Feature films may get the lion’s share of attention, but a film festival just isn’t a festival without a strong shorts program. Fortunately, this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival does not disappoint, offering a diverse selection of documentary shorts from around the world.
“E14,” a 19-minute UK short directed by Peiman Zekavat and produced by Sanam Jehanfard, is a fine example of a film that picks a concept and sticks with it, offering a look at the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic from within a high-rise in East London (E14 is the postal code for buildings on the peninsula known as the “Isle of Dogs”). Zekavat takes a mock-anthropological approach to the film, with voice of God narration describing the doings of his fellow humans as if they were polar bears caught on film in a nature documentary. Like a bored person enduring lockdown, the camera spends most of its time looking out the window, and given that the unit is in a densely-populated area, there’s actually quite a few people to observe (some of them clearly thinking they enjoy more privacy than they do). At the same time, overheard media pronouncements and the pseudo-scientific narration create a distancing effect that makes the most ordinary activities seem strange.
Elahe Esmaili’s “The Doll,” also produced by Esmaili, takes the viewer to Iran and straight into a maelstrom of conflicting stories and desires that could easily support a full-length feature (the short is 33 minutes). Divorced father Alireza runs a photography studio where, one day, a customer approaches him and proposes marriage between his son, a college student, and Alireza’s daughter Asal, who is all of 14. Several of Alireza’s siblings weigh in on the proposed marriage (the women, not surprisingly, think child marriage is a bad thing), but he thinks she’s old enough, and so does she. This will give Western viewers pause: Asal may be mature for her age, and such age mismatches are not uncommon in her society, but she’s still a child more concerned with gummy bears than with planning her adult life. And there are other complications—for one, Alireza wants to marry a woman who may have been the cause of his divorce; for another, he may be pushing Asal’s marriage because he wants her out of the house so he can proceed with his own matrimonial plans. There are also financial considerations regarding the marriage, and then COVID-19 arrives, and both Asal and her little brother are infected. “The Doll” is a remarkably engaging film, especially given that it’s composed primarily interviews to camera, and if it leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, that’s all part of the plan.
Sierra Pettengill’s 18-minute doc “The Rifleman,” produced by Arielle de Saint Phalle, uses archival materials, mainly TV clips, to explore an All-American subject: gun culture. In case you’ve been wondering why so many apparently rational Americans lose their shit at the suggestion that some regulation of guns might be a good thing, this film offers an explanation based on relatively recent history (hint: it has nothing to do with lonesome cowpokes roaming the prairie). An early title card warns viewers that some of the materials use racial slurs, reflecting their historical time; what is remarkable is the attitudes behind those slurs have mostly gone underground (becoming more covert rather than disappearing), while gun mania has become ever louder and more public. “The Rifleman” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Mike Plante and Jason Willis’ “We Were There to be There,” produced by Plante, takes the viewer back to the anything-goes world of 1970s San Francisco, where maintaining a sense of propriety was the last thing anyone was interested in. That’s within a specific subculture, to be sure, but that culture was an influential one. The film is ostensibly centered on a 1978 concert by the punk bands the Cramps and the Mutants for psychiatric patients at Napa State Hospital, but it’s really much more about explaining the context in which such a concert came to be. Plante and Willis’s approach to filmmaking is appropriately punk, layering images for a handmade effect, and drawing on a wealth of interviews with band members, hospital workers, and a whole lot more, as well as black-and-white footage of the concert itself. It was the seventies, man, and if you weren’t there, this 27-minute film will give you some sense of what it was like for those who were. | Sarah Boslaugh
These shorts and more are available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.