Re-Defining Short Docs
“With any type of art there’s an evolution to the process which encourages experimentation and innovation." - Todd Luoto
Last year’s Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Short Film went to Drunk History: Douglass and Lincoln, the latest chapter in an online comedy series in which famous actors re-enact historical accounts from intoxicated narrators. By recognizing this type of experimentation, Drunk History showed just how open the shorts community is to embracing an edgy faction of film.
Of the more than 6,400 short film submissions that come in from around the globe, roughly 10 percent can be considered documentaries. Among the strong traditional docs presented this year, there are a great number of unusual and eccentric picks that boldly defy the classic definition of short documentary. Recognizing this emerging trend in the lineup, Shorts Programmer Todd Luoto elaborates: “With any type of art there’s an evolution to the process which encourages experimentation and innovation. And with that in mind, every year brings on new voices willing to change the rules, constraints, and perspectives on how to capture or tell a nonfiction subject or tale.”
Drunk History Director Jeremy Konner returns to the Festival with the Jeremy Irons narrated environmental comedy piece The Majestic Plastic Bag (Shorts Program IV), another “accidental documentary.” “I definitely was not making it thinking that I was making a traditional documentary,” Konner exclaims, “or even a documentary at all. To me it is a send up of documentaries.” Also unspooling in Shorts Program IV is Sundance Film Festival vet Nicolas Provost’s Stardust, an investigation of the boundaries between fiction and reality by way of manipulating real-life footage shot in Las Vegas. Stardust applies musical tropes and familiar movie quotes to transform the unwitting actors into characters from an exciting crime story.
Several uniquely structured docs which test the boundaries of the genre can be seen in the Documentary Showcase I. One such short is OOPS, a found-footage collection of camera accidents culled from YouTube. Filmmaker Chris Beckman likes to think of OOPS as “a voyage through the online video-watching experience,” crediting his inspiration as stemming from a fascination with viewing videos on YouTube. Having always envisioned the film as a video art project, his expectations did not include being selected to the short competition of the Sundance Film Festival, but rather he hoped to “see it eventually projected on a gallery wall somewhere in Missouri if I was lucky.”
Incident by a Bank presents a humorous account of a failed robbery performed in one elaborate take. According to Luoto, director Ruben Östlund “worked with 96 actors to recreate and choreograph the entire incident from start to finish.”
Also part of this same showcase is Carlos Puga’s documentary-fictional hybrid Satan Since 2003. Puga’s camera purports to document three weeks in the life of “Hell’s Satans,” the most wild of the Virginia moped gangs, as an escalating feud quickly derails out of control. Puga, who spent the last seven years directing and producing the MTV Documentary series “True Life,” decided to take what he had learned on the show and blend it with a narrative—a real challenge considering that fictional elements had to be organically integrated into what had already been shot with the subjects. Puga believes his greatest initial struggle was “to even come up with a single narrative that could integrate all the actual documentary footage and still have room to introduce fiction.” That he was selected for the Festival was validating, but learning his short was to be programmed as a documentary caused alarm. “My first reaction was fear. I figured Sundance must have thought the whole thing was real and that the outlandish violence in the film had been the reason I was accepted at all,” explains Puga. “I called up and told them that parts of the ‘doc’ were fake and that the film itself was a sort of hybrid documentary/mockumentary. The nice man from Sundance told me they already knew that and I could still come to Park City at the end of January.”
Other docs playing with form can be found scattered amongst the 10 short programs or screened before several feature films. The disembodied voices of three participants in an epic bike race turned love triangle interrupt one another with their versions of events over a cleverly animated re-enactment in Bike Race (Shorts Program V). Animation Showcase selection 1989 (When I Was 5 Years Old) also employs a similar voice-over technique, but to a chillingly grave end result, as the true story of a traumatic accident unfolds over abstract drawings reflecting the narrator’s own inner turmoil. The New Frontier shorts category (always a go-to place for your avant-garde needs) includes such works as Francis Alys de Smedt’s Tornado, a lengthy presentation of the camera chasing and capturing the experience of getting caught in the titular weather condition. Tao Gu’s award-winning On the Way to the Sea weaves together fictional elements, documentary fragments, and visual abstraction, investigating the dreams, memories, and sensory perceptions of two earthquake survivors, who happen to be the filmmaker’s own parents.
And of course, there are the more traditionally made short documentaries waiting to be discovered by discerning audiences with an appetite for quality short filmmaking. When it all comes down to it, no matter how a film is structured, or what techniques are employed to craft it, the programmers are looking for docs and narratives with a priority placed on strength of story. It’s about discovering “something in which the contents resonate days, weeks, months and even years after we see it on a Saturday in August,” says Luoto.