AAFF screens informative but repetitive documentary shorts

Sunday, March 20, 2016 - 6:58pm

It’s not easy to generalize the variety of films shown at this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival, but solitary living was a running thread in the tenth set of shorts that were screened on March 20. The strong production value and quality of subjects and actors filmed was consistent throughout.

The collaboration of several countries was showcased as well, demonstrating how film can allow diverse groups of people to coalesce. This was most notable in the documentary “Le Boudin,” in which German teenager Elias Greißler shares his experience of being forced into the French Foreign Legion. Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas effectively strengthens the authority of Greißler’s story by splicing it with testimony from Portuguese serviceman Nuno Fialho. The striking similarities between the two men’s experiences brings gravity to the young man’s scary time in military service with another country. The fact that the two subjects are so distant in age and country of origin makes the issue addressed in the documentary all the more real.

The highlight of the set is the documentary “Omnia,” by Amena Al Nowais of the United Arab Emirates. Omnia, a young Egyptian woman, retells a horrifying childhood experience when she was in excruciating pain and could not use her legs to get away. Her blunt, simple language powerfully conveys her suffering as a result of female genital mutilation the way she felt it, without any preconceived ideas clouding her truth. This piece understandably received the most applause.

Several of the short films covered the daily routines of individuals with unique occupations, which became repetitive. “The Digger” shows Pakistani caretaker Zeib Kahn, who tends to a massive, pre-Stone Age graveyard in an Emirati desert. Other than a few shots of preserved skeletons in high-tech facilities, the short film mainly consists of a lone man traversing the desert for 24 minutes. There’s little activity onscreen to merit such a long running time. At one point, a car with exuberant music blasting through the windows zooms past Kahn. At that moment, I pitied the caretaker, who feels obliged to preserve nature without so much as a thank you. But it also made me question why the filmmaker found his story compelling.

“Sorelle Povere Di Santa Chiara,” or “Poor Clares” in English, tells the story of a monastery in San Marino committed to living in poverty, but it’s more of a series of photographs than a narrative. The monastic morning routine documented by the film consists of sewing, cooking, ironing, tending the garden and taking care of livestock and crops. With such a mundane subject, I’m disappointed that filmmaker Nina Danino didn’t go beyond the surface of these nuns. Investigating why these elderly women are committed to such a lifestyle would have made a far more interesting portrait of their lives.

“Baba Dana Talks to the Wolves” was more successful in its attempt to paint a portrait of an unusual lifestyle. In the short, 85-year old woman Baba Dana lives by herself in the Bulgarian mountains without electricity and most other modern conveniences. She has become very good at identifying and handling encounters with the local wolves. The lovely panning shots of her house and surroundings capture how she lives without taking away focus from its subject. The warm colors of the film convey the high regard held towards the rural woman.

Many of the short films take advantage of the scenic landscapes they were filmed in by using gorgeous establishing shots. Though this technique makes the films feel more like postcards than stories at times, it’s still fascinating to see the beauty of faraway lands. This is most evident in “Solace,” in which a girl goes through cycles of setting the table inside her plain, silent house, and taking care of chickens in the beautiful outdoors, alive with the songs of birds. The actors never speak in the film, robbing “Solace” of the opportunity to explain its intentions through dialogue. The conclusion of the film is puzzling, as the girl takes matters into her own hands when a source of conflict is never directly presented. That being said, the farm she lives on is very pretty.

The filmmakers of two of the short films were present at the screening: “Solace” ’s Katarzyna Plazinska and “Baba Dana” ’s Ralitsa Doncheva. After the show, they discussed the sources of inspiration for their work. Their answer was short: they wanted to capture the landscape of their hometowns, both in Eastern Europe. Other than that, little explanation was offered to help deepen my understanding of their work. When asked for questions from the audience, it wasn’t surprising that they got none. Their films’ thin plots spoke for themselves.

Though the set of short films is a mixed bag, it was a worthwhile experience to attend. It was a fantastic opportunity to see work from around the world, in no small part because they were well done. The main problem was the lack of dramatic tension: why am I compelled to see people repeat what they normally do? Hopefully these filmmakers will fight for their audience’s attention more in the future.