Reviews Short Documentary

A Simple Haircut (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Dorothea Sterian

Running time: 6mins

‘Real life’ does not behave like a story – it rarely provides convenient chronological snippets for filmmakers to capture, before presenting as a single, coherent narrative. One of the great conundrums of documentary-making therefore becomes deciding how heavy-handed you are going to be to make everything ‘fit’ the point you want to make. Of course, there is no right answer to this – whether deploying seemingly laissez faire editing or a more overtly interventionist approach, you are still constructing meaning in some way, and both techniques have their own advantages, provided that you can fully commit to them.

In A Simple Haircut, Dorothea Sterian has deployed the latter technique to great effect – presenting viewers with a disarmingly simple portrait of her Grandmother as a lens through which to examine themes of social isolation. Over the course of the piece, we never leave the confines of Sterian’s Grandmother’s flat, and a great deal of things are left unsaid – but we learn so much about her over the slim six minutes the film lasts, which link to more wide-reaching themes than would be imagined at first glance.

Glancing across the apartment, the walls are adorned with photographs charting a lifetime of relationships. We see artefacts documenting emotional highs, and even personal politics (thanks to the presence of a calendar belonging to Romania’s social democratic party), serving to tell us all we need about the personal history of the old woman; and the significance of the absence of other humans in the house now.

The most notable absentee is Sterian’s Grandmother’s late husband, whose final years she recounts in heart-breaking detail. Left paralysed following a stroke, he spent the last ten years of his life bed-ridden, but still “knowing, feeling,” a loving companion until the very end. At the same time, the ravages of time and the moving on of the rest of her family’s lives have compounded the ageing matriarch’s isolation.

Again, none of this is overtly confirmed by a Narrator, or via subtitling, it is only alluded to – but in ways that if the audience is paying attention, they will be able to read pretty definitively. One moment sees her note not only missing having her husband there, but any presence at all, telling the camera, “I miss you guys.” As her family have spread out across the world – including Sterian, who is now based in the UK – her declining health has also caused her to withdraw from the wider community. In the brief time we spend with her, this is most overtly illustrated by her having to let her hair grow out – something she cannot abide by.

It’s quite incredible that this storyline was completed in January 2020, months before lockdowns across the world put billions of people in the same situation – even if their family hadn’t moved as far afield – so in many ways, amid the second wave of the coronavirus as many nations look set for a second sustained spell of social distancing, A Simple Haircut is little short of prophetic. It speaks to the sudden alienation which so many people have suddenly found themselves catapulted into amid a pandemic which prevents one of our most innate behaviours as a social animal.

One of the problems which light-touch documentaries depicting social issues often suffer with is that they come across as cold and detached – anthropological surveys of humanity from a distant and indifferent observer, who is rarely forthcoming with any solutions to the problems they treat as their bread and butter. A Simple Haircut gets around this to some extent by centring on Grandmother finally receiving a haircut in the comfort of her own home.

This gives the film a warmth which it sorely needed – particularly as Sterian is documenting the sadness of her own Grandmother. First and foremost, by enabling the haircut at home, it does show that Grandmother’s family and community still cares about her – while on top of that it shows that there are things we can do for the people in our own lives that have grown increasingly secluded and vulnerable in their advancing age. That is a commendable message, and one delivered subtly enough that viewers can easily take what they have seen in this brief view into one woman’s life, and transpose it into their own. “It’s been a while since I spoke to Mum/Dad/Granny/Grandad, maybe I should call them.”

At the same time – it does perhaps present a quite simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution to social isolation. After all, basing a response to this kind of issue that seemingly hinges on traditional family roles will do little to help people who do not have children or grandchildren to rely upon. Meanwhile, broader community efforts to reach out to such people have come under assault from the last decade of austerity – which means charities, voluntary organisations and state departments providing social care are expected to do more than ever with less than they had before the 2008 financial crisis.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask a zero-budget film of just six minutes to address these matters, especially since Sterian’s primary motivation for the piece is “a personal homage to the incredible strength of the filmmaker’s only grandparent left alive.” However, with the world now deep in another historic recession, and no end in sight for the Covid-19 outbreak, these are questions which sorely need addressing in a way that A Simple Haircut does not take the time to.

According to a piece by the University of Salford from earlier this year, after studying for a television and radio degree in the UK, Dorothea Sterian has been accepted onto the Edinburgh Television Festival’s prestigious Network scheme, while finding an early career mentor in BBC Storyville’s Commissioning Editor Mandy Chang. She is already producing polished and moving documentaries on the basis of what is to be seen in A Simple Haircut – something which bodes extremely well for her future career. If she is to truly live up to the promise of her early work, however, she will need to use the friends in high places she is cultivating to take a longer, holistic look at the systemic causes of the subjects she comes to depict. With that being said, on the basis of this patient and thought-provoking family portrait, I have high hopes that she can do just that.

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