‘Can you remind me again why you are making this?’ asks Sook, an undocumented immigrant working thanklessly in an L.A. Koreatown spa, and the subject of Hong Kim’s Se Shin Sa. This is the first and last time anyone in the 14 short films screened at Dublin Doc Fest will directly address a filmmaker. For the rest of the evening, we are silently immersed in an unblinking presentation of love, devotion, longing, isolation and violence – all filmed from a distance, but with striking intimacy.
This year’s Dublin Doc Fest takes place in the Royal Hibernian Academy, surrounded by sculptures and striking photography. Complimentary gin and tonic has been provided, courtesy of Dublin City Gin (thank you have a good night you too), a crowd of festival fans and first-timers is gathered in the lobby, and festival director Tess Motherway (TM) is shaking hands left right and centre.
For the fifth year running, Tess explains to attendees the objective of Doc Fest: creating a space for short documentary films to stand in their own light and say their piece.
Q: Starting easy, what’s a good documentary you’ve seen lately?
TM: ‘I was actually at Dok Leipzig like a week ago and I saw some cool virtual reality shorts. I feel like that’s a really big future for filmmaking in general, not just for documentary.
‘My go-to is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, it’s an amazing film… it’s not one to take lightly, you’d have to find the right moment to watch it, but if you do it’s so incredible. We do have German films entered into Doc Fest every year and [the Holocaust] is still a topic that filmmakers are engaging with in their documentaries.’
There’s a welcome eclecticism to the topics of Doc Fest, thanks to the broad theme of the festival itself. ‘We don’t set a brief or theme for people to submit,’ Tess explains, ‘And that’s the joy, for me, of doing this festival… I always like to see what topics come to us rather than setting a brief for people to react to.’
Q: Does the curation process for Doc Fest involve a team, or do submissions come directly through you?
TM: ‘[Film Studies academic] Tom Wallis has been with me for the last two years, and that’s important… I do worry I’m attracted only to a certain kind of filmmaking. It’s important to have more than one pair of eyes on the films.’
Q: In all the films bar two, the subjects never addressed the fact they were in a documentary. Do you think the absence of the documentarian is a feature of short documentary films?
TM: ‘I think that it’s a mode of filmmaking perhaps, and that’s always shifting and changing and people are always experimenting… It really is a choice, but sometimes that choice is taken out of your hands.
‘That’s what’s so fascinating about documentary, you go with a plan but you’re dealing with real people and real situations and often that changes your film, and including that development and that relationship — obviously it’s a choice whether or not to include that in your film, but sometimes it becomes so interwoven that it’s out of your hands.’
TM: ‘I think you have to be really careful, you don’t want to jolt your audience too much. UZU is very intense, it’s very divisive, there’s a lot going on. It’s a very powerful film, but you wouldn’t put that right beside Become Invisible, which is very quiet and gentle and sensitive. I would always kind of build up to those films gradually. You can’t just throw those in the mix and give people a heart attack.’
The festival is sponsored by the Media Studies department of Maynooth University. The second programme (three student films) is introduced by department head Professor Maria Pramaggiore, who explains that the programme will feature films picked by a panel of Maynooth students. One of these is Swiss film Whatever the Weather, the poetic animation of a woman’s bleak childhood.
Q: I’ve heard good things about Tower (2016), recommended as an animated documentary.
TM: ‘Actually that’s one of my favourites, the ever-elusive short animated documentary film! We [at Doc Fest] are very lucky in that we usually have one every year, it’s one of my favourite forms… but it makes a lot of sense that you would have someone’s story animated. It’s a great kind of reconstruction.’
Whatever the Weather clocks in at a curt 11 minutes, while the festival’s longest films — Tizian Büchi’s The Sound of Winter and Gaspard Kuentz’s UZU — are 27 minute long treks into the snowbound solitude of the Haut-Jura winter or the transcendent violence of the Matsuyama Dogo Autumn Festival.
Q: Is the ‘short’ nature of the Doc Fest films a necessity of budget, or does the runtime of the short documentary have its own merits?
TM: ‘For me it’s akin to writing a short story. People often have a misconception that short documentary films are easier, but I don’t think so at all. I think it’s actually harder, because you’re leaving out so much more. I’ve only made short documentaries myself and I can tell you that you have to go through hours and hours of footage, and to condense it down into a short form, I think, is a whole skill in itself… With documentary you can make all the plans in the world, but you’re dealing with real people, real life situations, and they can take you on a totally unexpected turn. You’re always contending with that.’
What ties every film at Doc Fest together is an eye for capturing life that every filmmaker has shown; from an insight into post-Brexit sentiments in Clacton-on-Sea, to the daily life of migrant workers in The Fourth Kingdom, or the evolving Irish rap and hip-hop scene of The Truth About Irish Hip Hop. One of the festival highlights is Hamid Jafari’s The Rock, opening with an Iranian woman trying to break a single boulder for an unbroken, unbearably tense seven minutes. She succeeds; the title card appears; the audience goes wild.
Q: Do you think there are any filmmakers in the 2017 Doc Fest roster that people should keep an eye out for?
TM: ‘I know this is a really kind of on-the-fence answer, but they really all have their own merits! I mean, UZU for me, I haven’t really seen a short that captured such intensity. I really liked the choice of shots, he really took a chance putting the camera right in there, and there’s times where you see nothing and all you can hear is the madness.
‘The Rock, I really wasn’t sure about that film, but my colleague Tom was really championing it — and in the end it was one of the best films and it really won me over, and I think it was one of the most talked-about films, too.’
Q: UZU went into the documentary as almost a horror film. Is that something you’re interested in, seeing documentaries that cross into other film genre territories?
TM: ‘One hundred percent! You’re right, it’s definitely gory, it’s quite dark, and those still images where the men are preparing for this battle — it’s a like a war film as well, in a way. I’m always interested where the line blurs, anything left of centre, and to be challenged by a film.
‘We choose quite challenging films too because I want to give our audience respect… they want to be challenged by the content too. And that’s what we’re about, bringing films that people wouldn’t ordinarily get to see on the big screen.’
Documentary filmmaking can easily become lost in short film programmes, Tess explains. ‘The Galway Film Fleadh for example, their shorts programmes are about three hours long and they’re absolutely a marathon for their audience. And there might only be two short documentaries included in there, and they’re not really getting a chance to shine, you know?’
What Doc Fest has once again brought this year is an opportunity for short documentary films to shine in Dublin, an accessible and affordable space for people to see unrecognized films, good films, good craic, and free drinks.