The inaugural release of the independent DVD distributor A Million Movies a Minute (AMMAM), a micro-label professedly dedicated to short documentaries, was last year's After the War: Life Post-Yogoslavia, an uneven collection of nine shorts about the titular subject which was damned by poor video and audio quality. Taking a lesson from that one, AMMAM's second release, Animating Reality: A Collection of Short Documentaries, offers far better video and audio quality through the content remains just as uneven.
A trickle of documentaries utilizing animation to supplement or replace traditional film and video has become a torrent since the release of the critically-acclaimed feature-length animated documentary Waltz with Bashir in 2008. Material that once would have been confined to radio for lack of contemporaneous live-action video, as well as new material expressly designed for the medium of animation seems to be everywhere of late including in this most recent release from AMMAM.
With thirteen shorts and a total running time of 162 minutes, Animating Reality doesn't suffer from a dearth of content though it does stretch the bounds of the documentary genre with the likes of Wiener Wuast, a five-minute short from Japanese filmmaker Maya Yonesho which simply features hand-painted watercolors held up before the camera mostly obscuring background details of Vienna, to create a wordless stop-motion animation of swirling kaleidoscopic images.
Nearly as liberal interpretation of the genre is to be found in the 23-minute short from Dutch filmmaker Gerrit van Dijk, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Based upon the incoherent ramblings of a mobster gunned down in 1935, the short is supplemented by cheesy, live-action reenactments, and intermixed with line drawings of Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear, the Kennedy assassination, Chairman Mao and other incongruous free-associations. Van Dijk's other short on this release, with co-director Marie Josť van der Linden, the eight-minute Sold Out, is a similarly temporally far-ranging consideration of the demise of a family-owned small market.
Learned by Heart (Marjut Rimminen & Paivi Takala, Finland, 29 min.) and A Shift in Perception (Dan Monceaux, Australia, 16 min.) both manipulate traditional film footage for artist effect. In the case of the former to offer sense impressions of growing up in Finland during the Cold War, and in the case of the latter to offer insight into the lives of three blind women.
Canadian filmmaker Davina Pardo and Japanese-American filmmaker Yoriko Murakami offer their personal reflections on family relationships and art in Birdlings Two (6 min.) and Taking about Amy (8 min.) respectively.
In addition to A Shift in Perception, described above, five more of the shorts provide fairly conventional documentary interviews visually enhanced through animation. These include a few New Zealanders' thoughts about wilderness (Conversing with Aotearoa, directed by Corrie Francis, New Zealand & United States, 15 min.); three female graffiti artists and a city work responsible for cleaning it up, discussing the meaning and impact of graffiti (Blue, Karma, Tiger, directed by Mia Hulterstram & Cecilia Actis, Sweden, 12 min.); two Ugandan women discussing life with HIV/AIDS (The Beloved One, directed by Samanta Moore, United Kingdom, 6 min.); a Vietnam veteran and a former Iraqi prisoner discussing their unlikely friendship forged in a psychiatric hospital (In the Same Boat, directed by Emily Bissland, Australia, 7 min.); and a dialogue about voting and political action between an older French leftist and a disaffected youth (One Voice, One Vote, directed by Jeanne Paturle & Cecile Rousset, France, 14 min.).
The most engaging of the shorts on this release is agitprop damning American torture techniques. Inspired by an alleged 1970's CIA torture manual found on the internet, Belgian filmmaker Eric Ledune deadpans voiceover instruction for the torture, execution, and disposal of political prisoners in Do It Yourself (13 min.). The disquieting effect of the narration is heightened by a collage of unsettling images of fish.
Video & Audio:
Video and audio quality vary from short to short, but the overall quality is excellent for a project of this kind. The shorts shot in widescreen are anamorphically enhanced, and the 2.0 Dolby Digital audio has a uniform level throughout. Where the technical quality remains to be improved though is with subtitles. Those on the non-English shorts are not removable, while none are offered for the English language shorts.
The extras are rather thin, consisting of a trailer, brief filmmaker bios, and an optional filmmaker's commentary for Do it Yourself.
Animating Reality: A Collection of Short Documentaries boasts good audio and video quality, though few of the thirteen shorts are exceptional in terms of content. Though tending more toward student films and marginal one-offs than toward the level of high-quality shorts routinely released on DVD compilation by Wholphin, Animating Reality merits a rental for fans of documentary and experimental film willing to sample selectively the 162 minutes of content provided.