Reviews Short Documentary

In the Same Direction: Jeff Pifher & Socrates’ Trial (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Alexander Craven

Running time: 17mins

In the Same Direction: Jeff Pifher & Socrates’ Trial follows the titular band of jazz musicians as they attempt to do something a great many others have tried and failed; to graft ideas onto music without diminishing one or the other. In the case of Pifher and co, this sees them working as a musical Nicolas Cage, snatching segments of the Declaration of Independence for their new tracks. On top of this difficult task, they are also trying to bring jazz back into the contemporary mainstream – so at the very least, you can praise them for not making life easy for themselves.

In this short documentary, we watch as an idea evolves to composition, from composition to reality and from reality to performance – but while this might sound like a regular music documentary, I should stress that it isn’t. In the Same Direction is an accurate title, because the narrative only moves in a single pedestrian route – the band comes together and records their album.

It lacks the independent and incisive nature of the best music documentaries, and the distance necessary to be critical when necessary. Asif Kapadia’s 2015 film Amy is a good example of what a film of this kind should aim for, featuring hard-hitting testimonies and an unflinching insight into Amy Winehouse’s inner demons. Unfortunately all the bumps in the road that every musical act faces – especially as they experiment with new ideas – are absent in Alexander Craven’s film (something which having Pifher as a Producer of the film may not have helped with).

Perhaps ‘documentary’ is the wrong way to sell this then; if it was tagged as a promotional film, the viewer would at least have a better understanding of what they are about to watch. By the end of the film, I felt as if I was being urged to buy Socrates’ Trial’s music, rather than learning something new about jazz, or about the highs and lows of life with a band – something I expected when I sat down to watch a documentary.

It should be said that from a technical perspective the film is flawless; but the thing is that promotional material often is. Photography, lighting, editing and sound, are all spot on – but if there is no sudden rush to uncover something new in the film, then that is of course going to be the case. At least this provides a solid basis for Craven to build on in future projects though; he has mastered the tools of his craft – now he needs to focus on storytelling.

Depending on what you are after, then, In the Same Direction is arguably a descent effort. Craven is undoubtedly a high-calibre filmmaker from a technical perspective, and it is clear why musicians would want to contract him to deliver similar projects to this in the future. In terms of documentary filmmaking, though, did he play this a little too safe? I think so.

What would help Craven break free of this in his upcoming projects is some in depth dive to storytelling. He should look to make it clear to viewers; “Why do I want to tell this story? What makes it so special? What is the message I am trying to put across?” Perhaps if those questions are answered, they can contribute to delivering a final cut that is worth more than the sum of its parts – because while the craft of this film exhibits plenty of polish, its content is a little sterile for a documentary.

Perfect audio-visual work does not make for perfect filmmaking, and an incomplete storyline means there is not a lot of feeling to take away from this. Films like In the Same Direction should never leave the viewer wondering “OK, but what was the point of this?” When we are talking about documentaries, there are some expectations that need to be met, and at some stage the subjects must bare something uncomfortable about themselves to us. The thing is, I am sure that Jeff Pifher and his band-mates do have a lot of beautiful stories to tell; stories which could help us understand better what led them to creating a whole album based on the first few sentences of the Declaration of Independence.

Are you a filmmaker looking for independent professional feedback like this? For honest, straightforward opinions and constructive insight into how you can improve your work, submit your work to Indy Film Library on FilmFreeway now.

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