By Danny Peary
“We always try to let the movies at Summer Docs speak for themselves,” insists Anne Chaisson, the executive director of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), “but I must say that “The Short Game” was a big surprise. “David Nugent, the festival’s artistic director, saw it at SXSW (South by Southwest Music Film and Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas) and told Alec Baldwin and me, ‘You’ve got to see it.’ Alec, who curates Summer Docs with David, and I watched it and we both went to the moon over it. So that’s how it got chosen.”
“I’m very honored that ‘The Short Game’ was included,” says the film’s director, Josh Greenbaum, who will be at Guild Hall for a Q&A with Alec Baldwin this Friday after the film’s 8 p.m. screening. Greenbaum’s debut feature closes out Summer Docs’ fifth year, following “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” “Gasland 2,” and “laine Stritch: Shoot Me.”
“It’s an awesome spot in an incredible lineup,” says Greenbaum. His sports film may be in the clean-up spot, but it’s not about big sluggers swinging bats at Yankee Stadium, but seven- and eight-year-olds swinging golf clubs in Pinehurst, North Carolina. That’s the site of the annual World Championships of Junior Golf, and Greenbaum and producer Rafael Marmor found eight talented and charming kids — including children from China, South Africa, and France — among the 1,250 competitors at the 2012 tournament to highlight in their movie.
“I’m a believer that even with great subject matter, you need an interesting angle,” says Marmor. “Our angle was going for the youngest kids because they have the fewest inhibitions, even in front of a camera. So we went to the tournament the year before and interviewed hundreds of kids for about five minutes each, and we came away with a diverse group.”
Greenbaum constantly reminds viewers that the young subjects are like other kids their age. “They have the same emotions, they like to goof off; they aren’t self-aware.” But he acknowledges there is something unique about this group. “What makes them different is their focus. It’s hard for us adults to stay focused but for a kid it’s even harder. But these kids have the ability to focus completely on golf in practice and on the course. They have goals and the confidence, focus and drive to see what they can accomplish.”
“What attracted me to this project initially,” says Marmor, “is that I heard of a world where seven-year-olds focus on things I struggle with.” How do they handle pressure and frustration, how do they have so much confidence? “What I believe is that kids who go toward golf tend to be smarter. They are articulate and they think things through. They can be cerebral and state pearls of wisdom and have profound insights that we could learn from them.”
“What excited me was the juxtaposition of their being funny and having wise thoughts,” Greenbaum says. “We got close to these kids and worried about them doing poorly in the competition in the film. I discovered they have short-term memory, which allows them to quickly get over bad rounds and losses. The other thing that impressed me was how they see only the flag and not the bunkers or trees. Metaphorically-speaking, when we adults see obstacles in life we lose sight of the finish. I went in expecting to watch kids learn lessons as they play golf with parents as their caddies, but from watching them I learned as much as they did.”
You’ll be captivated by the kids off the course, including Anna Kournikova’s younger brother Allan; but make no mistake these future Tigers and Annikas can really play. A warning: When you hackers hear a tiny eight-year old golfer say she feels happy every time she makes an eagle, you may want to retire your golf clubs.
“As a filmmaker I want you to wonder who will win the tournament,” says Greenbaum, “but the important thing is what the kids learned and how they grew. The definitions of win and lose and success and failure change. It’s exemplified by the South African boy, Zam. He finished 43rd the year before and I think that if he finished 42nd he would be happy. He’s certainly developing the right attitude.”
Chaisson is delighted by the loyal following Summer Docs has because, “it is most definitely an extension of the festival and leads into the festival.” In fact, if The Short Game wins the audience award over the other three documentaries, it will play at this year’s festival.
Another draw at this Columbus Day weekend’s HIFF will be the popular “Views From Long Island,” which will include three features and three shorts that are set on Long Island and/or were made by Long Island filmmakers. Titles of these films, as well as passes and packages — including a large discount on all-access Founders Passes purchased before Labor Day — can be found at www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.
The Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs series, hosted by Alec Baldwin, will screen “The Short Game” on August 30 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton.