A Hermit, A Rat Slayer, Dull Men, A Green Card Hopeful, Newbies, Cuddle Connection Customers: Protagonists of Brooklyn Film Festival Documentary Shorts

Q/A with filmmakers of six documentary shorts in the Brooklyn Film Festival

Northside Film Festival starts June 8, but if you are a cinephile, you don’t have to wait until then to feast your senses on what’s new. This is the last weekend of the Brooklyn Film Festival (BFF) and two main venues for the films are in North Brooklyn: Windmill Studios (300 Kingsland Ave, Greenpoint) and Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg). There is no shortage of stories to be seen and heard. Here are the schedules for Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7.

There are 23 selections in the documentary shorts category this year. The six documentary shorts reviewed below are worth the watch tonight in their encore presentation (runtime total of 77 minutes altogether). They play at 10:30pm at Windmill Studios. Tickets are $13.

First, The Hermit, directed by Lena Friedrich, United States, 23 min, 2014. The film opens with a variety of perspectives on a near-mythological creature that residents of North Pond, Maine have dubbed “the hermit.” Born in 1965 and described as socially awkward growing up, Christopher Thomas Knight disappeared into the woods in 1986 and nobody seemed to notice.

What did catch everybody’s attention was the variety of provisions that kept disappearing from homes and campgrounds. Items like batteries, propane tanks, bread, meat, Budweiser, but not Bud Light. The documentary points out humorous oddities like this one and others, including that his rigging of an antenna gave him enough radio service to stay informed of current events and pop culture. He even kept up on the Kardashians.

After 27 years of thieving and living in isolation, Knight was caught through the use of a motion sensor. Though a police officer did offer some facts and one interviewee showed empathy, most interviewees’ comments about “the hermit,” before and after his arrest, ranged from mildly unsympathetic to cruel. It was not that different from how he was received before his self-imposed exile. It’s perhaps a little bit surprising that people are still speculating about what motivated his retreat from society. 

Rat Slayer of Hillside, NJ, directed by Andrew Keogh Ruotolo, United States, 18 min, 2015. After Frank Balun trapped a rat that was eating and spoiling his well-cared-for and delicious tomatoes, he called the Humane Society to remove the offending creature. While Balun waited for them to arrive, the rat tried to escape. Balun proceeded to hit it with a broom several times, killing it. Lee Bernstein, Executive Director of the Associated Humane Society and Captain of the ASPCA, cited Balun for animal cruelty. Balun faced up to six months in jail and a $1,250 fine.

The story exploded across the media like other absurd cases. The documentary interviews friends and lawyers associated with the case and weaves archived coverage from that time to tell the audience about how the incident affected the now deceased Balun and Bernstein throughout their lives. Kudos to Ruotolo who was inspired to make the film “after researching the work of his late father, Andrew K. Ruotolo Jr., the Union County prosecutor who handled the case.” While the story is interesting, there is a gaping hole where family members should have been interviewed. The film also runs longer than the story requires, with repetitive narrative threads that remain open and seem to meander.

Born to Be Mild, directed by Andy Oxley, England, 15 min, 2014. An amalgamation of vignettes depicting old white men with hobbies, this short documentary humorously shares the varied and eccentric interests of members of the Dull Men’s Club, including, but not limited to: milk bottles, roundabouts, airport sickness bags, bricks, and letter boxes. Content with “celebrating the ordinary,” the dull men want to “get away from glitz and glam, hurly-burly modern life, keeping up with the Joneses.”

During Q/A, a representative from Born to be Mild explained how membership works. “To become a member of the Dull Men’s Club, email [email protected] Or you can nominate someone for membership.” To see if you’re a dull man, take this test, where you’ll be asked questions like, “Is your favorite flavor of ice cream vanilla?”

Is this club part of a movement? “No, it’s not a movement. We like to stay put,” their representative said.

Green Card, directed by Pilar Rico & David Whitmer, United States, 7 min, 2014. “I have no property, but still I’m happy,” states the main character, a Bangladeshi immigrant who drives a taxi and runs a deli near director David Whitmer’s house. Our protagonist is also a poet and musician. His story is told primarily through a song he has written about the plight of an immigrant waiting for his Green Card. The song is performed by a teenage girl playing the harmonium. The lyrics flash across the screen as the sound of her voice coupled with the instrument breaks your heart.

The film took three years to make as they captured footage of the protagonist during the recording of his music in Queens, the release party for his album, and other events. They then edited the film to seven minutes. That was as much time as was needed to stirringly convey the feeling of despair that comes from waiting for something that may never come, and the sacrifice experienced by those who have to leave home in order to support their families.

First Lesson, directed by Nick Paley & Dawn Kim, United States, 6 min, 2014. First Lesson captures all of the emotions adults face when trying something new. Newbies range from a 20-something male pilot to an elderly women practicing her dexterity on the piano. Paley and Kim impressively capture the experience of making frustrating mistakes, being gripped by the fear of failure, and becoming possessed by the overwhelming desire to give up.

Terms of Intimacy, directed by Melissa Langer, United States, 8 min, 2014. An old man sits at a clipboard filling out a “first visit” check-in form at Cuddle Connection, a business in the emerging industry of professional cuddling. Then, you see him cuddling a woman who is affectionately rubbing his chest. Later, you see him sitting at home reading the newspaper in his living room while his wife looks longingly at him from fifteen feet away at the kitchen table.

The couple was what might have become of Frank and April Wheeler if Revolutionary Road hadn’t ended in its own tragic way.

We catch snippets of others who use the service as well and they are mostly women. The mostly dialogue-free movie delivers exactly what it promises, “[a] glimpse into the emerging industry of professional cuddling and the lives of the clients that use this service,” but the story feels unfinished. The partial and fleeting view left me wanting, curious to know more about the work and home lives of the clientele who frequented this kind of place. There were also several frames, like one of a median divider, and one of a lone black bird in an empty field, that seemed to be ineffectively placed for effect.

Despite some flaws, the compelling subject matter of these shorts make them worth your time tonight. If you go, feel free to let us know your favorites, and the reasons you liked them, in the Comments section below.

 

About Sonya Patel

Sonya is most drawn to voices, sounds, and lyrics that tell vivid and compelling stories. Her playlists include everything from folk, country, rock, and pop to hip hop and R&B, to blues and jazz. She will fly hundreds of miles to hear something live that piques her interest. (Instagram: @sonyacpatel Twitter: @sonyacpat)

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