[REVIEW]: 2015 Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films

2015 Oscars
The short documentary films that have been selected for the 2015 Academy Awards pack an enormous emotional wallop. Two of the five nominees stand apart and frankly make the remaining three films feel shallow and weak. Let me be clear. I mean no ill will to the subjects or filmmakers of these films. When there is a group of five films it’s an unfortunate reality for the folks nominated that sometimes there is one — or in this case two — films that shine above the others. Below I offer a brief review of each of the five films in the order I saw them.

1. “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” by Ellen Goosenberg Kent (A)

This film details the harrowing work of working in the only crisis hotline for suicidal American war veterans. It’s no surprise that this place exists. It is surprising that there is only one crisis hotline. The film is so good that it shouldn’t matter what your political stance is. I have heaps of respect for the young men and women who find it in within themselves to go to war. They deserve every American’s unflinching respect and they deserve to be treated with decency when they return from their assigned theater of war. The problem is that the infrastructure to get the relief they need is lacking. To truly care for these individuals when they are so shell-shocked from the atrocities they witness and commit is a task very few people are prepared for. The few people who are prepared are featured in this film. This film turns the camera’s unflinching eye on these brave individual men and women who are committed to talking to vets who are considering ending their own lives due to myriad psychological issues that are a direct result of having been at war. Their demeanor is unflinching and calm. Not cold, not warm, but just right. I have no problem admitting that there is absolutely no way I am capable of talking to someone who is experiencing an intense bout w/ PTSD. Hearing these soldiers call in and seek help makes me crumble. But the folks in the crisis hotline offer level-headed responses and explain things objectively. This skill is essential, and I believe is the most powerful tool these hotline people are equipped with. I was choked up for nearly the entire duration of this 40-minute film. It’s gripping. It does not let go of you. This is a documentary. These are real people dealing first hand with a problem that is not going away any time soon.

2. “Joanna” by Aneta Kopacz (A+)

Wow. This film! Such a profound look at life’s story told through the eyes of woman dying of cancer. She’s not just telling the story to the world though. Oh no, she’s not. She’s using this film to reach beyond her own lifetime and speak to her young son, who is also featured in the film. This film is a perfect use of cinema. It’s exquisitely photographed and one of the most heartbreaking stories ever told. When the mother must cut her hair due to chemotherapy, her son cuts his too. They plant plants and take in some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve seen on film. The mother is weak so her husband carries her to and from specific spots. Bring heaps of tissues because the ending of this film will absolutely wreck you.

3. “White Earth” by J. Christian Jensen (A)

Ever wondered what goes on in a tar field in North Dakota? Then this is the film for you. The film features stories about families who have moved to a town called White Earth to better themselves financially. The only problem is that the men and women who move there to relieve financial burdens on their families only end up further burdening their loved ones spiritually. Work begins well before sunrise and often requires parents to be away from their children for significant periods of time. As with all parents, these parents simply want to create an environment for their children that is better than the one they grew up in. This film should cause one to begin to understand the familial impact this type of work has on the people in this film. This use to be a small town, but is now burgeoning and ill-equipped to house so many people. There’s nary an activity for people to do to escape their intense work days. Children complain of a stench and oily residue present in the home when their fathers return from their jobs. It paints a pretty clear picture that the negligible energy gains the US makes from this kind of oil extraction come nowhere near balancing the damage that is effected on families.

4. La Parka (The Reaper) (B+)

This is by far the most artistically abstract of the films in the bunch. It serves it’s purpose of informing the viewer very well. I speculate that it symbolizes what the main character sees after having slaughtered such a preposterously high number of cattle. For him, he’s so accustomed to his job that he doesn’t even see the cattle as life forms anymore. They’re just flesh, bones and muscle that he’s responsible for culling and preparing for market. It’s a chilling visual language to employ. As an audience member who has never been employed to put cattle down I’m constantly looking for a sign of sentience from these animals. But I was never allowed to see it. The cattle are herded into a slippery shoot where they try earnestly to gain footing. They’re simple creatures and they have no clue of their imminent demise. The visual language is punctuated by following La Parka back home where he has a meal and some downtime with his family. Here the camera focuses it’s symbolic vision on flowers, color, and light. It’s brevity is powerful for we follow our lead character right back to the gritty, grimy killing fields after a brief respite of warmth. It’s a simple story that could have used a little bit more context, but will definitely give one pause the next time a meal of meat is served.

5. “Our Curse” (Tomasz Sliwinski & Marciej Slesicki) (A+)

The yin to Joanna’s yang, this film also focuses on two parent’s unceasing love for their child. However in this case it is the child who is at risk of death. The parents learn very early on that their son has been born with an extremely rare defect that makes every night a battle of life and death. If ever there were a film that proved the value of being in the present moment and taking life one day at a time, this is it. It’s also proof positive that human beings can live – and thrive — with the most extreme of circumstances. This film is so perfectly executed that you begin to feel a tiny bit of the parent’s joy of the precious moments they have with their little boy. I did wonder how this disease that I didn’t even know existed actually exists and you will too. But that thought will be fleeting as you witness the tenderness and bold-faced resolve of this couple to raise their son and create a normal happy life for him.

So now you’re wondering which one I’m picking for the winner right? Brandon, how do you pick a winner from such a stellar group of films? It honestly wasn’t that hard. The two Polish films are my favorites of the bunch, and honestly are two of my favorite films of all time. It’s amazing to me how a story can be told in only forty minutes and leave an indelible image in my mind. My hat’s off to Poland this year. Looks like they’re really giving the documentary film producing Danes a run for their money! Of the two, I prefer Joanna. Both Our Curse and Joanna are about life and death, but the timeless video postcard that is created in Joanna makes it stand out for me. This is a film that can always be used to reflect back on how this woman was and how much she cared for her loved ones. For me that idea just barely edges out Our Curse. I have to pick a winner right?! Finally, I’m fearful of recommending these films to anyone. The two Polish films are beyond sad. It’s like they put your soul and heart in a blender with some sand, whip it up and then shove it down your throat with a tube. They’re spectacular films though. If you do choose to go see them, you’ve been warned.

Climate March 2014

On Sunday, September 21st, 2014 I marched through the streets of Manhattan with hundreds of thousands of people. It was a thrilling event and I’m proud to say I was a part of it. To get a sense of the march, you should watch the video I created above. A friend who marched with me is responsible for capturing the audio. Below, you’ll read my opinion on what will hopefully be a march that will affect change.

327A1224Frankly, I’m disappointed by the lack of media attention this march has received. I’m also bummed by an article entitled, “The People’s Climate March May Have Been Huge, But It Wasn’t Historic” written by a woman whom I respect, Natasha Lennard. In the article she notes that she did not attend because she prefers “protests to parades” and “scowled at adverts aimed at drawing numbers to march” while riding the subway. I see her point. I suppose I’m still just a bit naive to think these adverts are incredibly cool. When I first saw them, I didn’t think about the vast amount of money it must have cost to plaster trains in New York City with ads.

I’m consoled by the thought that this is natural for movements of any kind. Civil rights still haven’t taken a firm grasp on people’s hearts and minds despite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts of decades past. Sure our nation has made some progress, but as evidenced by the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO we still have a ways to go. Gay rights are making progress too. Many states are now recognizing same sex marriage and all of the corresponding benefits thereof are beginning to be endowed to couples who have been together for many years. My point here is that these fights – civil and sexual orientation rights – have been a long time in the making, but the people behind these movements have no choice but to fight. I agree with them. Were I to be in their situation I would do all I could to make sure my country and my government respected me and those of like orientation. I think these people are on the right side of history. I believe in my heart that they are doing the right thing.

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Without binding legislation from the United States, and the world for that matter, humans won’t be around long enough to make sure the other social issues are resolved for our descendants to witness. It will all be for naught. I don’t like that this is even a possibility. Because I want to see the human race begin to at least understand this is a defining issue for all, I am committed to learning how I can become a squeaky wheel. The first step for me was to march and interact with people of like mind. I became inspired. Watching the video above helps me relive the moment and remember why this is important.

Lennard closes her article by saying, “[W]e should not foreclose the possibility of an exciting political moment emerging, rooted to climate activism and undergirded by anti-capitalism.” She finishes by admitting she is hopeful that this is not the last event to protest the current handling of climate change policy. It seems to me Lennard is asking for more less-organized, police-friendly protests. I agree with her. While it is a shame that marches of this magnitude are less historic than just a few thousand people dressed in blue causing havoc on Wall Street, it’s true and protestors need to understand that.  I refuse to become jaded by the fact that this issue isn’t currently capturing by the media. That shouldn’t be a reason to give up.

A very powerful line was at the beginning of a documentary film about Climate Change I saw called Disruption.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Frederick Douglas said that during a speech he gave in 1857. The title, ever-so prescient is, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress.” Then here’s to the struggle friends! Please join me in raising your voice to make sure we let our elected leaders know precisely where we stand on this issue. We may not have the kind of cash that moves the needle of influence, but together we have votes, and when mobilized, that will always be more powerful.

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Successful Fundraiser

Successful Fundraiser from Brandon Smith.

With your help, I was able to raise $2,132 for charity: water. I made a brief video ti thank everyone who donated. I really appreciate your generosity and I know the folks in Rwanda will appreciate your generosity even more.

I’m doing much better. I’ve finally got enough stamina to allow me to switch to full-time at work. Not only is the a sign of physical improvement, it also means more income which takes a tremendous amount of stress of my mind.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Not Just Another Wedding Film

Bleibaum/Mallott Wedding from Brandon Smith.

Bowers/Thomas Wedding from Brandon Smith

Most independent filmmakers cringe at the idea of making a wedding film. And for good reason. Generally, all creative control on the filmmaker’s behalf goes out the window in favor of how the bride and groom want the end product to look. Not the case with my friends Amanda and Aaron, Todd and Kathy. Here’s the skinny: each couple saw the work I did for my other long-time friends Lance and Jenny and wanted something similar. It’s certainly not uncommon to receive RFP’s from friends based on recommendations from other friends when you’re in the freelance game. It’s a tough line to walk when mixing money and friends though. Fortunately, both couples had money set aside in their wedding budget to pay me, but one of the most important parts was this line in an email I received from Amanda: “I just want something on video to watch years down the road of one of the best days of our lives. Can you help us out?” I was intrigued. What filmmaker doesn’t want to make something timeless? Add in the fact that both couple were willing to let me follow my own vision with how I wanted to capture the day and I was sold. Giving me their trust was a huge compliment. I felt free to shoot, unfettered by any restraints. When I started to edit, their trust gave me the confidence that what I was doing was right because I was expressing myself using their wedding as a platform. I felt engaged as an artist. One of my biggest problems with wedding videos is that they’re generally pretty unwatchable for anyone but the couple and the couple’s immediate family. So I challenged myself to make something that would be palatable to an audience outside of each couple’s inner circle. Also, I wanted to use it as a calling card for the world that I’m willing to shoot your wedding if you’ll give me complete creative control. You have to trust me. If you want to be able to make suggestions and have any sort of control, hire a videographer. If you want something that’s going to be timeless and interesting to your grandkids and beyond, hire a filmmaker. So did I succeed? Let me know in the comments.

The Power of Human Connection – Kasasa Gas Giveaway

Kasasa Gas Giveaway from Brandon Smith on Vimeo.

Campaigns that help people connect with one another are right up my alley. When I first got in touch with Jenna from CSG PR in Denver, Colorado I knew this would be a great fit for my skill set. Jenna and her team were very well-organized and made capturing the mood and tone of the event a breeze. Plus, watching folks learn that they were going to be getting twenty bucks worth of free gasoline was quite a joy.

Since I already knew the strategy behind the piece, I just had to execute it on screen. It had to be lighthearted, but it also had to show the power of using face to face meetings in a branded way to create a memorable experience for potential consumers. I think the combination of warm smiles, a sunny day and upbeat music struck the right chord.

I shot this using my new Canon 5D, Mark iii set up and I enjoyed every minute of it. The workflow is easier than I’m used to with the Panasonic HMC-150 and the picture just jumps off the screen.

Do you need a video like this? Call me, let’s chat. I’m sure we can make it happen.

Long Form Content Is Finally Hip

A while back, my friend Kym Perfetto approached me about doing a demo reel for her. I’ve done demo reels for myself before, but never for someone else. Kym has an array of talent and the potential to become a household name before the next tachyon violates causality. I was excited about the possibility of furthering someone’s career that I believe in. It would also be an opportunity to promote the fusion of digital strategy with documentary-style editing, a style that I wish to see more of in the world. It looks as though it’s a trend that is catching on, too. Both Forbes and Tech Crunch have recently featured stories about the rise of long-form content on the web.

It’s no secret that the question of how to captivate an ever-diminishing public attention span keeps digital media strategists awake at night. The same can be said for an actor trying to break through. The public has never been more saturated with content and I’ve heard directly from friends in the PR industry that casting directors know exactly what they’re looking for before they even start sorting through video reels. If they don’t see “it,” they’ve often moved on before the video has even finished loading.

If that’s the case, what difference does it make if the reel is two minutes long or eight minutes long? Not. One. Bit. So, I chose to approach Kym’s reel in a radically different way. I chose to go long form and create a more comprehensive, artistic profile.

During a Q and A session after a screening of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris mused “If you already know the answer to a question, then why ask it?” If talent scouts and agents are looking for something in particular, then why do people even go to the trouble of creating reels? It seems like a futile effort at addressing a question the powers that be already have an answer for.

For comparison’s sake, check out these examples of reels that are available on the web:

Savvy websites have taken this cue by creating a place where they write and produce work for you to show. Nevermind the weird binary lighting that strikes the subjects with harsh blues and reds and the other low-rent production values. The second part of Jonathan Ohye’s reel(second, above) where he speaks with a heavy, unidentifiable Asian accent is reprehensible and works to perpetuate stereotypical casting that we should be moving away from.

This style of reel doesn’t fit Kym’s current career arc. Kym has been on shows that these actors are trying to break into like The Wire and Homicide. She also has an ever-expanding list of credits on IMdB including a role in a major production called Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s trained many notable A-List celebrities with her own brand of fitness at Soul Cycle and her band, No Way Josie had over 40,000 downloads of their debut EP in its first week.

So positioning her is tricky. She’s got mainstream experience in supporting roles, but she’s looking for something where she’s featured more prominently. If I was going to present her as the next big thing, I had to be bold. One of the boldest things about going long form is eschewing the present day standard of bowing to the almighty page view. While I think this metric is a great way to measure resonance, I don’t believe that quality is determined by page views alone. I’m not the only one looking for different ways to measure quality. Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann championed forging new paths during a panel discussion at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin last week.

“I think it was my days at Google that inspired my audacity of thought. I was inspired by their boldness.”

I share Ben’s idea that quality is something that you achieve by tinkering endlessly before you feel comfortable that you put the best product forward. Quality is something that gives you a sense of pride about your own work. Quality is telling great stories in a way that connects with an audience.

“The idea of communicating who you are doesn’t get old and shouldn’t be randomly accessed. Every company cuts it’s own path but there’s always a lot of pressure to look like the last successful company. It’s hard to have the boldness to be different,” Ben added.

So with that in mind, I offer you Kym’s reel. My guess is that it’s drastically different than the other reels floating around Los Angeles right now. Who cares? I think it tells Kym’s story. And if you’ll indulge my boldness, I believe that you won’t mind spending a little bit of time watching it.

Think I’m off my rocker? Let me know in the comments below.

Internship Recap – charity: water

I applied to be the charity: water multimedia production intern for two reasons. One, I’m very passionate about doing whatever I can to solve the water crisis because of my experience drilling water wells in Bolivia with the US Peace Corps. Two, I’ve studied digital media and filmmaking extensively and I wanted the opportunity to be able to use my skills in a professional setting that would be both challenging and instructional. The charity: water staff ethos towards working with interns was exactly the experience I was looking for. I instantly felt like I was a part of the team and was given responsibilities that challenged me.


The first video I made while at charity: water highlighted a particularly noteworthy campaign that took a very creative approach to bringing awareness to the water crisis.

My first few days were spent working on an ambitious project to personally thank 250 past and current donors. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Each staff member was assigned a partner and together they were assigned 8-10 videos to make. The results were amazing and continue to fuel viral views on the web and spark conversation about an organization that is willing to take on this sort of herculean task just to say thanks.


The second video I put together followed my friend — and charity: water graphic designer — Greg as he attempted to complete his own fundraising campaign by embarking on a quest to eat 101 sandwiches.

After the Thank You Campaign was “in the can” so to speak, my main task shifted to fueling charity: water’s blog with posts about notable mycharitywater campaigns. It was a true joy to be able to communicate with the folks that were out there raising awareness for the water crisis. From learning about the trials and tribulations of Whitney Henderson’s run across the US to getting insight into a couple’s love for photography to meeting a boy with the compassion of ten thousand men, I was given hope that if we all do our small part, we can change the world for the better.

I also had the distinct honor of photographing the Fall 2011 Intern class, a group that I got to know well over the course of the semester. It was a blast asking them a bunch of questions — ranging from serious to absurd — and then curating their answers into one massive post. Not only were they an incredibly photogenic group, but they were all very kind and I’m proud to call them my friends. I’ll always reflect fondly on our days across from each other at the “Intern Table.” I wish them all great success in whatever path they take.

The culmination of my experience was the privilege of shooting the charity: ball, an event that raised more than $2.5 million in a single night for clean water initiatives around the world.

Witnessing the collaboration and dedication from all of the employees and the willingness from volunteers and interns to go the extra mile made it apparent that charity: water is here to stay. Scott Harrison, the CEO and founder of charity: water, had an immediate and mathematically resolute response when I asked him if the water crisis could be solved. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a matter of money and will.” It’s incredibly motivating to work along side a man so dedicated that he can see past the malaise of challenges certain to challenge him over the coming decades and straight to the end-game.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mo Scarpelli, my mentor during the internship. She taught me a great deal about div tags and f-stops. We had great conversations about media ethics and editing strategy. Mo, you are a true joy to work for and with. Cheers!

Check out Scott’s story about why he does what he does in an interview with Tech Crunch here>