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  • Brandon MacMurray

May Festival Roundup: Hot Docs and It's All True



May brought us some great new documentary shorts from two prominent flim festivals: Hot Docs Film Festival and It's All True Festival. Each film festival gave us two new Oscar-qualifying shorts to the documentary shorts race. Check out what we thought of each of their four winners below!


It's All True International Documentary Film Festival


Solo la Luna Comprenderá, dir. Kim Torres

 

Costa Rican screenwriter and director Kim Torres’ new Locarno-premiered short film Solo la Luna Comprenderá focuses on inquiries about identity and the experience of inhabiting a place. Over an enigmatic shot of foggy moon, a narrator tells us “I don’t have a story, but I can tell you what happened to me.” In a slippery English-Spanish Creole, the narrator talks about the 31st of December, the day he thought was the last day of his life. Running for his life from the rising sea, the narrator begins thinking back on his childhood, in a nostalgic reverie for the type of place that no longer exists.


Different timelines begin to intertwine between the residents in the town of Manzanilla, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Manzanillo has long been off the beaten track, even since paved road arrived there in 2003. It is as far as you can go along the coastal road towards Panama, and the tiny town remains a vibrant outpost of Afro-Caribbean culture. Manzanilla has also remained pristine and unchanged for years, thanks to the 1985 establishment of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which includes the entire village and imposes strict regulations on regional development. Solo la Luna Comprenderá is a beautiful look at what it means to grow up in a place like this. The elders of Manzanillo have fond memories of a simple past, but the youths are not interested in staying in a neglected and unchanging town.

 


The vivacious and ebullient youths do what they can to fill their long days. In the abandoned buildings found throughout the town, children play hide and seek. Then, they have a lively round of Rashōmon-style “that’s not how I remember it” storytelling about how a mysterious sunken ship washed up on the beach. The polyphony of children’s voices argues about what really happened, telling stories in the disjointed way that children do; none of them have the whole story about the sunken ship, each one focuses instead on the particular details that are important to them. While at first it seems like just a children’s game, Torres is subtly giving deep insight into the subjectivity of perception and memory.


 There’s hardly anyone left in Manzanillo. The few remaining villagers are counting down to the New Year, but they are expecting more of the same. Nothing changes there, in a town that is both beautiful and abandoned, mysterious and monotonous. As the sun goes down, groups of kids wander the village, and at the magic hour, voices echo through the few streets that make up the entirety of the town. The 16mm photography is evocative throughout Solo la Luna Comprenderá, but Torres saves her best shot for last. The camera tracks backwards down the streets of the village, like it is leaving Manzanilla behind. Eventually the image of the village is like the past itself; small, blurry, in the distance. It is still there, and it will always be there, but the memory of it is fading away.


Review by: Joshua Hunt


As Placas são Invisiveis, dir. Gabrielle Ferreira


Based on footage from 2015, As Placas são Invisiveis narrates the reality of the black women who study at USP, the São Paulo University. Ranked as one of the hundred best universities in the world and the second best in Latin America, it had less than fifteen percent of black students at that time. Also, one of the crucial facts is that São Paulo University was the last public university in the country to implement the racial quotas. The law was approved in 2012, but USP only implemented it in 2018, not for all undergraduate programs. 


Following the story of four undergrad students, we see the different difficulties that black women suffer and how these affect their studies at the university. Clau is a history major who graduated from high school in 2003 but only enrolled in 2012 due to getting pregnant and having to raise her son. Nuna is a filmmaking major who had her mother abandon her graduation to work to pay for Nuna’s prep classes and get her into the university. 


Alê is a geography major who experienced in her elementary and high school journey racism and people doubting her intellectual capacity. Lastly, there is Débora, an environmental engineering major who is seeking her second diploma and faces the policies of the polytechnical school to prevent black students from accessing there. 


Even in only 25 minutes, director Gabrielle Ferreira manages to address the elitism and racism present not only in USP but in the whole country. Besides Brazil having the majority of people being black or mixed, the racist roots still flourish in the modern era. The government profusely sets up the class times and the campus locations to avoid having black people, who were descendants of enslaved people during the colonial period to have access to knowledge and success. Another essential detail is how the classes are designed to avoid the interaction of the black community within the campus. The interview subjects affirmed that they could only meet through the black collective. 


As Débora says to her colleagues, the racist signs are invisible throughout the university, but she can read them. Even six years after having quotas in the enrolment system, blacks are still a minority that suffer from increasing racism from the society that surrounds them. Almost nine years after Gabrielle started shooting, it is still more than ever an accurate portrait of the racist academia of Brazil.  


Review by: Pedro Lima


Hot Docs Festival


Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen?, dir. Eisha Marjara


Trigger Warning: This review may contain sensitive topics.


“Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen?”. 


It is the question the young Eisha Marjara asks a doctor in an old video footage. Her body was filmed in a camera to show how thin she was, weighing about 65 pounds (29.4 kilograms). In an impressive mix of excerpts, lettering, photos, and footage, Eisha writes a documentary about her experience with Anorexia while growing up. Dividing into two pieces, while living in India and immigrating to Quebec, Canada, she parallels a chubby child, as she describes herself, and an excessively skinny teen. 


Relevant to understanding her life is how being homesick interfered with it. The chubby child grew up in a happy and loving environment, sharing the joys of young life with her sister Seema, the youngest of three daughters. Her sister is an essential figure in understanding Eisha's mental state in her teenage years. Both of them are young, beautiful girls turning into women and experiencing being far from India while facing the beauty and social patterns of the Occident. 


The influence of media and marketing is quite impactful in this story. She states that “skinny was born inside a pair of jeans.” The obsession to fit in a pair of pants grows to a pattern that makes them follow a book of four rules, which would include: 1) No snacking; 2) Limit your calories; 3) No sugar nor desert; and 4) Don’t f*** up. The need to be part of a fashion trend is quite evident in the images cut and glued into the sketchbook shown on the screen. Eisha got to a point where she couldn’t control her eating disorder. 



Returning to the initial question, she may not be the skinniest person ever seen, but she was a portrait of someone heavily influenced and harmed by the media and the beauty pressure put upon women. Eisha even describes how, during a hospital visit, Seema appears glowing, and then she finds out that each sister wants to be the other. Eisha wished to be thinner, and Seema wanted lighter skin. These facts emphasize the social constructions that are inherited in our social terms. 


The film is a sincere letter to herself and to everyone in the world who is also suffering from eating disorders. Sometimes, observing yourself in the mirror is necessary, as Eisha was introduced in the initial footage show, and she mirrors her family in this film. This essay uses its lyricism to ease the pain caused throughout the years. 


Review by: Pedro Lima


Autism Plays Itself, dir. Janet Harbord



Throughout the history of the film industry representation has been a constant struggle. From men in wigs playing women or makeup used to mimic a certain skin color, to LGBTQIA+ representation or mental illness portrayed on the big screen. In this landscape Autism Plays Itself stands against the tide, not only in terms of accurate representation but more so taking it a step further and putting the focus back onto the format through a narration of the observation itself.


In this documentary we see images of children under observation at the Maudsley Hospital in London, shot back in 1957. The study was carried out using subjects who were believed to exhibit atypical behavior, and as viewers we are inclined to follow along with that narration.


But in this modern rendition by director Janet Harbord the footage is narrated by three autistic respondents (Sophie Broadgate, Ash Loydon and Ethan Lyon) who through the lens of their own lived experience interpret the actions and emotions of the children in a much more direct and open manner.



Getting this juxtaposition of your own biases together with these people interpretations puts a spotlight on the issue of observation and how it never really stays independent. You are colored by a premise, by your own knowledge of the subject or even by framing and cuts in the video itself.


One scene in particular really stuck out to me, in which we see a young girl throwing a tantrum after a blanket is taken away from her. With the footage alone it is easy to make the jump and credit the behavior towards the child’s atypical behavior as a whole instead of seeing it for what it really is - a child enjoying something and getting upset once it gets taken away from them. The narration perfectly frames this as a normal reaction from any child, regardless of prior mental state, and therein lies the beauty of what this documentary achieves.


Oftentimes in live action we see film makers use perception as a narrative tool for impact, and after a while we tend to exercise caution when it comes to making assumptions too early on. The same caution and space could be given outside of that space too, whether you are watching a documentary or simply interacting with the people around you. Ultimately we could all stand to be a bit more open and understanding towards each other.


Review by: Robin Hellgren

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ShortStick

The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

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