Great Shorts at TCFF

Great Lakes, Great Shorts

One of the biggest highlights for me at the Traverse City Film Festival was the “Great Lakes, Great Shorts” Program which featured 8 short documentaries. I don’t take the time to see a lot of shorts as film festivals are one of the better ways to see them and I don’t go to many. However, with my growing interest in local film I was more than usually intrigued by the program.

As they are short films these won’t be long reviews but I would highly encourage anyone reading this to look into short film events in their area as they are one of the primary forms local film takes even if they are sometimes a mixed bag. The good news is that they are short so if you aren’t digging any specific piece, you won’t have to watch it for long.

Painting the Town - The Street Art of Detroit

2 Stars

“Painting the Town” is about the Street Art Scene in Detroit. With so many abandoned and derelict buildings the rise in Graffiti Art has been explosive, even drawing artists from other countries to partake. The main issue I had with this short was that it talked a lot about the migration to Detroit which doesn’t offer up much of a story or much to think about. There is some cool artwork but it is used more as b-roll than subject. All in all the film felt more like an advertisement for the art scene, a good one to be sure, but still just an ad.


Detroit Hives

3 Stars

This short is about a couple in the greater Detroit area who are buying old lots cheap and starting beehives in them, harvesting honey, and providing pollination to an area that needs it. It started off as feeling like a commercial but moved quickly into an exploration of their philosophy, especially as it relates to teaching and providing young African Americans with skills that they don’t usually get exposed to in inner city schools and positive role models of African American entrepreneurs and agro-business owners. The outside of the box thinking of this couple is really inspiring and easy to watch and enjoy. 

R.E. Olds and the First Auto City

3 Stars

This short is a historical piece which talks about R.E. Olds who started the first big motor vehicle assembly line plant in Lansing, MI. It wasn’t terribly interesting to me but was well constructed and I’m sure a car enthusiast or Michigan History buff would find it fascinating.

The Sinkhole

2 Stars

This short is about one person’s time in immigration detention and its effect in his life. Unfortunately while the content is interesting the metaphors employed are clumsily done and nat married to the main subject well. As a result it feels unfinished especially when it appears in the same program as one of the shorts I will mention in a few moments. 


Birds of Detroit

1 Star

“Birds of Detroit was definitely my least favorite film of the festival. It is basically just a bunch of shots of birds from inside the city of Detroit splashing in puddles, flying, and standing on wires, all accompanied by music. This wouldn’t be so bad if the camera work was better or if the camera was a better camera. The time lapses are shaky as what and most of the shots are using what looks like an entry level dslr with the stock lens it came with. The views of the birds are literally no better, and usually worse than, the ones I take of birds from my front porch. The film isn’t a bad idea but the lens needs to be longer, the camera better quality, and the time lapse more stable.

Camp Alec

4 Stars

“Camp Alec” is about a camp that is programmed for children who do not have the ability to speak. It specializes in education in the use of vocalizers which every camper is required to use. Hearing from the students about the difference that this makes in their lives is amazing as well as hearing from the camp director who began the camp after losing a child who couldn’t speak. I’m sure this film hit harder for me because of my involvement in a camp that sought to meet people with different needs but I truly believe people will find this an uplifting and heartwarming watch.

Youth in Dearborn

2 Stars

This short is about some students in Dearborn who play basketball and are aiming High School Championship titles as well as for scholarships to some pretty elite schools. They come from a town that has one of the highest Muslim populations in the US so this is framed as a pave-the-way-for-others story.

I want to like this one. I really do but I just didn’t connect. The least interesting thing about these kids is their basketball ambitions. The community they live in is interesting and not especially well known outside of Michigan so it distracts from the film. It’s like setting a documentary in the Sherpa Communities at the bottom of Everest and talking almost exclusively about the one person there who want to be a baker. Sure that may be an interesting story in its own right but trying to get me to focus on that when there is a truly unique place to explore is going to be hard and this film just doesn’t pull it off for me.

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Mrs. Saltzman Goes to Jail

5 Stars

“Mrs. Saltzman Goes to Jail” is my favorite film of the program and my second favorite of the festival. It is the story of a Grandmother who used marijuana (Michigan was formerly an illegal state) to manage her arthritis and was taken to jail.

The film has a wonderful sense of humor to it which is missing in many documentaries. While her experiences were tragic and difficult Mrs. Saltzman’s open heartedness and sense or irony allow her to take lessons from the experience rather than tremendous amounts of anger. It is truly funny and a film I would heartily recommend to people, especially those who don’t understand the marijuana legality battles that are happening across the country today.


Written By:

Michael McDonald