Maria's Way, by Edinburgh College of Art student Anne Milne, is a bright and engaging high-definition video visit with the eponymous elderly woman, who everyday sits alongside the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In watching her sell artifacts and passbook stamps (more often she is dozing or grousing about the many passersby who have little to no use for her roadside stall), the documentary short puts quiet observation ahead of a hard, clearly defined explanation of Maria's effort, far larger in faith than a return on physical toil. While a low-arching story does, in the end, play out (give an approving nod to the up-and-coming Milne's promise and skill as a documentarian), the director's trust that viewers will see the short story through provides an elegant endorsement of artistic patience.
The same could be said of Yung Chang's Ali Shan, about another daily ritual: a gathering to watch the sunrise at Taiwan's fabled "ancestor mountain." A wordless six minutes capture the mass of people making the commute, shuffling into viewing positions, and watching the celestial payoff with an air of religious solemnity. The film is a festival standout if for no other reason than it counters the widespread presence of hi-def video with a little old-fashioned celluloid grit and imperfection; a red process streak occasionally washes in on the right side of the frame, evoking the coming morning. Sure, being a genuine film, Ali Shan is an odd candidate for providing the festival's strongest statement on narrative efficiency and expense, but with its well-paced development of a nice sentiment (take a moment every day), it provides a marked return on the audience and filmmaker's investment.
More heavy-handed in its efforts to guide the viewer is Sergio Oksman's Notes on the Other, in which a booming voiceover ruminates on the ripple effects that followed the young Hemingway's invention of the Adventurous Writer persona after seeing a man injured during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Oksman cleverly connects that moment of appropriation to several more (an ongoing international Hemingway lookalike contest and the fact that the injured man's grandson still owns the shop on the corner where he fell), but the film fails to overcome a certain sense of self-righteousness in its elucidation of the facts. The narrator tells us that Hemingway wrote an infamous article in which he claimed to be the gored man in a tone too domineering not to feel like we were all being blamed for buying into the lie. Later, he almost spits out the words "some American tourist will watch from [Hemingway's] balcony," adding a strange tradition to the writer's legacy.
A final note to its credit: Notes on the Other features one of the more ingenious and thrilling cinematic moments at this year's Full Frame. A long take captures Pamplona's main event from behind a wall the grandson erects to protect him from hard-charging bulls, as he rushes to photograph the terror in the runners' faces.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.