One of the primary critiques I have with many of the short docs I screen is that they feel overproduced—the focus is on craft rather than character, and the resulting pieces are more akin to cinematography show reels than short films. I’ve seen enough slow-motion dolly slider shots to last me a lifetime! The thing about Group—a co-directorial project between Jack Mullinkosson, Ben Allen, Claire Cai, Meghan Wells, and Haley Saunders—is that it’s the exact opposite of all that stylistic fluff. In fact, it’s remarkably under-produced. It’s a film that takes place entirely around a table in a bland conference room. We watch in observational style as men from various walks of life come together to deal with their emotions, confronting and processing their feelings in regards to anger, violence, and masculinity. That may sound like the stuff of wishy-washy Kumbaya, but it ends up being riveting: honest, real, and heartbreaking.
The bluntness by which these men talk about abuse is disturbing at times, yes, but it’s also quite fascinating as they recount their specific acts of violence in such a didactic manner. We can sense a desire to deflect—to minimize and rationalize their horrible acts. After all, it’s innately human to want to place the blame on someone else. Being honest with ourselves is never easy…
In that sense, the film is both hopeful and frustrating: hopeful, because, at times you feel like there are real breakthroughs being achieved—you can sense that these men want to become better people and that their therapist, Dave, genuinely has compassion for those participating. But, underneath that positive veneer there’s darkness as well: 1 out of 3 of these men will go on to abuse and hurt again.
“There are no evil people.”
Anger is such an irrational emotion. In retrospect, arguments and the violence that stems from them often seem so stupid, incited by the silliest and most inconsequential of things. But, in the moment, there’s only fire and rage. Group manages to capture that dynamic: it humanizes these men, but never lets them off the hook either. It’s remarkably simple in execution, but surprisingly complex in the themes and emotions it’s presenting.
As one of the directors, Jack Mullinkosson, relates to Short of the Week:
“There are no evil people. Evil exists within your own heart, it stews and boils and blisters, and if you don’t pay attention it will burst out of you. We wanted to show that the men that typically might be considered evil, are really just like you and I.”
Working with funding provided by the Dhont Family Foundation, the directorial team went to several meetings, but structured the film to feel like it was one session. This allowed them to explore Dave’s lessons in a more natural way.
As Mullinkosson continues:
“As filmmakers we weren’t just watching these men learn, we were learning ourselves. Recognizing character defects, accepting your partner’s decisions, and knowing conflict resolution are techniques that are useful for everybody for creating a healthy relationship. After spending so much time with the footage I found myself using some of Dave’s phrases on my friends. Dave would always say; “Does that make sense?” It’s a great way to make sure people are actually listening to understand, instead of listening to respond.”
Group won the Vimeo Staff Pick award at the New Orleans International Film Festival and, as such, was recently featured as a Staff Pick online. Mullinkosson and his fellow directors are working on finding funding to develop Group into a documentary feature.