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Finding gems among the documentary short subjects

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China's Wild West - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

If you're planning a tour of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year, take into consideration this year's documentary shorts. These short subject films are an often-overlooked group—after all, how many films in the "best documentary short" category at the Academy Awards did you see?

Actually, if you're a dedicated Full Framer, there's a good chance you saw such recent Oscar nominees as La Corona, Salim Baba, Sari's Mother and Freeheld. All of these titles have screened at Full Frame.

It's easy to overlook documentary shorts; they almost always precede the feature film that everyone is there to see. Despite their brevity, these films can often be more engaging and expressionistic than their longer brethren—indeed, with the lowered stakes of a short, filmmakers have more room for experimentation.

We viewed most of the shorts on this weekend's Full Frame program and found a number of gems that are worth being your primary objective, regardless of the feature that follows.

In The Flying Shepherd (Friday, 10:15 a.m.), Romanian shepherds find their rustic lifestyle interrupted by a tourist hang-gliding business run by a German. This gorgeous film makes use of the area's lush pastures and wild weather. The shepherds are a surly yet endearing crew, and the film's final moments are as close to a "fairytale ending" as one could desire.

Janitors in a German governmental building go about their jobs, indistinguishable from the automated sidewalks and elevators around them in What Would the Drop Know About That? (Saturday, 10:30 a.m.), a moving look at identity and duty. Similarly, in the Russian short Between Dreams (Saturday, 2:15 p.m.), the lines of reality and identity are blurred during a late-night train trip through Siberia, with the disembodied voices of passengers discussing the nature of dreams. The footage of the people sleeping in their cars and the snowy world passing by artfully recreates a real-life dreamscape.

In China's Wild West (Friday, 10 a.m.), a jade strike in a rural riverbed starts a mining frenzy. The film captures a glimpse of people gambling with their lives as they skip work and hire digging equipment to discover a life-changing strike. Don't expect high drama, for the miners remain as serene as the riverbed. But the repose of the characters makes the narrator's story of how he found a million-Yuan hunk of the sought-after white jade, only to find out it was just blue enough to be worthless, all the more tragic.

A 74-year-old Scotsman follows his dream to keep setting records in power lifting in Ma Bar (Friday, 10:30 a.m.)—the title refers to his dumbbell-heaving battle cry, not where he hangs out afterward—a well-crafted film about an ageless passion. Another Scottish entry, Steel Homes (Saturday, 5:15 p.m.), explores the fading memories attached to possessions put in a storage facility. Shot in the stark, steel door-lined hallway, the people's voiceovers seem to echo in the tomb-like space.

There are many shorts waiting to be discovered. Chances are good that, when you watch the Oscars next year, not only will you recognize the nominated films, you will also have a passionate rooting interest in the outcome.

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