Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Silverdocs: Shorts 4: Beyond Belief

Shorts 4: Beyond Belief

It appears that everyone who attends Silverdocs uses Netflix. As an expression of, “Oh, I would like to see that movie you’re talking about but I never got around to it,” I have heard the phrase, “I’ve got to put that in my Netflix,” everywhere I’ve been within a mile radius of the AFI Silver Theatre. I am amazed that a short form has not yet come into common parlance. In our house we’ve at least settled on a plural form, “Netflices” like “indices” (pronounced IN-di-SEEZ) is the plural of “index.” I vote for the verb, “to Netflix.” So the expression would be, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to Netflix Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

This was a collection of six short films screened in the luxurious Theater 3 at the ungodly (pun intended) hour of 11:45 a.m. on a Sunday. This set of shorts was screened earlier in the week. I’m including the information from Silverdoc’s website about each film because they’re shorts and they need all the help they can get.

The Days and the Hours by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, USA, 2006, 8 Minutes

A thin paycheck separates many Americans from homelessness. Taking daytime refuge in church, they reflect on the lives they had before they lost their shelter.

This is the short that made the biggest impression. It opened with a series of closeups of hands, feet, heads, and candles. Then it panned to the front of the sanctuary where a small worship service was taking place. A beautiful overhead shot tracked across the pews filled with homeless people sleeping. The soundtrack is natural sounds of the location, particularly snoring. Then a voiceover starts. Men describe the jobs they held, the houses they lived in, the food they prepared. People wake up the sleeping homeless people and sweep the floors and pews where they slept. The homeless people pack up their belongings and walk to the door. In the doorway the light from outside seems blindingly white. The people are silhouettes against the white light as they step outside. Credits roll.

God Provides by Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, Canada, USA, 2007, 9 Minutes

In Katrina's aftermath, an exploration of faith and loss in Louisiana.

Church parking lot. A man in a wheelchair wheels up to a car and offers them a New Testament. A woman in an electric wheelchair moves down a street while the camera tracks along with her. It seems like the voiceover is her monologue, but the voice does not match her appearance. Insert of a lost person sign written with black marker on cardboard. A man digs through bushes looking for his belongings. A man blames the destruction on the wicked city of New Orleans. During the judgment of God, the innocent get hurt. The voiceover, presumably of the woman in the electric wheelchair, resumes. It says in the Bible you will suffer. God is not testing us. He knows the things you need. He will provide them. The destruction remains. The woman in the wheelchair arrives at the riverside and tilts herself back to lie in the sun. Credits roll. One of the credits is for a narrator. Was the voiceover “narration” and not the words of the woman in the wheelchair?

My Name is Ahmed Ahmed by Matthew Testa, USA, 2006, 9 Minutes

Ahmed, a Muslim American comedian, jokes about his name and about being brown. If his routine changes ideas about Muslims, it's a rare perk in the world of stand-up.

An emcee at a comedy club introduces Ahmed Ahmed at a live performance. The film uses the structure of a stand up routine, starting with his introduction and ending with the end of his routine and the comedy club audience applauding. In between there is a pretty standard interview of Ahmed Ahmed sitting in the comedy club with the stage in the background. Unfortunately, the lighting during the interview was really bad. It really lowered the quality of the film. And it’s a total bummer because that standard format interview really does give the filmmaker the opportunity to light properly whereas most of documentary film is stuck with whatever light is available. Ahmed Ahmed does man-on-the-street interviews. When people say what their stereotypes of Arabs are, the film cuts to inserts of Ahmed Ahmed dressed up as that stereotype. The inserts were well lit, but the costuming seemed a little Halloweeny. But maybe this was intentional, to mock the stereotype rather than fulfil the stereotype. At least, that would be my explanation if I didn’t have the budget for impressive costumes. During these man-on-the-street interviews, Ahmed Ahmed reads a number of statistics and occasionally these are intercut with people’s reactions. The editing here was a little spotty, so it seemed much more like a tool to get these facts into the film without using voiceover or intertitles. And in this case, a rather clumsily wielded tool. But the film was good about including a range of reactions to Arabs as opposed to all positive or all negative. The camera in the passenger seat watches Ahmed Ahmed drive while he tells his life story. He’s driving to a mosque. He prepares to pray and he explains about the ritual washing. He talks about his beliefs and what praying in a mosque means to him. He describes himself as an Egyptian Muslim, which I like because it recognizes both his religion and his nationality, which sort of makes the points that they shouldn’t be conflated. Sort of saying not all “Arabs” are Arab. He is changing people’s minds about Arabs. You can’t hate anybody when they’re making you laugh. The audience applauds at the end of his routine. Credits roll.

Orishas are Our Saints by John Kane, USA, 2006, 4 Minutes

A contemplative look at the modern practices of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. The stunning black and white film reverently shows rare images of the seaside rituals and devotions.

This looks like it was shot on black and white film. It might be video. Either way, it’s beautiful. The contrast is stunning. There is a gorgeous shot of a fishtank. A candle burning. A man goes to another man to read shells. He shakes them in his hands and throws them on a mat on a table, like rolling dice. A group of four people makes a sacrifice or an offering to the ocean. A voiceover says Santeria is a religion that came with Nigerian slaves to Cuba. The sounds are natural, but not synched to the visual. Credits.

A Son’s Sacrifice by Yoni Brook, USA, 2006, 27 Minutes

Imran quit being a Manhattan ad man to run the family Halal slaughterhouse in Queens. His faith and patience are tested during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

This short won the Silverdocs Audience Award for a Short. It’s the only film I watched that won an award at Silverdocs. I’m not sure what that says about my taste in films or the criteria for awards. I was sure some of the films I saw were award-worthy. The film opens with one of the subjects tells the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. The main titles appear. Imran, the son, is interviewed. The audio of his interview continues over images of him shaving. Traditional music is mixed perhaps a little too loudly on the soundtrack with the natural sounds synched to the image. Imran works with his father at their Halal slaughterhouse in Brooklyn. Customers pet and feed the animals. Imran’s father talks with the customers. He is then interviewed. He says he built this business from nothing and his son could destroy it in one minute. This is the funniest line of a pretty funny film. The father and son argue about how to run the business. Imran says he may not do things perfect, but don’t say he’s not Muslim. Imran’s mother at home makes tamales in the kitchen. His mother is Puerto Rican and his father is a Bangladeshi Muslim. The community rejected Imran. Imran shows off his collection of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings toys. Imran and his father speak to a police officer at the police station about an upcoming Muslim holiday. They explain it is a three-day celebration of Abraham’s sacrifice. They ask the police officer to be flexible. Flexible about what? Muslim inmates? People coming to their store? It’s not clear. Imran says he’s working hard to prove he is worthy. It is a clash of cultures, not a clash of individuals. Imran prays with others in a mosque. Imran’s dad speaks about his previous jobs and his gambling problem. He says parents have to show their children who they, the parents, are, who they are going to be, and what duty is owed to Allah. Imran and his father deal with trouble with a delivery. Imran’s mother and Imran put his bloodstained clothes into a fancy clothes washer and select a special setting for treating blood stains. Lambs are delivered to the slaughterhouse. Imran carries a lamb to a van. The man in the van asks him if he is Muslim. The van’s license plate says “ISLAM.” Don’t give up. Intertitle: Quir Ban. One person against an army. Customers are admitted one at a time to select a goat. The preparation for the slaughter is shown. Immediately after the slaughter is shown. But the act of slaughtering is not shown. Instead, the camera stays on Imran’s face as he slaughters. This is very different from the shocking images of religious sacrifices in Nepal in Living Goddess or Nigerian butchers in Workingman’s Death (http://www.afi.com/silver/new/nowplaying/2006/v3i5/dclabor.aspx#worki). The focus is on Imran and the customers watching Imran and his father watching him. Imran says he wasn’t expecting to slaughter, but someone had to go home sick. He says he was surprised when customers requested him over the other butchers. Imran’s father says the Muslims trusted his son to slaughter their animal. The slaughterhouse is empty. Imran’s clothes are stained with blood. At home Imran dresses in traditional clothes. He prays in a mosque in the same room as his father. Imran cries as he prays. Credits roll intercut with shots of celebration.

Paradise Drift by Martin Hansen, Netherlands, 2006, 13 Minutes

Hikers trek to a ridge for a shared mystic event. Viewers are left to create their own interpretation of this mysterious and calm nighttime endeavor.

If you thought Orishas are Our Saints was poetic and surreal, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The numbers 1, 2, and 3 white on black appear. Then black and white images of walking feet. The credits roll including the title card: Paradise Drift. People are running into a town. People are walking with candles in the middle of the night. A person speaks over a bullhorn. His words are unintelligible and possibly not in English. People sit on rocks. People take pictures. The audio track is natural sound, but it is very quiet. People continue walking. The angle is unclear it looks like they are walking downhill. Weird music starts and then stops. The sounds of bugs rise as the image is filled with bright white bugs. There is no voice over. There are no explanatory intertitles. People pray to themselves. People cry. People look at the sky expectantly. Tiny flying bugs fill the screen. People applaud. Then the bugs disappear. Is it sunrise? People pray. Weird music rises. Praying continues but we can’t hear what they are saying. The credits roll.

Q & A with Directors Matthew Testa (My Name is Ahmed Ahmed), Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice), Kristine Samuelson (The Days and the Hours), and Brian Cassidy (God Provides).

Q: How do you feel about your films being programmed together? Do you think your film fit the theme “Beyond Belief”?
A: Matthew Testa (My Name is Ahmed Ahmed): I thought it was a good fit. I hadn’t thought about the film in terms of religion. It was originally filmed as a competition entry for a contest about tolerance. Ahmed didn’t want to force religion too much. He just presented himself.
Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice): I was trying to tell a story of life in a place built around death. I didn’t focus on religion. I was more focused on the clash between generations. The director is Jewish and the Producer is Muslim and they were both interested in exploring this world of food.
Kristine Samuelson (The Days and the Hours): The church was really the only place in San Francisco where homeless people could sleep indoors during the day. The location served as an entrance into the subject of homelessness. Watching them sleep was very intimate. The project was amazing. It was very good to be a part of this group of films.
Brian Cassidy (God Provides): We experienced a plurality of faith and religion. It was not our original intention to focus on faith. We felt very detached from the images of the destruction after Katrina so we just went down there to get closer and less abstract. We found ourselves more disoriented and understanding less. We just happened to camp out in a church parking lot. Everyone has a faith-based lens through which they coped with this event.

Q: For Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice), how did you get so much access?
A: We spent a year finding a family that felt comfortable with us filming the slaughtering. The subjects have to want to make the film more than the filmmaker.

Q: I heard My Name is Ahmed Ahmed was screened in Cairo. How was it received?
A: Matthew Testa (My Name is Ahmed Ahmed): There is a different dynamic in the states than in the Muslim world. It was a break from their usual view of Muslims in America.

Q: For Brian Cassidy (God Provides), how did you go about conveying information about the incomprehensible?
A: That’s why it’s structured as a series of vignettes capped with an open-ended narration. It’s foolish to impose too much order on chaos. We wanted to keep it about impressions. That’s why there were no titles or identification of people or places. It was a meditation on place. It could happen in the future. It has happened in the past.

Q: For Kristine Samuelson (The Days and the Hours), the stories of individuals were very moving. Who was the man playing the piano and what music was he playing?
A: He was one of the homeless people sleeping in the church. On his way out he stopped to play. We ran over and filmed. He has a credit in the film.

Q: Something about subject matter dictating style. While shooting did you have style and structure in mind?

A: Brian Cassidy (God Provides): Our documentary was less content leading form. We looked for a fresh and restored sense of imagery. What does it mean to create an image? We had a lot we didn’t want to do. We found a structure that accomplishes disparate motives. We were playing with cinematography. The ratio of film shot to film used was very small. We didn’t blanket cover to find the story in the editing.
Kristine Samuelson (The Days and the Hours): We felt that it was very important to convey the dimensions of the space through camera movement and height. The height allowed us to see people appearing filed among the pews. We worked hard to set up those tracking shots and to record audio that reflected the big space and the sounds of sleeping. It was also challenging getting permissions from the subjects. We chased them down with releases as they were leaving.
Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice): I am a photographer and a filmmaker. I wanted to the film to be very visually appealing and play down the pervasive death. That is why we focused on only one slaughter and showed that slaughter with respect.
Matthew Testa (My Name is Ahmed Ahmed): I incorporated his act into the film. But we didn’t want to use title cards so we used the man-on-the-street. This film is more directed than verite, for example the set pieces with the costumes. They were just meant to have fun. Structurally there wasn’t time to go for an arch. It was more an impression of a person.

Q: Something about distribution venues for short documentaries.
A: Matthew Testa (My Name is Ahmed Ahmed): This film was actually an entry in a Current TV contest on tolerance. Current TV picked it up.
Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice): We screened the film at the slaughterhouse and it may be shown on PBS’s Independent Lens.
Kristine Samuelson (The Days and the Hours): Our goal when making the film was to get it into local schools.
Brian Cassidy (God Provides): This is on a compilation of short films from the Journal of Short Films. We’re taking it around to festivals and trying to find television distribution.

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