Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Quintessentials: A Girl Like Me
A Girl Like Me
Dir. Kiri Davis, USA, 2005, approx. 7 minutes
When I started considering what film I wanted to post about for the Quintessentials, I originally thought I’d pick an experimental film. In a way, I consider experimentals to actually be the “quintessential” short films – they are the films that fit the short form best, and the ones that grow the most tedious and unwatchable when drawn out into feature-length films (Inland Empire, I’m looking at you.)
On the other hand, I always considered documentaries to be the exact opposite of this. When I watch a short documentary, I generally have either one of two thoughts: 1. If a subject isn’t complex enough to explore in a feature-length film, it’s not really worth exploring at all. 2. If a subject is complex enough to explore in a feature length film, anything shorter is unsatisfying because there is not enough time to look at the topic carefully. All of the short docs we watched in class fit into one of these categories – I either wanted to know a lot more, or felt the film was a waste of time on a dull topic.
So when I was looking at the various experimental shorts posted to the blog, I actually came across one of the documentary shorts, “A Girl Like Me,” that intrigued me a lot more than any of the experimentals. I’m not writing about “A Girl Like Me” because it totally changed my mind on this, but because it is a perfect example of why I feel short documentaries fall short of their longer counterparts. You can read the original post for a summary of the film, which looks at the effects of skin color on perceptions of beauty. The original post author gave the film a lot of praise, and while I think the footage captured by student filmmaker Kiri Davis is fascinating, I don’t think it accomplishes any of the things that it could accomplish if it were longer.
What “A Girl Like Me” lacks – and what a lot of short documentaries lack – is context. The most interesting – and heartbreaking – sequence occurs when a young black girl identifies a white doll as “good” and a black doll as “bad,” and then hesitates when asked to point to the doll that looks like her. In the film’s experiment, 15 of 21 children chose the white doll as the “good” doll. But what do we do with this information? Davis doesn’t come to any conclusion – and how could she in just 7 minutes? The behavior of the children (and the talking-head interviews with young black women) provoke an endless number of questions, especially in a time when we’ve just elected our first biracial president and L’Oreal is using Photoshop to lighten Beyonce Knowles’ skin for cosmetic ads. “A Girl Like Me” also has a muddled focus – is it about the social pressures that black girls face for being “too dark” or “too light,” or is it about the much more subtle process of racial stereotyping that reveals itself in both genders of children in the experiment?
We’ve discussed how short films are often seen as “calling cards” for directors who wish to produce feature-length films. While I’ve just criticized “A Girl Like Me” for failing to do much other than raise a lot of questions, I think it is a wonderful calling card. The film clearly displays Davis’ sensitivity for the subject matter, and with more time and money she could produce a film that explores race in a much more thorough and meaningful manner. I guess it's kind of strange that the gist of my "quintessentials" post is that documentaries fail as short films, but I think it's a question worth considering.