Documentary Gets Snubbed by The New York Times

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by Matt Singer
March 6, 2012 5:29 PM
7 Comments
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"Convento."
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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7 Comments

  • Steve | March 7, 2012 10:00 AMReply

    He should just slow down the credits to make them a few minutes longer. Or add a long credit sequence at the start, completely unrelated to the actual film.

  • tully | March 6, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    I should also point out that after our conversation was posted, Kenji Fujishima alerted me to A.O. Scott's review of John Gianvito's 58-minute PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND, so that squashes the potential "60-minutes-and-above" mandate.

  • Nina Seavey | March 6, 2012 6:30 PMReply

    I have no argument with the NYTimes making it's own rules. They should make whatever editorial policies they like. I do have issue with how those rules affect documentary filmmakers in their efforts to get their films recognized. This new reliance by the Academy on an independent, non-afilliated, disinterested third party who now has this kind of qualifier/nonqualifier power. Under the long-standing rules of the Academy, this film would be considered a documentary feature at a run time of over 40 minutes. But it is now ineligible unless the filmmaker - and the scores of others who come after him over the next months - "make an appeal" to the Academy. I'm hoping that MM will personally step right up and do that for each and everyone of them.

  • David Poland | March 6, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    Nina - Though I have issues with Moore's new rules, there is the right to appeal if the NYT or LAT chooses not to review and Moore has said that inclusion if that is the issue will be liberally applied (so to speak).

    And The Academy definition of a Doc Feature: "Documentary Feature - motion pictures with a running time of more than 40 minutes"

  • jake | March 6, 2012 6:10 PMReply

    terrible film anyhow

  • bguest | March 6, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    You can't have it both ways. You can't willfully ignore well-established guidelines and then cry foul when everyone else continues to honor them. He could have added more minutes to the film without it being "filler"...the extra content would have been as good as his creativity, intelligence and imagination would allow. Don't blame the New York Times for establishing guidelines to allow filmmakers to plan and act in a way that would most benefit their film. Sometimes when you "fuck the rules" those rules will "fuck you" right back.

  • Nina Seavey | March 6, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    What this article fails to mention is that because The New York Times will not review it, this film is automatically disqualified from Oscar contention (unless the filmmaker can get the LA Times to do what the NYTimes wouldn't), as these two newspapers are now the arbiter of who qualifies for Oscar consideration and who doesn't. We're barely five minutes past the last Academy Award season and the new rules are already disadvantaging documentary films. Thank you very much Michael Moore.

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