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Documentary Gets Snubbed by The New York Times

Documentary Gets Snubbed by The New York Times

Days away from the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival, a film from the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival is in the spotlight — or rather it’s fighting to get in the spotlight.  “Convento,” a documentary by director Jarred Alterman, is receiving a week-long run this Friday at Brooklyn’s reRun Theater, but it won’t get a review in The New York Times — a customary ritual for any film opening for at least a week in New York City and a crucial part of legitimizing a small film and helping it build an audience.  The reason for the snub?  Although the program premiering Friday at reRun lasts 68 minutes, “Convento” itself is just 54 minutes long, which is technically not feature length. And if it’s technically not feature length, apparently, The Times won’t review it.

On the one hand, I understand The Times‘ position: it’s not easy covering every film that opens in New York City, and you have to draw the line somewhere.  If that (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) line is 60 or 65 minutes, then “Convento” doesn’t make the cut.  And if you make an exception for “Convento” then you have to make an exception for every in-betweener that isn’t quite a short and isn’t quite a feature.  Pretty soon you have chaos.  Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.

On the other hand, it seems a shame to punish Alterman for making the movie he wanted to make, and not artificially padding it out with filler just to qualify for a review in The Times. As the director discusses in an interview with Hammer to Nail, Alterman didn’t come to “Convento”‘s length lightly:

“Most documentaries that I watch, I’m bored for 20 minutes of that movie. Practically every movie I see. I want to be left wanting more, not going, ‘I was a little bored during that 15-minute/20-minute mark,’ when if you get rid of that you’ve got a perfect movie. And I’m not blaming the filmmakers. I think it’s the system. I think they have been convinced, like you said, to adhere to this, whatever, 90-minute thing, and they’re not thinking about their audience. They’re not thinking about the film. They’re thinking about the after-life of the film. And I just couldn’t f**kin’ do that.”

I saw “Convento” at South by Southwest last year, where I reviewed it for IFC.com.  At 54 minutes, it is a fine film.  If you paid $7 to see it (which is what reRun’s charging for a ticket), I think you’d get your money’s worth and more.  It’s a perfect little journey into a fascinating world populated by an eccentric family of artists living in a converted convent in Portugal.  Alterman apparently shot more footage that he could have included for the sake of length but didn’t.  This was the movie he wanted to make, a bit more experiential and a bit less expository.  So should he have thrown that extra stuff in anyway?  Is that what we want?  Again, I understand the need for the rule.  But do we want filmmakers who dutifully follow all our preconceived notions of what movies should look and sound like or do we want filmmakers who break the rules?  I don’t know about you, but I want the latter.

For breaking the rules, Alterman misses out on a Times review.  That’s really a shame.  But don’t let that stop you from seeing it if you have an opportunity to catch it in the future.  I think you’ll enjoy those 54 minutes.  And if it’s over, and you feel like there was a little left unanswered and you could have watched for 10 more minutes, remember what P.T. Barnum said about how an entertainer should always leave them wanting more.

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