pain of a family breaking apart or facing the angel of death is universal in its power, but within the certain frameworks constructed in these movies, they take on a new, fresh, and authoritative voice. Anyone who is a fan of documentary films would be foolish not to pick up this excellent collection. And for those wary of the delight and power of non-fiction filmmaking, Full Frame Documentary Films is a great place to start. These resonate tales, told in small doses, are the perfect way to wean yourself off the Hollywood mediocre mentality and into a brave new world of unforgettable real life stories.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Commentary. That is what each of the documentary shorts needed. No other cinematic skill demands more in-depth discussion on how it came about than the non-fiction short film. How many hours of footage was shot? The cooperation (or lack thereof) of the subject? How did you achieve certain moments? Was anything "staged"? These questions roll around the mind of a viewer as they sample these marvelous films. And it would have been nice to let each filmmaker comment on the beginning, middle, and final reception of their work. Unfortunately, one fears either cost, time or compression issues squelched what would have been a wonderful extra bonus for this set. While each filmmaker here gets a brief step through biography accompanying their film, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Documentarians are unsung heroes of cinematic storytelling. It would have been nice to give them a voice here.
After watching Full Frame Documentary Shorts, a strange feeling comes over the viewer. It's that feeling of having visited with real people in real circumstances, of living though their lives and times along with them. Unlike a work of fiction, which carries us into its world and lets us hang out for a while to laugh, scream, or cry, the documentary tells us what it going on just outside our door if we were simply alert and in tune enough to see it. And that knowledge stays with us longer than some made up locale with its hyper-realistic personas. From the hilarious to the heartbreaking, shocking to the soothing, Full Frame Documentary Shorts provide that rare combination of entertainment and enlightenment that so many standard movies strive for but hardly ever achieve. Each and every filmmaker represented, from the professional to the amateur, understands the inherent drama and narrative nature of film and each exploits it brilliantly. It would be interesting to view other, less successful examples of the genre that were presented at Full Frame's festivals. The contrast would have made for a fascinating comparison. Still, one feels grateful for the actual DVD package here. Frankly, the digital format is perfect for a release like this; several individual films and ideas linked together by a theme or entity (in this case, a film convention). Here's hoping that Full Frame releases more of these excellent short films. After all, how often does one get to explore other people and places from the comfort of their living room couch?
Full Frame Documentary Shorts is acquitted of all charges by the Court. Only in a couple of rare occasions do the films fail to live up to their subject matter. All filmmakers are found not guilty and all are instructed to continue on in the realm of non-fiction cinema.
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