By Gary M. Kramer.
The short documentary films at this year’s AFI DOCS ranged from the political to the personal. The political shorts were part of the festival’s “World Views” program. One of the best shorts in this program was Election Night, which chronicled the reactions of a group of mostly young people in the U.K. who stayed up all night to watch the returns of the 2016 American presidential election. Many of the British interviewees were hopeful for Hillary, and indicated their own dissatisfaction with Brexit. A few guys in the film were pro-Trump. Some Americans in the pub were quite vocal about their views; one even stated he would not return to the U.S. if Trump won. As the returns come in, emotions and tensions run high, a fight breaks out, and things get real quiet once the victor is declared. Election Night is a compelling moment-in-time documentary that captures the mood of the night as well as attitudes, such as those of a female African immigrant, to reflect how American politics impacts folks abroad.
Picket Line was another strong short that considered attitudes towards Trump as members of a union at the chemical plant, Momentive, in Waterford, NY, go on strike when their contract is up, and their health care, 401k, and vacation time benefits are being jeopardized. The employees explain that they have taken hits for the company, which was facing bankruptcy when the last contract was under review, and they feel they are again getting the short end of the stick. They want Momentive to stay in business—it would devastate the town to lose 700 jobs—but they also want a fair wage. As one striker reveals, Trump’s right-to-work plan, which would make union dues optional, would have a negative impact on their lives, weakening the already struggling union. Observational footage shows the men and women yelling at scabs, while one striker acknowledges that Trump is not the best thing for the working class. It’s a sobering message that has a quiet power as the result of the strike is revealed on screen.
Another short that spoke volumes in the age of Trump was Laura Gabbart’s Monument/Monumento, which featured an extended Mexican family meeting at Friendship Park at the U.S.-Mexican border in San Ysidro, California. A metal mesh wall divides the two countries, but allows folks to see each other. Touching and passing things through the wall is forbidden. The film presents a strong sense of what the wall represents as the family that gathers and expresses their emotions while reuniting. However, what may be far more interesting, if much less explored by the filmmakers, is what the U.S. border patrolman, who was born in Mexico and moved to America as a teen, thinks about his work. Monument/Monumento is a slight short that raises interesting issues about the immigration debate, but it could have been longer and stronger. Hopefully, this is just a teaser for a forthcoming feature.
Homeland, also addressed immigrant issues, but from another point of view. This short features various Flemish suburbanites expressing their negative attitudes about refugees. A reveal late in the short indicates just how dangerous and deep-rooted their xenophobia is. It’s a chilling moment. The personal films in the “Great Loves” program showcased passionate individuals with quirky obsessions. Cucli introduces viewers to Ramon, a Spanish widower who is devoted to his pet dove. “We met by chance,” he says, indicating that he saved the injured animal, who in turn, saved him. “I didn’t intend to keep her,” he explains, but soon develops a strong bond that becomes clearer over the course of the short. As scenes depict bird and man sharing a bed, or the dove pecking at Ramon’s face, Cucli generates considerable emotion, especially in the film’s poignant final shot.
Lady Eva profiles the title character, a leiti (a transgender pacific islander) formerly known as Anderson Mafi, who competes in the local Miss Galaxy pageant. As Eva describes the acceptance she gets from the women in her family, but not her brother, she explains the difficulties she faced as a youth and her hopes to lead a productive life on her own terms. She is also seen performing a rousing rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” even doing cartwheels in her act. Her attitude to be brave and stand up for ones dreams is inspiring, and why this short by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson is such a crowd-pleaser.
Life, Death, and Cheerleading, about 55-85 year old women in Sun City, Arizona, who perform cheerleading routines is not without its charms as these senior ladies do splits, twirl batons, and perform high kicking routines, while also battling health issues. The film is best at presenting the stories of many of its members who have long deferred to men throughout their lives and are now doing something for themselves. Their sisterhood is powerful, especially when they rely on one another. However, this 30-minute short introduces too many narrative threads which dilutes its focus. The women are all interesting, but the parts of this short are greater than the whole.
Arguably the best short in the “Great Loves” program was The Tables, about the ping pong players who meet up at Bryant Park in New York City to show off their game. The characters are all wonderfully eccentric, from the hardcore “After 7” set, who battle into the night, to the man who plays with a block of wood instead of a paddle. Pro Wally Green and a charming homeless man named Gregory both explain how ping pong saved their lives. The table tennis action is as mesmerizing as the stories of the men who play—in rain and wind and snow, as the film shows—but it is their camaraderie and love of the game that is most infectious and inspiring.
In the shorts program “The Unexpected,” The Foreshore was a highlight, a fantastic essay on what scavengers of the banks of the Thames find washed up on shore. Many of the interviewees are looking for a piece of history, and, as Jonathan Beamish’s elegant film shows, several folks find it. Items showcased in the film range from a Queen Elizabeth half crown, to an 1854 Crimean war medal to the jawbone of a skeleton from 1650. There are also messages in bottles, an interesting object hidden inside a Doritos bag, and even body parts (a dentistry student finds teeth). How or why things end up in the river is not the focus here, it’s just that they do. Beamish uses slow motion to simulate tea cups and other objects being dropped into the river, and he features some recreations of the London fire or the aforementioned battles to provide a sense of the history being discussed. Artfully filmed in black and white, The Foreshore is a magical short about the artifacts and talismans of our lives.
Another striking short in the program is Geoff Feinberg’s The Hanging, about Kirill Oreshkin’s penchant for climbing to the top of tall buildings in Moscow and literally hanging from them. While Feinberg records some of Oreshkin’s antics, he also incorporates videos of the “roofer” as he is called. Oreshkin boasts of having conquered five of the seven Stalin skyscraper stars (the other two are unattainable, he claims) and explains he feels “complete freedom” on an open roof. Whether or not he will continue to practice his hobby is—pardon the pun—up in the air, as Feinberg’s fine film shows one of the conflicts Oreshkin faces.
A slight but amusing short called Balloonfest, documents the day in 1986 when Cleveland attempted to set a world’s record by launching 1,500,000 balloons into the air. Using recorded news footage of the event and its aftermath, this cute six-minute short sets the record straight while providing several astonishing images. Rounding out the program was the very charming Fish Story by Charlie Lyne, which won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Short Film. Recounting a possibly fishy tale his friend Casper Salmon has told about an event in his family’s past, Lyne investigates it in the hope of uncovering the truth. He shrewdly uses audio recordings to tell the possibly shaggy dog story to emphasize the idea of memory and oral history as the storyteller (and the filmmaker) come to learn what actually transpired. It’s a highly satisfying, and very funny short.