by Brian Clarey
Six minutes is nothing. A few bites of a sandwich. An article in a newspaper. A stop at the gas station to fill up the tank.
You can’t build a good fire in six minutes, or get in a decent workout, no matter what miracle exercise device you employ.
Unless you’re waiting on a public restroom, six minutes is nothing.
But six minutes is just about right for a narrative documentary short these days: enough to tell a story of some substance, but not so long that people won’t watch it on their phones.
Film festivals love them, because they can round out a session and add texture to programming. Audiences love them, too. The good ones, anyway.
As executive director of the RiverRun International Film Festival, Andrew Rodgers had known for years that the narrative doc short was one of the most underserved genres in filmdom.
“I have been seeing a gap — or opportunity — that other people are not exploiting,” he says, leaning into a chair at the back of Camino Bakery in downtown Winston-Salem. “There’s a documentary shorts category in every film festival. It gets the smallest pool of submissions, yet it is a critically important genre.
“What I observed was that festivals really, really want documentary shorts,” he continues, “not 30-minute docs, which is what most people do.”
This observation eventually led to “Crooked Candy,” Rodgers’ first documentary, entering the festival circuit this year, a lush character study that clocks in at 6:09, title and credits included.
Rodgers was not a filmmaker, but he has been around film his entire career as a journalist and publicist, and worked through the ranks of the festival structure, culminating in his title at RiverRun. His wife, producer and film professor Iana Dontcheva, has been making documentaries since 2001. And he’s watched thousands of movies over the years.
It all came together one night at dinner, in less than six minutes — the time it took to unwrap a Kinder Surprise chocolate egg, eat the candy and assemble the toy inside.
He and his wife were dining with another couple, and after the meal the husband said, “Hey, I’ve got dessert.”
“He brought out these Kinder eggs,” Rodgers remembers. “I think I had heard of them but I had certainly never opened one.”
He won’t use the guy’s name. Kinder Surprise eggs, made in Italy, have been illegal in the Unites States since 1997, when they were found by the FDA to be in violation of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act — the very act that created and empowered the FDA — that forbids “the sale of any candy that has embedded in it a toy or trinket.” The legal term is “choking hazard.”
As the couples unwrapped their eggs, ate the chocolate shells and assembled the tiny toys inside, the man told his story.
He had grown up in Europe, in a country where the eggs were pricey and hard to find. As an adult, he never shook the feeling the eggs brought out in him. They were special. Precious. He became a collector, accumulating thousands of the small plastic toys — animals, cars, figurines both whimsical and realistic. By necessity, because he lives in the US, he became a small-scale smuggler, muling the eggs in from Europe and Canada. He’d gotten in some trouble at the Canadian border once, he told Rodgers, yet he still finds a way to get his eggs.
“I went home that night, and I told my wife before I went to sleep: ‘That’s so interesting. Someone should make a film about this,’” Rodgers says. “Overnight, the idea came to me almost fully formed. When I woke up I said, ‘I have to be the one to make this film.’”
It was towards the end of 2013. Rodgers had recently finished his MBA at Wake Forest University and time was running short on RiverRun 2014. He had a newborn baby daughter at home. Still, he reached out to Greensboro filmmaker Harvey Robinson, an acquaintance through his wife.
“When the story idea came up, I was in need of someone local who could work on this with me,” Rodgers says. He preferred to work with a UNC School of the Arts grad. “I felt like it needed to be someone who was gonna stick around.”
Robinson, a veteran of the industry for almost 20 years, fit the bill.
“He had good ideas. Enthusiasm for the story. His relationships,” Rodgers says. “He also had all of his own equipment. The entire cost of production was less than a fancy dinner out for two people.”
Harvey Robinson kicks up his feet in his sunlit Greensboro parlor. He’s recently completed a residency at Elsewhere and has been collecting footage on the road with musician Langhorne Slim. The house he shares with his partner, photographer Carolyn deBerry (see Shot in the Triad, page 30), does extra time as a studio and salon, a more domesticated version of Warhol’s Factory or John Waters’ Baltimore apartment.
He’s done just about everything there is on the creative and technical side of film — acting, shooting, editing, directing, writing, teaching, studying. And he says he can explain the dearth of narrative doc shorts.
“There is a gap,” he acknowledges. “But it is really f***ing hard to make a short doc. There’s a ton of them; only 80 percent are horrible. It’s hard to tell a real story in a rewarding way in that short amount of time.”
He’s done music videos and documentaries and long shorts and short features. To him, it’s all storytelling.
“If you tell me some sort of didactic story using figures and statistics, I don’t care,” he says. “But if you tell me about this one character, how he is affected, that thing becomes secondary to the human experience. But it’s still a documentary. And it’s a film.
“A film is all it is.”
Besides the length of the film, which they wanted to keep under 10 minutes, the biggest challenge was maintaining the subject’s anonymity.
“I was kind of panicked,” Robinson says. “It was a big challenge because I love portraiture. But it turned into this great exercise, to characterize a person by their surroundings and the way the character is relating to their obsession with Kinder eggs, their connection. Creating relationships between real things and inanimate objects.
“[I was] trying to make consistent, creative, expositional decisions that would add to the narrative within the confines of my discipline.”
The film is what Rodgers’ editors would have called a “color piece” had he filed it as an article for the Chicago Tribune, where he used to work. It’s primarily a voiceover narration of the man and his relationship with the eggs, dubbed over footage of him unwrapping one of them and assembling the toy inside — a cartoonish wolf with a magnifying glass — then a montage from his vast collection.
There’s no real discussion of the legal circumstances that make the eggs illegal. Not enough time. No footage of the eggs being assembled in the factory or thumbnail history of the product and its company. No discussion of the heritage of the toys themselves. No quotes from lawyers or politicians, no outrage or shame. It’s just this guy, talking about these things he likes and the trouble he goes through to get them.
But there are these artistic flourishes. Rodgers, who directed and produced, and Robinson, who shot and edited the film, sacrificed the first minute on a gorgeous pastiche of scene and sound: a sun setting in the woods, footsteps on floorboards and a dog in recline, panting on a shag carpet by the fireplace.
The sound of the dog’s breath carries over into the next shots of distinguishing artifacts in the subject’s home.
“Andrew really wanted to have a shot of this dog,” Robinson says. “That’s great. I think it really sets the tone. And the shag rug furthers that connection between people and inanimate objects, the textual connection between the shag rug and the fur of the dog.”
Even the illegality of Kinder Surprise — which most documentary filmmakers would latch onto as a controversial hook — is used in service of character, a footnote that describes the sacrifices he will make to continue the relationship: He’s a criminal just for owning them. It doesn’t come up until after the 2-minute mark.
“It turned out to be a lovely choice,” Robinson says. “You get a sense of this guy and his environment, hear him talk about his childhood. All of a sudden it raises the stakes. It makes his connection with these objects more powerful, which carries us through the rest of the film.”
“I have seen so many hundreds and thousands of docs,” Rodgers says. “I have developed, I suppose, personal preferences. I’ve also developed — I don’t want to say ‘disdain,’ but I suppose there are styles of storytelling in documentaries that I’m not excited about.
“One of those is the straightforward, A plus B equals C, kind of spoon-fed story.”
“I was interested in this,” he continues. “I wanted to tell the story. When I realized it was gonna be a documentary short, I wanted to place very strict constraints on it. I wanted it to be five to eight minutes, the shorter the better. When we realized we were never gonna show the guy’s face, we realized we could do the voiceover. It was actually easier.
“It’s doubly hard to make something really tight and small.”
Thus far, it’s been a festival darling, already screened at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and accepted at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas, the Napa Valley Film Festival, the Camden International Film Festival in Maine and the New York International Film Festival, the oldest of its kind in the country. More festival acceptances will be announced in the coming weeks, Rodgers says, including a European premiere.
“I’m humbled and excited at the reception it’s gotten so far,” he says. “I hoped that it would get into a festival. This is beyond my wildest expectations.”
He’ll definitely be attending the New York event — “It’s ridiculous,” he says, “a little like winning the lottery the first time out” — and maybe a few others. But he’s still scouting films for RiverRun 2014, on track for April. He’s still trying to understand how his MBA will figure into his career in the creative-nonprofit industry, still getting the hang of being a parent as his daughter approaches two. And he’s yet to schedule any local screenings of the film, “Crooked Candy.”
“Every experience I have is building towards something,” he says, sitting there in the back of Camino, “even the most ridiculous stuff. It’s all a progression towards something. I haven’t felt like it’s disparate; it’s all headed somewhere.”
He’s also got another film with Robinson in the works. They’re thinking it will be another short one.
“So many documentary filmmakers want to jump into making features so quickly,” Rodgers says. “There’s no money in shorts. But they jump into it so quickly they don’t know their craft.”
In the right hands, six minutes is plenty of time.