Documentary is a subtle art form, where one creative misstep can overshadow a good effort. Take Born Sweet, Cynthia Wade’s beautifully shot documentary short about rural Cambodian villages where relief efforts to build accessible wells unwittingly tapped arsenic deposits, resulting in an epidemic of arsenic poisoning, symptoms ranging from persistent coughing or diarrhea to cancer. Modern relief efforts have built clean wells and provided education to local children via the runaway popularity of karaoke. At the heart of the story is Vinh, an often-smiling 15-year-old boy whose dreams of karaoke stardom are not subdued by persistent illness. The vast majority of the film is an accomplished, human-face story of a problem that affects two million people across Southeast Asia. It may be the best-crafted short at this year’s Full Frame, with multiple shots perfectly framed to fill the screen with dynamic visions of Cambodia as both a beautiful and underserved landscape. Few movies are also this well meaning.
From an artistic standpoint, however, one very brief scene stinks like a weed in the garden. In Phnom Penh, a relief worker who’s just returned from Vinh’s village is writing a new karaoke track to alert children to the human tragedy of arsenic poisoning. In talking through the project with an engineer, he notes that a sick child in the lead role would really drive the point home—and he has just the kid. Called a point-of-view break in the world of fiction, the moment is a lie to the audience. How did Wade record this moment exactly? The relief worker could have made the decision to cast Vinh in the village and invited the filmmakers to come back to get the meeting. Or the moment is a reenactment. Or they could be in collusion from the beginning (the worker was credited as the film’s field producer, so it’s likely the third route). It creates a dramatic shift in tone while covering up some off-stage decision. If that decision were relayed to the audience, or if the scene was left on the hard drive, no mistake would exist. As it is, the story loses focus and, more importantly, forfeits the craft’s essential attribute: spontaneous discovery. So much for an otherwise noble documentary journey.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.