Shorts at the Frontline Club: The Different Faces of Documentary Filmmaking

July 22, 2013

By Daniel Alan Kennedy

While many people often have a conception of what a documentary “should be” in terms of length, style, content or subject, the Frontline Club’s July 19 screening of four short documentary films demonstrated the breath of different choices available to filmmakers. Ranging from 8 to 25 minutes, the films covered subjects as diverse as North Korea’s suburban London embassy (The Embassy with Net Curtains), a Chinese investigative journalist trying to do his job within the limits of government censorship (Balancing a Dream), Filipino fishermen in the north of Scotland (Polaris), and a meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon (The King and Dick).

The directors of three of the four films (Polaris’ Chico Pereira was unable to attend) took part in a Q&A session following the screening, where they discussed the inspirations and backgrounds for their films as well as some of the challenges they faced.

(Left to Right) Ling Lee, Ying Cui, Scott Calonico and Lucien Lawrence.

(Left to Right) Ling Lee, Ying Cui, Scott Calonico and Lucien Lawrence. Credit: Daniel Alan Kennedy

Ling Lee & Ying Cui explained how their portrait of Sun Hua – an investigative journalist in Jinan, China attempting to file a story on corrupt property developers – unfortunately became overshadowed by wider politics and had to be removed from Al-Jezeera’s website. Lee said:

“We’re really pleased actually that the film is being shown here as it’s been out a year since it’s been broadcast on Al-Jazeera. Something really unfortunate happened on the day when our film was broadcast: Al-Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan got expelled from Beijing . . . which sort of raised a lot of tension, particularly on our main character [Sun Hua]. He got really scared for his family, so as a consequence we had to take it off the internet immediately.”

Lucien Lawrence‘s The Embassy with Net Curtains provided the audience with a subject much closer to home – the Embassy of North Korea – which sits incongruously in suburban Ealing. Asked if he approached the embassy when making the film, Lawrence replied:

“Not really, because I was more interested in a sense in the people around it . . . I think it’s a terribly English film in a sense. It’s about people who keep themselves to themselves behind their curtains and don’t trouble each other. What better place for the most secretive nation on the planet, than a place where the neighbours don’t really bother each other?”

Former archivist and filmmaker Scott Calonico uses animation, photos and music to bring recent historical documents to life. The King and Dick recreates the bizarre morning meeting of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, during which Presley offered his services to the President to combat drug use and communism in popular music. He said:

“The picture of Nixon and Elvis shaking hands is the most requested picture from the National Archives. Actually, they took two whole rolls. So that’s what I was interested in – seeing all these other pictures that they took. . . . The story of the pictures was what I thought was interesting.”

Calonico went on to explain:

“Those pictures of Elvis with Nixon, the taxpayers paid for those pictures. Those pictures are public domain. You can do whatever you want with them.”

The Embassy with Net Curtains is available to view online. A preview and more information on Polaris can be found at the Scottish Documentary Institute. Balancing a Dream is not available online but more information about the film can be found on Ling Lee’s personal website. More information about the work of Scott Calonico can be found here.