Exploring the Short Film Blocks at the Salem Film Festival
By Chris Ricci
Each year, the Salem Film Festival celebrates the skill of documentary filmmakers with an incredible attention and appreciation towards their craft and the work they’ve done. Long-form documentaries are generally the mainstay of the festival, but no documentary film festival would be complete without a major focus on the more short-form approach. We are exposed to short documentaries on almost a daily basis thanks to things as simple as a news profile on a politician or an artist to something a bit more expansive like an episode of a documentary television show.
The effort behind a short documentary is quite impressive when you consider the extremely robust story that short film makers can condense in a half hour or less. Like every year, the Salem Film Festival showcased a wide range of short documentaries over the course of two separate blocks, but this year easily had some of the most impactful and well crafted stories yet. Over the course of each block, audiences were told stories about depression, government oppression, marijuana, a rockstar, video games, a carousel and so much more. Audiences also got a major treat in the form of director and subject attendance, resulting in two very excellent and very different question and answer segments.
The first block, showcased at Cinema Salem and sponsored by Deschamps Printing Co. featured some of the more introspective shorts of the two blocks, but also the most impactful. Dawn Dreyer and Andrea Love’s Fear told a complex story about depression through the eyes of a Chinese doctor who was a child during the Cultural Revolution by utilizing stop motion and animation sequences that brought a lightness to an otherwise heavy subject, while Frogman by Tyler Trumbo explored the life of a son whose father was a spy and how secrecy not only tore his family apart, but also made his relationship stronger with his father.
The incredibly timely NOT ONE STEP BACK brought viewers to North Carolina in December during the Moral Monday protests after a lame-duck governor defied voter rights by working to strip the newly elected governor of his power, while Adam Roffman’s more playful All The Presidents’ Heads introduced viewers to a man with a love for the country and his monolithic 20 foot busts of the first 43 presidents that he rescued and is keeping on his property. When it came to local stories, Mark Dugas’ Confessions of a Cannabis Consultant detailed the recent story of medical marijuana consultant Ezra Parzybok of Northampton and his passion for helping others being impacted by a government raid, while Johnny Physical Lives introduced viewers to a Tufts University student who used his passion for music and rock and roll in the face of terminal leukemia.
On hand during this block were directors Mark Dugas and Adam Roffman as well as co-producer of Johnny Physical Lives, Jeremy Wang-Iverson. For Mark, Confessions of a Cannabis Consultant was a welcome change directionally. “As far as shorts go, it was a really nice way for me to mix it up, because working in the long form is a completely different beast. I had to fight a lot of impulses with storytelling to whittle it down.” Jeremy added to this conversation by making it clear that director Josh Neuman “always knew it was going to be a short film in a way because of how Johnny’s life was cut short.” Incidentally, Johnny Physical Lives is exactly 22 minutes long, one minute for each year that Johnny lived. As for Adam, the short-form medium works perfectly for his other jobs. “I’ve been seeking out subjects that didn’t have enough story to fill a feature, but to fill a nice little short.” This being said, Adam would love to do a follow up on All The Presidents’ Heads, especially if Howard Hankins, the film’s main subject, got an opportunity to open the park of his dreams.
Subject-wise, the decision to make their stories was almost as fascinating as the story itself. For Adam, his inspiration for his short came from his previous short Spearhunter which was, as he put it, another documentary about someone who collects various things. “Someone I know went to the park when it was open who had actually seen Spearhunter and the memory of the park came to them and they told me all about it, so I just followed that story to find out what happened to these gigantic heads.” For Jeremy, local ties lead to the creation of Johnny Physical Lives, and it was actually a perfect setting for the final festival screening of this film. “The great thing about being able to screen this here in Salem is that I got to meet Jonathan at Tufts University in 1998 when we were freshmen, shortly after he became sick. Our other producer also went to school at Emerson, so it was a very local collaboration.” Regarding how his documentary came together, Mark Dougas offered up a fascinating insight. “For me, my wife is Facebook friends with Ezra and had known him for a very long time, and she had been following his story. One day she just said ‘he’s going to court on Monday, and you should go film him’ so the first thing we ever filmed was him in court, and everything was reverse engineered.”
The second block, presented at and sponsored by The National Park Service of Salem was as fun as it was fascinating and had an incredible range of stories that kept the audience longing for more. Jonas Odell’s I Was A Winner started the block by introducing viewers to gaming addiction which, at first seemed to be tongue and cheek, but turned to be one of the more serious documentaries about addiction, loss, and overcoming I’ve ever seen. Black and white films were a major part of this block, including Jonathan Napolitano’s The Carousel took viewers on a trip to the Twilight Zone through the story of a carousel from writer Rod Serling’s childhood that not only impacted his work, but also his life as a whole. Jan Van Ijken’s experimental The Art of Flying utilized the black and white medium perfectly as it presented viewers to over ten minutes of well-shot and well timed visions of the “murmurations” of the common starling that had an incredible depth that only got more interesting as time went on.
Amy Nicholson’s Pickle proved to be the funniest short of the day by introducing viewers to an eccentric and wonderful husband and wife whose love for animals and experiences with death was as uproariously funny as it was heartwarming. Corinne May Botz’ fascinating Bedside Manner brought viewers into the little known world of of standardized patient simulations in medical school, and focused on the story of Dr. Alice Flaherty: a doctor, a patient, and a standardized patient actor that helps teach students to improve diagnoses and bedside manner. Throughout the film, the lines between reality and fiction were blurred in such a way that the end product proved to be one of the finest films of the series. The closing documentary during this block, The Leprechaun’s Wife by Alexandra Shiva, told the amazing story of Sondra Williams, a high-functioning autistic woman who was misdiagnosed and institutionalized at a young age who, years later, is a prestigious and sought-after public speaker and writer who is working tirelessly to teach the world about what autism really is.
Viewers got a chance to speak to not only the director of Bedside Manner Corrine May Botz, but also the lead subject of the film Dr. Alice Flaherty. Viewers also got a chance to speak with the producer of The Leprechaun’s Wife Bari Pearlman. Many audience members asked about the structure of Bedside Manner and what was real and what wasn’t, and Corrine made it very clear that that meant this documentary accomplished it’s goal. “The goal was to make the viewer feel like a physician that needed to give a diagnosis, and to give the audience a sense of confusion and delirium to help highlight what these medical professionals have to sift through almost daily.” Dr. Flaherty added to this by explaining to the audience how the mental health field is a very different one to work in, especially from an educational standpoint. “There are many many doctors who have experienced or are living with mental health conditions in the field, and it really helped me out knowing that my doctors were not just doctors, but had first hand experience with depression and psychosis.”
Bari Pearlman also told audiences the story about how her and Alexandra met Sondra Williams by explaining how they went about making the film. “[Alexandra] has a friend whose daughter is on the spectrum, and we wanted to tell the story, but we realized that we couldn’t do so, and that the story needed to be told by those on the spectrum itself, and not directly through us.” They both met Sondra at a conference where she was talking about working in the field of autism research as someone on the spectrum itself, and they were instantly taken by her. Once they found out she was from Ohio, they both traveled down there, and their experiences culminated in the Peabody Award winning HBO documentary they both made called How To Dance In Ohio, which showcased teens living with autism in the Ohio area. “We ended up making that film about teenagers coming of age and going to prom, and Sondra didn’t fit in the main story, but she was our impetus on the subject and the featured documentary itself, so we decided to give her her own film. And that’s what this is, and though it broke our hearts that her story was so different than the subjects in the feature film due to modern day understanding of autism, her passion and story needed to be told.”
Below, there is a review for each and every short documentary that was featured during the two blocks. Some of them have direct links so you can either stream the documentary directly, or you can purchase it directly from the filmmaker for a very small price that’ll help support these storytellers in their future endeavors.. Each and every documentary shown during the tenth anniversary of the Salem Film Festival reinforced the strengths that the festival has: diversity, incredible story telling, and introducing you to subject matter you might not have been familiar with from the get-go. Supporting these cinematic heroes is the least we can do, as they are the storytellers that prove that time constraints mean nothing when there’s an incredible story to be told.
Fear by Dawn Dreyer and Andrea Love began the first block with the touching story of Dr. Zenglo Chen, a Chinese man who was a child suffering from depression during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The film, done almost entirely in stop motion animation sequences (with animated interludes) chronicles Dr. Chen’s experiences with “fear” and how it manifested itself during his life. Ranging from his family being taken away at a young age, to his nearly decade long daily battle with suicidal thoughts, “fear” means many things to him and shows up in many forms and, as Dr. Chen points out, one feels driven to eradicate it entirely from your life. However, the film’s overarching message is simple: It’s much easier and reckless to remove fear, but to live with it is the greatest accomplishment of all. Dr. Zenglo Chen’s journey to do is beautiful, funny, and true-to-life in a way that demands to be seen. The short film itself also serves as a segment to Dawn and Andrea’s feature-length film “Bipolar Girl Rules The World.”
NOT ONE STEP BACK by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley followed the five days of Moral Monday protests in North Carolina after the unprecedented victory of Democrat Roy Cooper over the incumbent Governor Pat McCrory resulted in the North Carolinian GOP attempting to secretly pass measures to strip the power of Cooper while also nullifying the voting voices of the North Carolina voters. The documentary, shot in December of last year, follows the day-to-day in the middle of December as the voices of the protestors in the State House are silenced and over forty people were arrested for simply asking for government transparency. The film has a heavy focus on the NAACP leaders who stood as a strong voice during these protests, and the rapid-turnaround of this film shows the significance an event like this can have in such a short period of time.
All The Presidents’ Heads by Adam Roffman tells the story of the failed President’s Park in Williamsburg, Virginia that housed 20 foot high busts of the first 43 Presidents of the United States of America. After the recession hit, the park abruptly shut down and the fate of the monolithic busts was unknown. Enter the hero of our story, developer Howard Hankins, who moved all the busts in 2012 to his recycling field. There they stand in the weeds and underbrush of Croaker, Virginia, facing decay and rot, but the passion Mr. Hankins has for these busts is an incredible story in itself. His love for the Presidential office and his knowledge on the matter is funny, impressive, and downright fascinating, and his drive to eventually show the world these busts again is truly moving. Howard Hankins isn’t the hero I expected during the short blocks this year, but boy do I welcome him.
Johnny Physical Lives by Joshua Neuman tells the incredible true story of Boston rock-and-roll legend Johnny Physical and his band “The Physicals.” If you haven’t heard of this iconic band and frontman, Johnny Physical was a lady-killin’ rock god from the mean streets of NYC that commanded audiences all around the Tufts University campus with his incredible dance moves and his iconic tunes. But, off the stage, Johnny Neuman (the brother of the director of this amazing documentary) was a kid with a passion for the arts who was tragically struck by leukemia during his time at Tufts University. His love for his band and the rock-and-roll mysticism resulted in him and his brother agreeing to work on a film about the life of the artist Johnny Physical. The documentary weaves a first-person narrative by the director about his brother’s struggles and life before his treatment and and as the cancer progressed, and is inter-cut with animated sequences that highlight the life of his rock-god alter-ego. The film shows how Johnny experienced cancer not as a kid who was at Tufts University, but as a break-neck rock icon. The film brilliantly highlights the importance of the arts and what it truly means to be passionate, and honestly ranks up there with some of the tightest rock documentaries of all time. An honor that a rock icon like Johnny Physical truly deserves.
Confessions of a Cannabis Consultant by Mark Dugas tells the story of Ezra Parzybok, a medical marijuana consultant from Northampton, Massachusetts that works tirelessly to help patients out who want to explore the usages of medical marijuana, but don’t know how to do so. The documentary explores not only those that he helps and the techniques that he utilizes, but also the drug case he faced in 2015 after his home was raided by the National Guard and local authorities. The film shows his family life and the things and his passionate caring for individuals that wish to explore alternative means of medical help and paints him not as a man who committed a crime, but as a medical professional who wants nothing more than to help others. Despite the fact that recreational marijuana is now legal in Massachusetts, stories like those of Ezra Parzybok are important to read and understand.
Frogman by Tyler Trumbo is an absolutely fascinating story about a son who has spent his whole life trying to understand his father through the stories he told. Patrick Humphrey knew that his father was important, and idolized him deeply, but he never understood what he really did, mostly because he couldn’t really talk about it. You see, Patrick’s father was a covert navy operative during Vietnam, a “Frogman” if you will, and his forays into espionage and the stories he told could only be kept in the family itself. This forced his family and his son into a precarious situation: they needed to separate the truth and create a fiction that would help them survive as a family without risking secrets being let out. This separation of understanding impacted how Patrick raised his own kids; it’s difficult to live life being told how great your father is when you don’t know him, and it’s more difficult to expect that you will raise your own kids like how he raised you when you don’t know how he did it. The story told in Frogman is about the dissolving of a family because of the life of one man, but also of the strength and unity around him. It’s not a typical father/son dynamic, but the impact Patrick’s father had on his life is a significant story in itself.
I Was A Winner by Jonas Odell showcased three very different stories of suffering from addiction, the hardships it entails, and the eventual escape. However, the addiction highlighted in this film might seem a bit strange: the three individuals presented to us we’re addicted to video games. The film presents these individuals that suffered from video game addiction as their virtual avatars, and what starts as a seemingly silly story becomes a rather painful and biting example of the dangers surrounding this rather new and relatively unknown addiction. Highlighted are a man who spiraled into video games and alcoholism due to neglect from his family which resulted in a divorce and alienation from his children, a high-school kid who couldn’t really focus on work when his life in the game was so much more significant, and a woman who only interacted with her fiance in the video game, while neglecting one-another while they lived in the same house. The subject matter may seem silly at first, but I Was A Winner does a spectacular job bringing you into the world of video game addiction and showing you first hand how it can impact just about anyone.
The Art of Flying by Jan Van Ijken is a black and white experimental documentary about the “murmurations” of the common starling. The flight patterns of these birds have always baffled scientists, and are as perplexing as they are beautiful. The film’s aesthetic choice to remain black-and-white highlights this even more as the flocks of starlings swirling around the sky begin to look and sound like the waves of the ocean, or the clouds in the sky during a lightning storm. The open-ended nature of this film gives the observer many different ways to process these murmurations, and makes this one of the most individually interpretive documentaries this film festival has ever presented.
Bedside Manner by Corinne May Botz is a look into the world of standardized patient simulations in the world of medicine. Standardized patients are medical professional actors who have been trained to present a very specific set of symptoms to help those in medical school improve their means of diagnosis as well as the means of handling a patient dealing with very particular traumas. The central doctor in this film, Dr. Alice Flaherty, shows the viewer the fine line between “actor” and “patient” by explaining to the audience that her ability to understand and teach students is through the fact that she is also a patient herself. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred in an incredible way in this film, and asks the viewing audience to differentiate between doctor and patient in a way that I have never seen before. As Dr. Flaherty explains her personal life, the viewer struggles to grasp whether or not she’s being truthful, or if she’s being a standardized patient. Bedside Manner twists and turns reality for the viewer in an impressive way that highlights the point it’s making almost instantaneously, and forces you to pay close attention to the symptoms to figure out a cinematic cure and understanding the likes of which are truly remarkable.
Pickle by Amy Nicholson proves, if nothing else, that there can be some sort of humor in lieu of death and that, sometimes, death only serves as a small point in a significant life. The film chronicles the story of Tom and Debbie Nicholson who, over the course of their lives, have rescued an overwhelming amount of animals each ripe with their own unique story. Ranging from a fish that could only live because of a makeshift sponge suit, a paraplegic possum that needed a skateboard, chickens with heart problems, and cross-eyed cats, the Nicholson’s love for the animals they’ve helped and saved is painfully obvious, and their way of handling their deaths is even more remarkable. Intercut with hilarious animated interludes explaining the deaths of these animals, the story of Tom and Debby is an incredibly laugh-out-loud funny tribute to the animals we all love, the inevitability of death, and how we all can move on.
The Carousel by Jonathan Napolitano is, simply put, about a carousel from Binghamton, New York. The carousel located there has spun since 1925, and to many it might seem to be just a plain old carousel. However, for legendary writer Rod Serling, this particular carousel proved to be one of his first major steps into the Twilight Zone. The story being The Carousel ducks and dives between the mission to restore it with artwork related to the Twilight Zone, as well as the deeper implications behind it and what it truly meant to the man that served as one of the main reasons why science fiction is what it is today. In just under 14 minutes, viewers will learn the life story of Mr. Rod Serling and what something as simple as an old carousel can mean to a man and the rest of his life. For Rod, this carousel served as a portal to a past that he lost, and an inspiration for one of the most iconic episodes of his television show that was as surreal as it was autobiographical. The story of that juxtaposed with the artistic attempt to preserve it as such creates a short that has some of the most depth out of any film I’ve seen at this fest. The Carousel proves that the truth is stranger than fiction in a way that, ironically, fits perfectly in the Twilight Zone.
The Leprechaun’s Wife by Alexandra Shiva is the incredible story of Ohio native Sondra Williams. At a young age, Sondra was diagnosed as mentally retarded and institutionalized for many years of her life, when in actuality, she was on the autism spectrum. Sondra’s way of understanding the world is truly unique, and the life she has lived is remarkable to say the least. Sondra has been married for almost 30 years, has four children (who were also diagnosed with autism) and two grand children. Sondra’s clear way to articulate her experiences have made her a prestigious national speaker, a celebrated author, a counselor, and a powerful voice when it comes to the discussion surrounding the autism spectrum. Doing any sort-of in-depth or subjective analysis of this film would, frankly, be an injustice, and as opposed to me talking about it, seeing this film and letting Sondra Williams talk about it is only right. The life that she has lived and the stories presented in The Leprechaun’s Wife stand alone, and desperately need to be seen, understood, and talked about, as it serves as an incredibly perfect starting point on the conversation surrounding autism.