Saturday, 3 May 2008

Hot Docs 2008 - S&M: Short And Male




The first section of "S&M: Short And Male" - an occasionally satirical look at how short men cope with societal biases - comes across somewhat as a made for TV hour long special. That's not necessarily meant in a negative sense though. This section of the film moves breezily through its introduction of some of the main interview subjects and takes a humourous look at some of their situations.





But compare that to this scene later in the film about the issue of heightism in China:





Not only has the subject matter become slightly weightier, but the look and style of the film has shifted somewhat - there's a more cinematic quality to it. This shift in style and tone matched a shift in feelings toward the content as well. If you may think that several of the men being interviewed in the beginning are not completely sympathetic, by the end (and mountains of stats) you may feel somewhat enraged by the effects of our cultural view of height.

After hearing about sperm banks having height requirements for donors and average salary differences of $1000 a year for every inch of height, the film really begins to make its points with two individual stories. One of them is the examination of Chinese attitudes towards height through the eyes of a young student who sued the Chinese government for discrimination. As we see from countless newspaper ads, many jobs have minimum height requirements - even basic desk jobs. In particular any international type position requires a man of a certain stature in order to properly represent the country and to be able to intimidate the foreign business people if necessary. The student wins his case and causes change in the country's laws. He also decides to leave and study human rights in Oslo...

Director Howard Goldberg adds some nice touches to the fim such as a sequence where the student sits down to have tea with a Chinese professor. Speaking about Goldberg himself, the prof says "He likes to watch us drink tea. He thinks it's traditional." Throughout the film, humour is never that far away.

And that's important in the other personal story...Akash is 17 years old and is told by his parents that he will never grow past his current 4'11". This seems to be traumatic for all involved - though it appears that Akash is currently as tall as his Dad - so they set about getting the boy surgery to lengthen his legs. After seeing not only the brutal nature of the surgery (purposely breaking the bones and then stretching them every day a bit so that they can don't have time to heal in their positions), but also the intense pain the young man goes through for months, I simply can't imagine any parent ever allowing their child to go through with this...It's a very affecting section and there were many people around me in the screening who couldn't even bare to watch. It actually made me angry. Had the parents not approached his height limitations as such an awful thing in the first place, perhaps there wouldn't have been the feeling that something quite that drastic had to be done..

But I'm 5'10", so perhaps it's easy for me to judge...The film provides food for thought on issues you never would have considered and shows a wide variety of ways to deal with them. And it does it in an entertaining and non-preachy way that never talks down to its audience. Even the vertically challenged...

4 comments:

James McNally said...

I'm a shortish man who's the son of short parents and yet I wasn't tempted to see this. But I do have a story that illustrates that height discrimination was alive and well in Canada until fairly recently. When my father came to Canada in 1967 for a "guaranteed" job with Northern Telecom (he climbed the telephone poles in Ireland and hoped to do the same here), he was turned away for being too short. Luckily, jobs were plentiful back then, but could you imagine uprooting your family, taking them thousands of miles from their home, and then being denied employment because of your height? Ludicrous.

Bob Turnbull said...

Wow James...That's an amazing story. I can't imagine being in the position your Dad found himself.

That's the kind of thing that the movie does a good job in pointing out though. For all of its lightheartedness, it makes some pretty solid points and showed that the discrimination is much stronger (in both NA as well as the rest of the world) than most people would have thought.

In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked whether the director was equating heightism with racism. I expect he's had that question before as he answered nice and calmly and said that he doesn't equate it on moral grounds, but he does if you look at its effects (as in salaries, job possibilities, etc.).

If I'm still thinking about a movie's message a week or so after seeing it, I'd have to say that's a good sign...

elgringo said...

Great post. I had never really thought about height issues in that way before. With shows like "Little People, Big World" highlighting the struggles of little people, it seems as though the hardships of those who fall somewhere in the middle get pushed to the side. Thanks for letting us know about S&M.

Scott
he-shot-cyrus.blogspot.com

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Scott!

I hope the film gets a wider distribution, if only on DVD or on one of the Documentary networks.