Watch Some of the Year's Best Documentary Short Films

Watch Some of the Year's Best Documentary Short Films

Oct 10, 2012

Short Rounds is a biweekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current film festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time.


It’s not easy, being a documentary short. Nonfiction film in general tends to have a harder time finding an audience than its narrative counterpart, and that is only made more difficult when a film is under an hour long. On the whole, these films are hard to see and even more challenging to finance. They might be the most underappreciated form of cinema, with the possible exception of the experimental avant-garde.

However, there’s a positive way to spin this. Because documentary shorts are almost by definition low-budget passion projects, they are often much more interesting than their feature counterparts and certainly more inspired than anything with a skittish studio producer. Some of the best work of the year is hiding in these shorts, even if it remains tragically unrecognized. The Cinema Eye Honors is one of the handful of institutions trying to fix that, and the shortlist of 10 finalists for their Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking was announced last month. The collection of films is representative of the myriad possibilities of the form, work that should absolutely be on your radar.

I got the chance to see a few of these films earlier this year as they made their way through the festival circuit. Paraíso and CatCam both landed on my list of the best shorts of the Tribeca Film Festival, and both deserve to be nominated by Cinema Eye. The former is a stunning and frank look at the lives of skyscraper window washers in downtown Chicago, the men who find themselves staring down at the city from terrifying heights. It’s dangerous but awe inspiring, standing so close to heaven (paraíso). CatCam is exactly what it sounds like: a German husband and wife in South Carolina stuck a camera onto the collar of a stray cat. The resulting documentary is adorable, and a neat way to flip the term “cat video” on its tail.

As is obvious just by looking at the above two films, this short list is a very diverse collection of styles and subjects. Abuelas uses stop-motion animation to illuminate the life and memory of an old woman in Buenos Aires. Aaron Burr, Part 2 is a playful reenactment of history on the banks of the Hudson, bringing the nation’s most notorious vice president back to life with all his questionable morals and judgments. Meaning of Robots is a character portrait of one of the strangest characters in New York City, a man obsessed with making sexually exaggerated figurines for his planned stop-motion robot-porn movie.

The most visually intriguing films of the bunch, however, are those that use preexisting images and repurpose them. Family Nightmare is a doozy. Director Dustin Guy Defa took old home movies from a family Christmas party and added his own darkly comic voice-over, qualitatively changing the footage. It has a quality that is somehow reminiscent of both Adult Swim cartoons and François Ozon’s early Super 8 shorts, blending comedy with fear and revulsion.

Good Bye Mandima is also a very personal film, built from the pictures taken at Robert-Jan Lacombe’s childhood departure from Zaire. He talks the audience through the experience, the crucial moment in the life of a child between continents. His personal journey reflects the larger context of Europeans leaving Africa after years of colonial rule, and the complications of being one of a few privileged white children growing up in an African village. His status as an innocent kid manages to both cut through the complicated geopolitical situation and more effectively articulate the nuances in the interpersonal relationships between communities.

As for more ambitious character portraits, Fanuzzi’s Gold and Cutting Loose both delve deeply into the lives of their subjects. The former is a heartfelt sketch of an aging hoarder on Staten Island, with much more dignity and subtlety than any TLC reality show. Director Georgia Gruzen renders 77-year-old Ed Fanuzzi, his wife, and his wheelchair-bound son and autistic grandson with simple dedication. Her kind honesty is matched by Cutting Loose, which follows a hairdressing competition held in the Scottish prison system. Finlay Pretsell and Adrian McDowall filmed these intimidating institutions without a drop of judgment, illuminating the lives of these characters with both charm and frankness.

In spite all of all these excellent films, I think my personal favorite might be Anna Francis Ewert’s Into the Middle of Nowhere. On paper it’s nothing more than 15 minutes of adorable British children (which, really, might be enough). However, that cuteness quickly becomes so much more. Ewert isn’t simply wandering through a forest full of overexcited kids, she’s filming imagination itself. As they all pile onto an “airplane” made of logs and request destinations to their intrepid Scottish captain, you can see the wonder of creativity written in their expressions. It’s a perfect example of the potential of low-budget nonfiction shorts. With a good sense of inspiration, dedication and some great footage you can create a film that has an impact well beyond its running time.

Into the Middle of Nowhere is available for streaming on Fandor.

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