Tuesday, December 11, 2012

AIFF 2012: What Makes A Good Documentary? Cutting Loose and Ping Pong

Jim Parker - AIFF Docs
[This is a followup of the post on my choices for best films.]

Documentaries were the strongest program in the festival this year and as I mentioned in one post,  Saturday they were scheduled so that one could actually see six of the seven in competition.    That shows someone paying attention to details.  That someone most certainly is Documentary Programmer Jim Parker and his programming partner Cindy Franklin. 

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good documentary this week.  A lot of this was spurred by watching Roadmap to Apartheid. I thought it did a lot of things extremely well, but it also seemed overly one-sided - unnecessarily so.  I'll explain my reactions in detail in a later post.  But it raised for me the question of how fair does a documentary have to be?  After all, shouldn't documentaries 'document'?

So, before explaining my choices for best documentary, I'd like to come up with some criteria.

  1. Documentation
    This includes getting all the most pertinent information - both factual and emotional data - that helps the viewer understand the situation covered by the film.  This is probably hardest for reviewers to assess when they aren't knowledgeable about the subject of the film.
  2. Truth
    In feature movies the film maker can create her own world.  In documentaries one is expected to present one's representation of the truth as accurately as possible.  This includes the viewpoints of the various sides in any situation.  And if one chooses to present just one perspective of the situation, then this should be stated clearly. 
  3. Story Telling
    This is about how good the movie itself is, including such factors as:
    1. Story is told as efficiently and interestingly as possible - which means the film moves along without scenes that, interesting or beautiful as they might be, aren't necessary to telling the story.
    2. Pace, audio, visual quality are all as good as they can be to keep the viewer engaged.
  4. Significance How important is the topic in the greater scheme of things?  While this shouldn't detract a film maker from engaging in something that interests him, if two films are otherwise equal, I would pick the one with greater significance. 
  5. The Whole Package
    How it all works together.
Because there were so many good documentaries, I'm going to do several posts on them.  This one focuses on Cutting Loose and  Ping Pong.

Using these criteria, I rated Cutting Loose the best documentary.  Actually, that's not true at all.  My gut reaction was that Cutting Loose was the best and then I started thinking about why.  So this film and Roadmap to Apartheid spurred me to write up my criteria.  My choice is not one I'd fight to defend.  There were a lot of good films and I could argue persuasively for all of them, including Roadmap.   So why Cutting Loose?

Cutting Loose worked because it was the best Whole Package.  Everything worked.  The dilemma for any documentary maker is the conflict between documenting - archiving all the important details for history - and making a good movie.  It's a dilemma I know well as a blogger and my readers would probably agree that I err on the side of documentation, especially when I'm dealing with important public policy issues.

Cutting Loose is about a contest for convicts who work as prison barbers and hairdressers in Scotland.  In another nice touch by the documentary programmers, it was paired with Ping Pong, a film about a very different contest  - the world championships for ping pong players over 80 years old.  There was a similar structure in both films - focus on a few of the  individual competitors before the event, and then showcase the event. 

Ping Pong did more documentation.  We know much more about each contestant.  Its subject matter was both light and important.  While ping pong might not be that important among the world's issues (though it played a big role in relations between China and the U.S.)  the topic of aging is.  We saw people between 81 and 100, who, despite their age and its accompanying physical ailments, were able to perform highly skilled physical tasks.  I would say it was a reminder of the importance of having a goal and hope to make life worth living.

That same message comes through in Cutting Loose, which found the golden mean between documentation and story telling.  The critical message I got from the film was how respecting and trusting prisoners - getting to use the scissors in prison -  gave them a sense of both respect, responsibility, and pride, which was important if they weren't going to return to prison after their release.  My daughter has taught me the importance of hair to one's self image and the movie echoes this with the challenge to the barbers to not mess up the hair of inmates they live with.

This film used just enough documentation to give us an awareness of a world most of us don't know.   And since crime is a major issue in the world and since prisoners seem among the least deserving of sympathy, it's good to be able to see them as human beings who can overcome past mistakes.  And as with the octogenarians in Ping Pong the barbers and hairdressers in Cutting Loose gained a reason to live through what they did.

So, for the sake of getting the message across, we got enough documentation.  Then the film makers took what they had and made a well paced movie with good visuals and music that told the story in 29 minutes.  AND, they probably had the best title in the festival with two words that captured the idea of barbering and getting out of prison.

I'd add that as Francis Duffy walks along the shoreline in his blue and white striped shirt reflecting, I was puzzled by what language he was speaking.  But as he went on, I began to hear some of the words as the ones in the subtitles.  You can get a sense of this and of the whole film in SXSW YouTube trailer below.

My hat's off to the film makers Adrian McDowall and Finlay Pretsell.  I want to let you know that though the festival didn't see fit to award your film, I did.

Sorry that this came out much more academic than I intended.  As I said, I tend to err on the side of documentation over entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. You said,"Sorry that this came out much more academic than I intended. As I said, I tend to err on the side of documentation over entertainment."

    ...and for me the world is a poorer place for it.
    We are entertaining ourselves to death.

    As for Ping Pong, it is the one film my husband and I plan... to see.
    We play Ping Pong (or Wiff-Waff as it was originally called in UK). A friend calledl me last week and said WE HAD TO SEE IT! Review in local art film threatre caught her eye.

    (We usually watch 5-15 movies a week via digital TV's movie channels.)


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