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  • Brandon MacMurray

Reviews from DOC NYC Part 2

In our second and final reivew roundup from DOC NYC we bring you reviews for five more documentary shorts that impressed us, including Nai Nai & Wài Pó, The Takeover, In Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror, When a Rocket Sits on the Launch Pad and Enemy Alien.

Nai Nai & Wài Pó (Grandma & Grandma) dir. Sean Wang

Director, producer, editor Sean Wang brings us into the lives of Chang Li Hua (83) and Yi Yan Fuei (94), his maternal and paternal grandmothers. Their paths crossing through their children was the start of a lifelong friendship, in which they now share a home, a bed and a whole life together.

Challenging the traditional view on what a relationship can look like, we see how these ladies brighten each other's lives in their autumn years. They share a camaraderie often seen in siblings or childhood friends and it is impossible not to smile at the affectionate zingers they prompt one another with.

The fact that this is shot by their beloved grandson adds another layer of familiarity to the dynamic. They both speak about being more energized and goofy in his presence, which they also bring us as the audience into. Yet at the same time this is offset by comments of how their lives shift after he leaves, and you are left reflecting over your own role in the lives of your family and those around you. It is a sobering realization that makes it impossible not to feel like you should engage more, especially with elderly relatives.

Having taken festivals all over the globe by storm, Grandma & Grandma shines bright with its optimistic and endearing light in a sea of often bleak and hard hitting documentaries. It is beautifully shot, narrated and shared in a way that radiates warmth and affection. Surely a documentary to come back to in times of joy and sorrow, and one I am convinced will stand the test of time.

Review by: Robin Hellgren

The Takeover, dir. Anders Hammer

Field of Vision is a production company known for its boldness in choosing its films, characterized by its unconventional approach to complex topics and the collaboration with artists who look for nuanced and multilayered themes in their works. That later description can be used to describe Anders Hammer’s work, a Norwegian director who brings intensity, rawness, and proximity to complicated political situations that are happening around the world. His most famous work, “Do Not Split” was nominated for the 2021 Oscars in the Best Documentary Short Film category. It created an unprecedented event. It was first time in 50 years that the Oscars ceremony was not aired in China, because of its portrayal of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests for independence. Focused on following the sieges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose students organized and promoted diverse protests which were combated by police forces. It is notable in “The Takeover” how Hammer uses the camera-on-hand technique to closely follow the protestors and is the main vehicle of tension present in the film.

Three after the full debut of “Do Not Split” at the 2020 DOC NYC (a 20-minute version of it was presented at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival), Anders Hammer returns to the festival to present “The Takeover”, his follow-up and the second part of a trilogy focused on modern political events. It narrates the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan during and after the U.S. departure in 2021, which left the Afghan population in the hands of the Taliban’s power and abuse, mainly against women, who have lost almost all of their civil rights. Different from other short films this year the same topic, such as “Ayenda”, which follows the escape of a women’s soccer team, and “Last Song from Kabul”, narrating the escape of the first all-female orchestra of the country, “The Takeover” is a much more direct and raw portrait of the situation. While the cited examples focus on the journey of leaving the country and creating a sense of tension about that situation, Hammer’s film is much more based on the situation captured by his camera and not building a dramatic conflict or narrative.

The violence practiced by the Taliban is not dismissed by Hammer, who is abused and beaten by its members for portraying the reality of what he is seeing. While “Do Not Split” has cinematography that is composed of well-lighted shots to portray the fight between people and the government, “The Takeover” has a certain “dirtiness” in the image, a sense of being loyal to the portrayed shot at that moment. One could say “The Takeover” is a very journalistic approach to a political situation, however, media could not show the public the level of fidelity that Hammer does. The lives of women in Afganistan are forever changed, they have lost their rights to study, work, and follow their dreams, and are now relegated to a maid position in the family. This film highlights the absurdity of this situation. Another aspect that is worth noting is the commitment that the filmmaker has to his vision. Not all directors would put themselves in the middle of danger to film a group that is killing and violating the rights of so many people. He puts himself in conflict with them to register history while it is being made.

“The Takeover” is a cruel portrait of the violence that is happening in Afghanistan right now. It is an impressive documentation of how important it is to debate women’s rights, but above all, protect them. It is a tense and raw documentary that will likely serve as a reference to study this subject in the future. “The Takeover” is part of the Shortlist section of DOC NYC 2023 and it is eligible for the 2024 Oscars.

Review by: Pedro Lima

Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror, dir. Yunyi Zhu

Yunyi Zhu’s enigmatic new documentary short film Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror tackles the almost impossible task of “telling a story without images through images.” Zhu’s subjects are blind children, and Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror is his attempt to put on screen images that represent their dreams, to raise the question of what and how blind people “see” in their dreams, and in their lives. “My hand is my mirror, my fingers my reflection,” one of the open-hearted interviewees explains. Many blind people learn to describe their world by touching – in one short fascinating scene, a blind girl can tell who she is touching a sculpture of just by feeling it – even reading for blind people is done through touch.

Each subject’s dream is given its own specific visual style to match the content. A fantastic sci-fi odyssey is described on screen through a sort of Braille-like animation, fields of dots floating against an empty background. Some details begin to come into focus, suggesting a landscape or a person, but the camera moves right through the dots, without stopping or focusing on anything. It is like it is looking around but not seeing, in essence providing the viewer the feeling of blindness on screen. A nostalgic dream of the past is expressed with 16mm “home movie” footage. When the children explain their dreams, the visuals match their voice in terms of feelings and vibes but are not a literal representation of what is being described. Their dreams are all textures and moods, a sort of big-screen ASMR mixing live-action and animation in a creative non-fiction bricolage.

Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror also movingly touches on the concept of the mirror to these blind subjects. “To me, the mirror is an abstract thing,” because, as one explains, none of these children have never seen themselves. It is important for the sighted to have a mirror, but the blind need it less because they create their image through sounds, through moments they lived, and they trust others to tell them what they look like. The mirror can reproduce your image, it allows you to know yourself, but “Without mirrors maybe your world would not exist,” one blind child warns. In its own incredibly tactile way, Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror shows that in this world, whether you experience life through your eyes or your hands, first you “see” and then you “know.”

Review by: Joshua Hunt

When a Rocket Sits on the Launch Pad, dir. Bohao Liu

In his new documentary short film When a Rocket Sits on the Launch Pad, director Bohao Liu revisits both the location and the themes from his previous film Eagles Rest in Liangshan—a town where basketball is so popular that the town square is a basketball court. Ostensibly focused on a youth basketball team, the Liangshan Black Eagles, and one of its players, 15-year-old Fang, When a Rocket Sits on the Launch Pad, despite its brief 13-minute runtime, touches on subjects as diverse as arranged marriage, and rural education in China.

Under enormous pressure from their families to succeed, Fang and her teammates are taking a break from basketball practice to talk about school. Fang didn’t do well enough on her zhongkao (Senior High School Entrance Examination) to go to high school, so she plans to go to a vocational school for agriculture on an athletic scholarship. Her family, though, says it is not a good idea for a girl to become an athlete. But in Liangshan, like in other areas of rural China, if a girl can’t go to high school, she prepares to get married—a voiceover of two families discusses the year’s “bride price.” Filmed largely in tight close-ups with hand-held camera in a narrow 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Fang is boxed in the frame like she feels boxed in life.

When a Rocket Sits on the Launch Pad is created from tightly-scripted recreations of real events in Fang’s life, “played” by the real people. When Liu knew he wanted to make a film about Fang, he wrote down the details of her day, and they reconstructed what happened that day. This allows Liu and Fang to capture authentic emotion and action intimately captured. Fang’s real goal is to become an astronaut. She hears the rockets launching every month from the nearby Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, which tests Long March rockets, as well as launching several satellites into space. Every month, Fang watches the rocket launch; despite her family and her education, she wants to launch too.

Review by: Joshua Hunt

Enemy Alien, dir. Gabriel Murphy

Enemy Alien is based on a letter sent by Joseph Murakami to a young historian in 1988. He was 14 years old, born and raised in Darwin when the second world war started. Joseph and his family, with the exception of his father, were all Australian citizens at the time. Despite this fact they all get forcefully moved to an internment camp by armed soldiers. The story unfolds with the letter narration leveraged as the main plot driver. As backdrop to this we see a mix of live reenactments, photographs and archival footage. Much of the live scenes are also shot in a way that almost resembles stills, favoring slow movements, long gazes and shots of the surroundings over any sudden movements.

The poetic nature of the writing combined with the slow pace of the imagery makes for an uneasy feeling throughout. The words get amplified by letting their impact take center stage and their emotional weight is felt throughout, impressively so since the tone of the letter is also largely calm and collected.

War affects so much more than just the soldiers on the front line, and issues of racial bias and immoral actions can far too easily get swept under the rug when there is a more prominent threat to point towards. In the case of Joseph this meant not only being displaced and feeling unwelcome in his own country, but also losing his father in the process - which leaves a bad taste in the mouth even for us as viewers as we see the flags of peace waving on the streets.

Review by: Robin Hellgren



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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