Riding high after winning an Oscar earlier this year for their documentary short, Period. End of Sentence (available on Netflix), filmmaking duo Sam Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi are back with what appears to be a typical followup for rising stars in the non-fiction realm—an immensely enjoyable, quirky profile doc tailor-made for online audiences. “Appears” is the operative word however.
(SHn(y)o͞of) follows an older couple, Bill and Tonya Martin, who possess a delightful secret—a shared language they’ve dubbed “Martinese” and which they’ve spent their married life developing. Birthed as an in-between form of communication for their once-young children, the Martin’s just never stopped expanding the language. Now Martinese encompasses a vast dictionary with many specific words that don’t have a direct analog in English such as “poppix” which means “in the mood to clean”, or “groonx” which means to suddenly lose one’s appetite after biting down on something unexpected.
With their children now grown and out of the house, the couple find themselves speaking Martinese almost exclusively. It is charming, as they share to the camera little memories and mementos, such love poems composed in Martinese, but it has a melancholy twinge. Martinese creates a shared, private world that draws the couple closer and reinforces their bond, but a language spoken by only two people is inherently exclusionary, and in their post-retirement life, with their kids gone, as a viewer you fear that this quirk is simultaneously withdrawing the couple from the rest of the world.
Utilizing time-honored documentary techniques like fly-on-the-wall observational shooting paired with direct interviews and archival home movies, the film is a perfectly accomplished example of what has made the documentary profile format so appealing to audiences in the internet age—it has a great and unusual hook, the performances Bill and Tonya onscreen are warm and endearing, and the production has just enough pizzazz in its edit and visual presentation to engage. It also does something very sly that too many documentaries fail to include, which is that it trojan horses a melancholy theme into its narrative, examining “empty-nest syndrome” in older couples—a narrative preoccupation hidden underneath the top-level “gee-whiz” human interest angle of its premise.
As a profile documentary it is a stellar example of the form. However, SPOILER WARNING…
It is not a documentary.
In first viewing the film as it came through our submission process, we were fooled. Editors Chelsea Lupkin and Rob Munday had a multi-part back and forth debating the virtues of the film completely under the pretense that the Martins were real people rather than actors portraying scripted roles (I don’t mean to throw them under the bus, I was fooled too). In retrospect there are aspects that make this revelation feel obvious: we noted that the intro in particular feels scripted, and the same kind of deeper thematic examination that I praised earlier is hard to achieve in documentaries for a reason.
I have mixed feelings on the revelation, and it is clear that Davis and Zehtabchi are in some ways playing with fire. Audiences love a good twist, but they dislike being tricked, and this project plays dangerously upon that line. As a scripted work it also gets judged on completely different criteria than a documentary does, as the inherent draw of a real-story is no longer applicable.
Classmates at USC together, Davis and Zehtabchi have come to acclaim through documentaries, but never considered themselves exclusively documentarians, and thought a project like this might be a fun way to subvert expectations following their Oscar success. Mission accomplished I’d say! Seeing the film through this new lens, there is still much to admire outside of the trickery. The performances of John Combs and Robin Roth are lovely and naturalistic, and the development (and performance!) of the Martinese language suddenly becomes much more impressive when it is revealed to be a fictitious construct. Zehtabchi is currently developing a feature narrative about her family’s immigration to the US from Iran in the 90’s, so showcasing her ability to direct actors is an important result from this film, but the pair are also continuing to work in non-fiction, and (SHn(y)o͞of) oddly serves as a great validator of their skills in that arena as well. It takes a deep understanding of a form to be able to deconstruct it, and crafting a faux-version of a doc is actually a great way to show off one’s mastery of what makes the format work on a deeper formal level.
What do you think about (SHn(y)o͞of)? Were you taken unaware by its sleight-of-hand? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.