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  • Brandon MacMurray

Reviews from DOC NYC Part 1

We are halfway through our week attending DOC NYC and are loving what we have seen so far from the documentary shorts slate! See reviews from a few of our favourites so far:

Incident, dir. Bill Morrison

In 2018 in Chicago, tensions are high between Chicago Police and the black community. Both groups are anticipating the murder trial of Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke who shot and killed Laquan McDonald four years earlier. Van Dyke said that he “acted in self-defence” in killing him. Through efforts of investigative journalists, dashboard camera recordings were released 13 months later, which shows that Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, nine of which were in the back, and led to Van Dyke being indicted on six counts first degree murder. In the days leading up to Van Dyke’s trial, police presence on the streets of Chicago was increased exponentially.

Bill Morrison’s incendiary new documentary short film Incident documents in exacting detail the July 2018 shooting of another black men, Harith “Snoop” Augustus by Chicago Police officer Dillan Halley. Halley shot Augustus five times in what he also said was “in self-defence,” when he claimed that Augustus pointed his gun at a group of five officers on foot. Morrison uses the officer’s body cam footage as well as dashcam and CCTV surveillance video to create a minute-by-minute timeline of that afternoon’s events, and shows that after he was shot, another officer removed Augustus’ gun from its holster, where it had been the whole time.

Morrison, working with the groups Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability, Forensic Architecture, and Invisible Institute, uses ever-changing configurations of split-screens to keep track and give precise details of each player in the unfolding chaos. Halley and his partner leave the scene and their conversations carry on with them on their body cams, while dashcams of other officers show the increasingly tense crime scene, and the surveillance camera video stays focused on Augustus’ body.

In Incident, Morrison takes a sharp turn from the style of his previous works, which often present scenes from silent movie era films on nitrate film that has begun the process of decaying (including his 2002 masterpiece Decasia). Morrison continues the use of found footage but in Incident makes use of open-source digital video rather than analog film. The decay that has been an obsession of Morrison’s is also relevant as the images degrade into pixels through long zooms. Morrison has shifted his focus from the decay of nitrate filmstrips to the decay of society, and where Decasia’s use of century old films showed a lost past, Incident’s heartbreaking images of police violence show Augustus’ lost future.

Review by: Joshua Hunt

Carpenter, dir. Xelîl Sehragerd

This documentary follows Hussein Mahmood, a Kurdish carpenter in Iran who specializes in making prosthetic legs for landmine victims by sourcing local wood from the gorgeous but dangerous surroundings.

In the modern day where mass production has largely removed the basic need for it we tend to think of carpentry as something tranquil and artistic, something that is a hobby or a means to produce highly customized furniture. Carpenter opens on a splash screen letting us know that landmines do not discriminate which puts a somber and harsh blanked over these ideas.

Yet somehow in the mix of largely dialogue-free exchanges and footage of the surrounding trees and wildlife as Hussein fetches wood to work with, this calm nature manages to poke through that blanket. The juxtaposition between these things makes the end result something that comes across almost melancholic. This is further enhanced by the decision to not show much of the injuries themselves, and instead letting the animal shots linger for a bit longer.

Review by: Robin Hellgren

Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War, dir. Leah Loftin

Art is usually a form for people to overcome their internalized emotions. Painting, poetry, making a film, or writing a dictionary to scream to the world what is stuck in your throat. This was the option Olena Astasieva chose when Russia invaded Ukraine and attacked her hometown of Kherson, bombing the civil population, and destroying their infrastructure. Even after leaving her home country, Olena decided to write the book and translate it into English so that the whole world would know the horror committed to the Ukrainian population. The book is “Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War” and it was transformed into a hybrid documentary, that combines fiction and documentary filmmaking.

Directed by Leah Loftin, who also wrote, produced, and was the cinematographer, the film talks about raw emotions that people feel heavily while living during a war, thoughts that will be maximized by the uncertainty brought by violence. The first segment “Fear,” represents the agony of being a target, the feeling of not being able to protect your home or even yourself, where even going into a bunker could be a danger. It is an interesting take on the situation, however, the monologue brings a bit of oddness. It is succeeded by “Hunger,” which narrates the rationing of food and being only able to consume a limited quantity because it is uncertain when your next meal may be. The possibility of famine makes the segment feel so urgent and the sense of desperation increases each time that food disappears off the dining table.

The creative use of collages, montages, and visual elements to compose the sense of desolation is highly creative and effective. The mix of those visual components and fictionalized events makes the film feel coherent in its purpose. This is shown as an example in “Betrayal from a Russian Friend,” a made-up scene based on uncountable betrayals and minimizations of the conflict by those who once were considered your Russian friends. “Messages from a Ukranian Friend”, also uses the concept of a hybrid scene to tell the viewer about the shared feeling of being in danger but this time through the interaction with Ukranian friends in the middle of the conflict.

The other segments: “Hatred,” “Love,” “Irritation,” Guilt,” “Tears,” “Choices,” “Time,” and “Weather,” compile a bunch of feelings and sensations that victims of this war feel during the conflict and it is done using various editing techniques and montages that draw the spectator’s attention. A special mention to “Tears,” which symbolizes the losses and repressed emotions during the war, a touching and impactful fragment that makes this film a remarkable experience.

“Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War” uses cinema’s language to bring a different approach to a typical topic captured in films. The different visual montages are used to bring a new emotional impact to a conflict that is highly transmitted to the world through live communications, and later through documentaries and journalism. The objective proposed by Olena is achieved once her vision about the war can be easily watched worldwide. This film captures the spectator during it's 13 minute runtime and makes reflection linger long after the viewing is over. A remarkable piece of filmmaking. It is part of the “Collateral Damage” shorts program at DOC NYC and it is also qualified for 2024’s Academy Awards.

Review by: Pedro Lima



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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