‘Zion’ Director Praises Netflix for Keeping Short-Form Alive: ‘A Little Film School Dream Come True’

The streaming service held a showcase for four documentary shorts on Wednesday, which touched on gun control, death, disability and immigration

Ted Soqui

Short-film director Floyd Russ admits he’s a bit of a neurotic. If someone can’t find him, he’s probably locked in a room with his writing buddy furiously mapping out all the things that could go wrong and right on his next shoot.

For “Zion”– his recent short about an Ohio wrestler born without legs — Russ only had a few shooting days to get what he needed. But nothing prepared him for what would happen while filming his first interview.

“It was terrible,” Russ told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at a Q&A after a Netflix Doc Shorts showcase on Wednesday, which featured his short after the streaming service picked it up at Sundance earlier this year. “[The interview] was an hour and a half. It wasn’t until [Coach Donahue] started crying with 10 minutes left. That’s the 10 minutes we used.”

While the short clocks in at only 11 minutes, “Zion” features intimate interviews with both the wrestler and his coach, Gilbert Donahue, as they detail Zion’s road from foster homes to glory on the wrestling mat. It was one of four films shown at the Netflix event at Landmark Theatres on Wednesday.

All four films, “Zion,” “End Game,” “Lessons From A School Shooting: Notes From Dublane” and “Out of Many, One” had unpredictable paths to the big screen. And each one of the filmmakers at the Q&A wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“It’s about as much as people could take,” Oscar-winning director Robert Epstein said about deciding the exact length of his film “End Game,” which follows the last days of several patients at a hospice center in San Fransisco.

Epstein is a two-time Oscar winner in the best documentary genre who, with Jeffrey Friedman, decided to take on a project that could go sideways at any moment. One patient they followed who had a cancerous mass in her uterus died a mere week after their final interview with her.

While they originally had plans to follow one patient’s journey, they realized taking an observational approach with various stories would paint a larger, and occasionally more beautiful, story.

“The film was a love story,” Friedman said. “[Death] is a moment when love can be expressed in a very intimate way.”

For “Dublane” director Kim Snyder, the uncertainty about her project was less about what she would have to shoot the next day and more about the fact that she hadn’t planned on making this short at all. Snyder was already in Newtown, Connecticut, filming her PBS feature on the tragic mass shooting that took place at Sandy Hook when she connected with town pastor Bob Weiss.

Snyder told the audience that she couldn’t grasp how Weiss could emotionally handle burying those children after the tragedy, especially because he had no wife and kids of his own to support him. But Weiss did have someone to turn to: father Basil O’ Sullivan, the pastor at a church in Dublane, Scotland, which had a similar mass shooting 16 years prior.

It was that correspondence that intrigued Snyder enough to make an entirely separate short on their friendship. Weiss would later invite O’Sullivan to Newtown to speak at the one-year anniversary of the school shooting, a moment captured in the film.

Getting a chance to be on such a wide-reaching platform like Netflix offers the filmmakers an opportunity to reach audiences from Connecticut to Scotland and beyond. Snyder hopes her film will help shift the gun-control debate for those watching from a bi-partisan issue to a “public health issue.”

“Out of Many, One” director John Hoffman hopes a similar shift will happen with the topic of his film: immigration.

“It’s an opportunity to humanize the immigrant in a time when they are dehumanized by the rhetoric being used,” Hoffman said, speaking about President Donald Trump’s view of Mexican immigration.

“Out of Many, One” follows a class of adult students looking to get their U.S. citizenship at the New York Historical Society. During the four-week shoot, the class learns about the early days of America, when people came to the country seeking refuge and religious freedom. While none of the students were pre-screened, Hoffman was able to use the lessons taught as a parallel for what immigrants are dealing with currently.

“Almost everyone has an interesting story if you just ask,” Hoffman said.

As was the case with Zion, who is now wrestling at Kent State. Russ says being able to share his story on Netflix is “a little film school dream come true.” Oh, and by the way, Zion’s single.

“He’s available on Tinder, everyone,” he joked.