'Each one is like a little poem': Filmmaker Sam Green on the joy of short documentaries

Six short documentaries by the award-winning director will be screening at 7.30pm on Tuesday, October 27

In 'Julius Caesar Was Buried in a Pet Cemetery', Sam Green takes viewers on a funny and heartwarming exploration of a pet cemetery in Ohio. Sam Green
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There's poetic restraint to Sam Green's short documentary Julius Caesar Was Buried in a Pet Cemetery. Besides a brief voice-over by Green introducing viewers to a verdant grave-speckled site in Columbus, Ohio, there's no talking. No dialogue or explanatory narration. Instead, the four-minute film, set to tremulous music, lets the animal tombstones speak for themselves.

The gravestones, shot in high-definition close-ups, offer a glimpse into just how important these pets were to their owners. While some of the inscriptions tug at the heart strings, most, like that on the grave of a fluffy Julius Caesar, who the documentary is named after, will leave you chuckling in good humour.

Julius Caesar Was Buried in a Pet Cemetery, along with five other short films by Green, will be screening at 7.30pm on Tuesday, October 27, on the Facebook page of the Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi.

"I like making short films because each one is like a little poem," says Green, whose 2002 feature documentary The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award.

"The pet cemetery piece, for example, is a little poem because I had that experience. I went to the cemetery with my friend and we walked and laughed and said 'oh, look at this one. Look at that one.' The film is just a little poem that expresses that."
That's what makes shooting short films so much fun, Green says. "They don't have to be the biggest thing in the world, it's just a tiny little piece."

Sam Green's short documentary 'A Drink with Louis' explores Louis Armstrong's relationship with the reel-to-reel tape recorder. Sam Green 

The other films screening at the online event are just as unexpected and poetic. There are films that invite viewers to wander the corridors of an empty shopping mall, spend a moment after midnight at Louis Armstrong's kitchen table, or watch the fog envelop the streets of San Francisco.

Green's shorts programme is part of a virtual artist residency at the Arts Centre. It is centred on the commissioning of a new transmedia live documentary project titled 32 Sounds, which will be part of the Arts Centre's future season.

In 'A Cinematic Study of Fog in San Francisco', Sam Green films the fog enveloping the city and talks to residents. Courtesy Sam Green

The documentarian is renowned for his live projects, in which he narrates a film in person while musicians perform a live soundtrack. His 2018 work A Thousand Thoughts featured a live score by the Kronos Quartet. His 2012 piece The Love Song of R Buckminster Fuller also featured a live score, by the band Yo La Tengo.

"It's a project about sound," Green says of his next documentary. "It will be about 32 different recordings of things as well as random interesting recordings. It's 32 specific things, and all of them will add up to a sort of meditation about sound and about ephemerality, about sound and memory. One of the sounds is of fog horns. There are also the sounds of cicadas as well as the stopwatch used by [US composer] John Cage."

Green is also teaching an online filmmaking workshop at NYUAD this term, titled Techniques Workshop. He describes the course as "an ongoing dialogue with students" in which he uses his own work to facilitate conversations about the art and discipline of documentary-making.

"I would just like to be helpful and talk about things from my own experience," he says. "I'm trying to be open and invite people to bring their concerns, curiosities and interests into the conversation."

Green says he has noticed documentaries becoming more popular recently, but only a certain kind. "Some people say it's the golden age of the documentary, and in some ways that's true. If you look on Netflix or other streaming platforms, there are more than ever."

But Green says this is mostly true of "big narrative" documentaries. "I feel that because there are so many movies online and so many things to watch, everything has to be big to stand out. So the documentaries that people watch are big plot, big narrative, or else they're about social issues that are wrenching," he says. "There are very few quiet movies any more. I just think there are a lot of different ways to make things and express things."

Next month, Green will lead a two-part workshop for students from NYUAD and Zayed University as well as members of the UAE's filmmaking community. Taking place on Sunday, November 15, and Thursday, November 19, at 7pm, the workshops will explore the fundamentals of documentary film production and provide deeper insight into Green's creative process, with a view to helping the UAE's future directors develop their unique voice and identities.

Commenting on the need for artistic infrastructure for filmmakers, Bill Bragin, executive artistic director for The Arts Centre, said: "Green's approach to documentary film, whether in his live cinema performances, or in these shorts, reveals a deep empathy and humanism, an affection for his subjects, and a quirky sensibility that is incredibly inspiring. We saw the impact his last visit in 2018 had on filmmakers in our community, and we're thrilled to see what new projects will be born out of his inspiration this time."