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Documentary Shorts: Let The Crying Begin

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 22, 2011

If I were to list the documentaries I see at Silverdocs in order of the likelihood that you (not you, but an average you) will actually see them, we’d probably group them something like: (1) Ones that will get reasonably wide theatrical releases plus Netflix/DVD/cable, (2) ones that will get limited theatrical releases plus Netflix/DVD/cable, (3) ones that will be on Netflix/DVD/cable, (4) ones that will be on a DVD you have to order online, and (5) the shorts.

And it’s a shame, too, because short films are often utterly delightful, and until people get more accustomed to buying them on iTunes or taking advantage of some other distribution method, they’re never going to be seen very much, except by hard-core Oscar completists – and that’s still only a handful.

So having seen my first batch of shorts this morning, I thought I’d use the ones I saw as a little introduction. These were grouped together under the heading “Between Us,” which purportedly meant they were intimate stories of people, and which actually meant I cried a lot.

Blue Rinse. I apologize for using the word “adorable” to describe a movie about elderly Irish ladies, because I know that a lot of them would hate it, but Blue Rinse is indeed an adorable little film that eavesdrops on older women in a Dublin salon as they get their hair done. It doesn’t sound like much, but it packs a lot into an 11-minute running time: how the women confide in their hairdressers, how they equate upkeep of their personal appearance with maintaining independence, and some gorgeous super-close-up photography that vividly conveys the tactile and very personal experience of having your hair gently washed, cut, or just touched by other people.

Oh My God, Dear God. I struggled with this one, I confess. It’s basically a sweet old Polish couple sitting outside their house in the countryside talking about the garden for 12 minutes, interrupted at one point by a group of strangers who wander by and ask to use the bathroom. And that’s the whole thing. The official description says, “Fretting over the most mundane of happenings, this couple conveys beauty in the ordinary and the familiar intimacy that comes from spending a lifetime together.” I have to say … I saw a movie where people talk about gardening. I know! I feel terrible! They seem like a really nice couple.

Still Here. This was one of many films I cried over on Tuesday. It centers on a man named Randy Baron who has been HIV positive for decades without becoming ill, thanks in part to a genetic mutation that makes it more difficult for the virus to attack his body. He’s lost a partner and many friends, and he struggles with massive survivor’s guilt. On the one hand, he’s found a new partner and he’s found a new purpose in HIV-related education. On the other, he looks utterly haunted, and it can be very hard to watch. Rewarding, but a gut punch nevertheless.

Minka. Cried at this one, too! It’s about AP reporter John Roderick and architect Yoshihiro Takishita, who met in Japan in the late 1960s and wound up acquiring a Japanese farmhouse (known as a “minka”), which they lovingly transported and reassembled elsewhere, where it became their home. Takishita flips through photo albums and remembers his life with Roderick, who passed away in 2008 after writing a book about the house. It’s a very quiet, very kind, very richly shot film that just loves, loves, loves the look of dark wood. Note: Takishita says that Roderick adopted him as his son, and that’s the way the relationship is typically described in the press. Frankly, I had some questions about Roderick adopting Takishita, given that they met when they were both adults and lived out their lives together (and Takishita already had a family, and Roderick knew them), but if the filmmakers had any of those questions, they don’t shed any light on them in the film.

For Maria. This one is Swedish, and it follows Anders and Maria, two former addicts (and former homeless people) who have found each other and cleaned up, and are now getting married. It’s an exceedingly simple story – about buttoning coats, straightening dresses, and managing getting rings on the right fingers at the right moments – but it’s sweet. There’s little romanticizing – or even explaining – of their past hardships. Those things just exist as context for this very nicely done little wedding story.

Mothersbane. An offbeat and very powerful piece, this one has filmmaker Jason Jakaitis narrating the story of growing up with his mother, who had a disability relating to her leg that isn’t specifically articulated, other than that it left one leg longer than the other. This one is all narration – what’s more, it’s third-person narration, as Jakaitis distinguishes between what he experiences as “the man” who visits his mother while she’s recovering from yet more surgery, and what he remembers as “the boy” who both feared and revered her collection of appliances and braces. (Jakaitis said in a Q&A after the film that he thinks his observations of his mother’s disability led to his fascination with powerful women like Linda Hamilton in the Terminator movies.) (Please note: I cried.)

In addition to Jakaitis’ narration, Mothersbane relies on reenactments (done to look like old home movies) in which a boy plays young Jason. It’s a particularly inventive, deeply personal approach on the part of a filmmaker, but it works here because there’s not a speck of self-pity in it, which is just about the only way to get away with being the only voice in your own film. It’s very affecting; it was one of my favorites.

Night At The Dance. Here, we visit a very old dance hall in a very small town . As it turns out, Czech immigrants who settled in large numbers in Texas, built lots and lots of these dance halls, and many are still around. The woman who runs the place, whose parents opened it many decades ago, speaks with an accent that’s a wonderful and unusual combination of Texas and Czech as she reflects on its importance to her neighbors. There are moments when the use of distorting angles and very limited depth of field (meaning only a very narrow slice is in focus and the rest is blurry) make the older people in the film look a bit like you’re meant to find them ugly, which isn’t consistent with the generally affectionate tone of the piece. Other than that, though, a kind-hearted reminder that even a town with a population of 40 people has something to do on Saturdays. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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