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Buy Full Frame Documentary Shorts: Volume 5 at Amazon

Full Frame Documentary Shorts: Volume 5

Docurama // 2007 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // April 19th, 2007

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All Rise...

A documentary on the life of Judge Kerry Birmingham was panned by critics due to its startling similarities to Grey Gardens.

The Charge

Six more entries from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The Case

There's possibly no genre of film more misunderstood than the documentary short. Aside from ruining most of America's Oscar pool picks, short-subject documentaries tend to be regarded as the bastard child of the independent film world, limited to festival screenings and brief runs at independent theatres, and ignored altogether by the movie-going public at large. It's a tricky art form, requiring conciseness and editorial finesse to create the same sort of narrative and emotional cohesion that long-form films have hours to develop. The Full Frame Film Festival, held annually in Durham, North Carolina, has done well in keeping the form vital and in the spotlight, at least for the film buff sensitive to the world outside the cineplexes.

As it did in four previous volumes, Full Frame chooses a handful of previous years' entries for inclusion here. The six films included vary in length from five minutes to half an hour, and represent such diverse corners of the world as Hungary, Botswana, England, and that truly alien landscape known as "Montana."

• Afloat (Erin Hudson, 5 mins.)
"90 years old? That's an old man!" says one participant in this particularly brief documentary as we watch him slowly traverse across a shallow swimming pool. It's easy to be snarky about the dubious prospect of the elderly trying to stay active and the unflattering effect of nonagenarian flesh viewed from underwater, but in a short five minutes Erin Hudson's film manages to be a succinct and touching reflection on aging and the importance of the old adage that growing old is a state of mind. Through the mere observation of its subjects as they happily complete tasks in their care facility's swimming pool, and staged acts such as floating old photographs on the water's surface, Afloat teaches a simple lesson in simple terms without being cloying or overly sentimental.

• The Angelmakers (Astrid Bussink, 33 mins.)
Of all the films in this collection, The Angelmakers is the most coyly structured, and benefits the most from viewer ignorance (even the synopsis on the back of the package gives away too much). The filmmakers interview the residents of a Hungarian village so quaint one expects it to be the backdrop of a film, and that wouldn't be that far off of a guess: something sinister did happen in this obscure corner of Hungary. Revealed slowly between interview segments with smiling, jocular villagers, the crimes that made this sleepy place notorious in the 1920s reverberate down through the generations. Not very lurid considering the subject matter, The Angelmakers connects a bit of ghoulish local lore with the changing roles of women in Western society and the decay of Old World traditions in the face of modern technology and expectations, all with the brand of pitch-black gallows humor peculiar to Eastern Europe. An award winner at the European Documentary Film Festival, The Angelmakers starts off somewhat obtuse, but winds up the most slyly engrossing of the selections here.

• High Plains Winter (Cindy Stillwell, 10 mins.)
Cindy Stillwell's brief tone poem of a film, High Plains Winter, juxtaposes images of Montana and Idaho's wintry landscape with the raucous sport of ski-joring, in which a horse pulls a man on skis through an obstacle course of ramps and flags at high speed (it looks even more dangerous than it sounds). The daredevils involved, all cowboy hats and pickup trucks, seem to be defying the harshness of the American West in winter with their audacity to make it somehow even MORE stupid and dangerous. More arthouse than grindhouse, it's Ingmar Bergman's Wide World of Sports.

• Send Me Somewhere Special (Darren Hercher, 28 mins.)
On the surface, Darren Hercher's Send Me Somewhere Special smacks of lazy filmmaking: turn on the camera, set something in motion, and see what happens. Hercher, armed only with his camera equipment and what's left of his savings, stands outside the unemployment office and asks the first person he sees to send him to someplace significant to them so that he can make a film about that place. The first person he meets is Jonathon, a homeless man who sends the filmmaker to the obscure English village where his late father died (and bums some cigarette money off of Hercher for the service). Hercher then spends the remainder of the film attempting to get by on his meager cash-in-hand and interviewing a few amenable locals once he finally gets to Hatch Beauchamp. It's an experiment borne of desperation and boredom, and it shouldn't have paid off; a This American Life segment gone awry. Luckily for Hercher, what begins as a masochistic odyssey predicated on the sentimentality of a homeless man becomes an actual film as he stumbles upon subjects more interesting than himself. Moving from sad-sack navel-gazing into a study of middle-class despair, the film finally gets some life in it when Hercher becomes involved with a number of local couples whose candor is sparked by the presence of a camera. Hercher possibly overstates the "life-changing" nature of the film, but he inadvertently finds a worthy subject and makes it work.

• Stand Like Still Living (Peter Jordan, 24 mins.)
Shot in part by one of its participants, Stand Like Still Living follows two people in the same village in Botswana, a country with a particularly high rate of HIV infection. Qomatca returns to the village of D'Kar after working for several months at a far away factory to find himself inexplicably ill. He waits with trepidation for the results of an HIV test over the course of several weeks. Meanwhile, Nankie, having recently given birth to her son, Glen, waits anxiously to find out if her son is HIV positive like his mother. Stand Like Still Living shows two people understandably anxious about their lives and what the results of their individual tests could mean for themselves and their families. The nebulousness of their futures, already in question due to the vagaries of Third World living where a doctor is an occasional luxury, makes for arresting viewing that elicits both sympathy and outrage.

• The Intimacy of Strangers (Eva Weber, 20 mins.)
Despite having the most novel concept of the six films here—cutting between a handful of people's public cell phone conversations in public places in London—this was the film I found myself zoning out on most. Ostensibly a voyeuristic look into the very public private lives of ordinary people in an age where the tyranny of the cell phone makes discretion obsolete, it's a bit too long and highlights, perhaps intentionally, the inanity of most conversation. Winner of Full Frame's President's Award, there apparently are those who took more away from The Intimacy of Strangers than I did (there's even a feature-length version in the works). To my mind, however, it never quite delivers on the promise of its premise, and would possibly have worked in an even more abbreviated form.

Sweating the technical details on a project like this is something of a wasted exercise. "Full Frame" is something of a misnomer, as the films themselves vary even within each short depending on the needs of the film (High Plains Winter in particular plays with frames in inventive ways). But film quality is fine across the board, and any flaws can be attributed to the source material; no one expects studio gloss when much of your footage is being shot by, say, a Botswanan villager. The only extras of note are the filmmakers' biographies.

All in all, this volume of Full Frame Documentary Shorts is a worthy selection of films; even the missteps are worth viewing and could be categorized as "noble failures" by those feeling unnecessarily unkind. If you have any interest at all in this underserved, underexposed genre, it's well worth taking advantage of the versatility of the DVD format to view pieces of filmmaking you most likely won't be seeing otherwise.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Independent
• Short Films

Distinguishing Marks

• Filmmaker Biographies

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