Short of the Week

Born Sweet

15 year old Vinh lives in a remote Cambodian village and has accepted his destiny – to be sick for the rest of his life with incurable arsenic poisoning. A chance to star in a karaoke video about the dangers of arsenic allows Vinh to wonder if he truly knows his destiny. Winner of over 9 major festival awards.

In curating the site, and especially with the debut of our new submission system, we’ve been noticing many, many more quality long-shorts. These 20+ minute gems are films we’re usually reluctant to program, not due to any inherent bias,  just the knowledge that we’re a web-based platform and it is accepted wisdom (backed up by our own analytic data) that longer work has a tough time finding an audience on the internet.

Sometimes films are too good too deny however, which is the case today. Usually we take the weekends off (perfect time to fire up the Apple TV and watch some shorts for the next week) but we’re going to run an experiment on weekends this next month, and see if these #longshorts resonate with you, our dear audience. Give us feedback in the comments or on Twitter and Facebook if you like the idea of featuring these longer works!

To debut the series, we have one of the leading lights of Documentary filmmaking, Cynthia Wade. Wade has been honored twice by Oscar: winner in 2007 for Freeheld, and a nominee last year for Mondays at Racine. Inbetween she made this film, Born Sweet, a winner at Sundance, Aspen and Palm Springs. It’s the only film of her’s not bought up by a prominent TV network, and thus we have the rare pleasure of enjoying it on Vimeo.

Wade has, obviously, received much praise for her work, and for me, the reason is her cinematic style. To work and succeed in directing documentaries for over 15 years takes more than an ability to find intriguing subjects, it takes an ability to craft stories well. Wade not only is able to build an emotionally resonant arc, she does so with a narrative director’s eye. Watch the opening sequence of Born Sweet—its lyrical establishing shots, its elegant camera movements—this is work that makes silly any ideas of demarcation between “film” and “documentary”. Purists (and there are a few in the docu-world still) might blanche—is that opening speech by Vinh actually captured? Or is it written and performed? Is the scene of him looking through the window at 1:47 (such a perfect visual metaphor) staged?

For me it makes no difference. To make a film is to inherently engage in artifice through selective editing. This is a point that Frederick Wiseman, the pioneer of observational documentary agrees with strongly, so anything else is simply a matter of degree. If some staging is necessary to the narrative structure by all means go ahead! Especially if it allows Wade to get rid of the dreaded “talking head”.

Indeed that is one of the nice stylistic elements of the film that should be remarked on. Vinh’s interview is told in voice over and no where on screen is anyone shown directly relating to the camera. A few textcards illuminate a bit of backstory, but the exposition is primarily handled in camera in clever ways—aid workers teaching the kids a song on how to identify the arsenic-poisoned water pumps or a doctor examining Vinh’s family and explaining their prognosis.

The result is a beautiful film that travels into the 3rd world, but is impressively tasteful—it is not a polemic against the do-goodery that poisoned the village in the first place, nor is it a call for action to create change. It does not raise up the villagers or Vinh on an elevated platform of purity,  it honestly tells the simple story of a “sweet” kid. Its uplift is thus earned and not saccharine, the tears in my eyes genuine, not forced.

It is immaculate filmmaking, and if she was a feature filmmaker, Wade might be a household name. But, she specializes in the odd world of documentary shorts, where many of the most praised films work in the #longshort format. While not the most accessible to audiences, these films have flourished in the United States due to the patronage of HBO and PBS. If you have HBO, set your calendar for October 14th, which will be the premiere of Mondays at Racine, and learn more about her films at her website.

Co-Founder of Short of the Week, Sondhi lives in Brooklyn working as a Curator for Vimeo. Follow his musings on online video, direct distribution and branded content: @jasondhi.
  • Jojo

    Go for the longshorts ! For documentaries, makes a lot of sense

  • Anonymous

    Loved it!