A strange and glaring omission from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was a block or blocks of screening time only for its shorts. Two dozen shorts were included in this year’s slate, appended to longer films sometimes with only the loosest association between the two. This number represents an increase over a year ago, but without at least one offering of a shorts program as in past years, the festival’s mostly one-and-done system for packing 100 films into four days rendered several unseeable, including 2011 Oscar-nominee Killing in the Name and the appealingly titled Everybody’s Nuts, for instance, which screened in overlapping times first thing Thursday morning.
Those shorts a viewer just happens to see in the course of the weekend range from the completely constructed, Junk Palace, to the smooth cinéma vérité that is Virgil Vernier’s Pandore. Shot from one location over several nights outside a Parisian nightclub, Vernier’s 35-minute film is a marvelous example of minimal authorial presence. No titles. No heavy-handed effort to place these scenes into some largely unnecessary context. Barely a closing credit sequence. He tracks mercurial host and bouncer Mathieu, a self-described asshole who, with steely resolve, determines the fate of late-night Parisians, whether they’ll be allowed to enter the black, expansive, to us impenetrable doorway behind him. The randomness of his process, at times seemingly constructed to incite within him the biggest laugh, offers some very real tension. For a half-hour, it’s yes or no, you, not you, two instead of four, the obvious benefit of knowing the owners, and real sympathy on the part of the viewer for the man who has to clean up the cigarette butts come dawn. That Vernier holds the viewer’s attention with only miniscule narrative episodes is a credit to the quality of his eye. His camera occasionally wanders away from the doorway to find a story unfolding just a few steps over: a drunken fight, the kicked-out girl offering up the inflated ego and ramblings you won’t see without being out at three in the morning. Vernier and his editor Eulalie Korenfield did a beautiful job cutting this film together, and the result is a wonderful, rare, and rarely recognized treat: the man-on-the-street film, minus the man.
More familiar in its documentary approach is Jessica Edwards’s Tugs, a quick glimpse at one family’s set of tugboats, part of a vital and thriving system that handles the massive freighters operating around New York harbor. No surprises in this movie’s formula: Shots of the tugboats in action are intercut with talking-head interviews with captains and operatives who have been in the business for generations, extolling on the virtues of so well preserved a system for a city people seem to forget is still a maritime hub. The film, with its blue-collar color and New York sensibility, recalls a Full Frame short from a year ago, Seltzer Works, about a traditional seltzer bottler in Brooklyn. Where that film had a certain last-of motif (as in, this one guy is keeping this industry alive), Tugs delights in the necessity and longevity of its central focus. The result, despite the images from the annual tugboat race and a few shots offering a small how-to on bringing in a ship, is a lack of narrative interest. What is driving this story, apart from the fact that tugboats are necessary, real, and, in comparison to the ships they shove and tow, just darling? Tugs is by no means a misfire; you’ll need to look hard to find a 10-minute film with more consistently beautiful cinematography. Just, any film needs to be driving its viewer somewhere. A ride on a tugboat isn’t enough.
The single most accomplished short of those I saw at Full Frame 2011 was Edinburgh College of Art student Jane McAllister’s Caretaker for the Lord. She follows Tommy Healy, 78-year-old all-purpose handyman at St. Luke’s and St. Andrew’s Parish Church in Glasgow—one of many Scottish churches almost certain to be on the cash-strapped Church of Scotland’s chopping block—as he keeps various rooms in good working order for the local community groups and post-service lunches. The film is a masterpiece of composition, no small accomplishment at any time, but compounded here with McAllister listed as director, producer, editor, and cinematographer. Brilliant shot selections frame out heads and bodies and offer, at various times, a vital detail or a perfect joke; one of the biggest laughs of Full Frame came with the shot of Healy’s feet four rungs up a ladder, while in the background is a church banner emblazoned “He is risen.” The editing adds to the levity by bouncing between Healy’s very deliberate mopping of an empty room and the uses for that room, from a lightly attended taekwondo session to variety of dance classes for elderly ladies. Yet McAllister’s film is more than the slice of a fading Scottish life it initially appears to be. A sad story emerges as Healy, along with the irrepressible women of his parish, face the mishandling of their church. Their good humor comes with very little chance of a sound return, as their brand new priest, in the film’s one shot of an actual service, stunningly admonishes his congregants for not placing in him their complete and unquestioning faith, clearly a bitter pill to swallow. The subtlety through which this storyline develops is McAllister’s boldest stroke, and the perfect cap to this display of profound artistic talent.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.