Reviews Short Documentary

Too Good to be Forgotten (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Andy Bystrom

Running time: 23mins

Right off the bat, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give independent filmmakers sending their work to festivals is: under no circumstances send out a work in progress. Even if it is good, festivals will not be able to accept your work on the basis that they do not know what you may do to the final product before they get chance to play it weeks or months later. In a time when budgets are likely to be even tighter than usual, then, that is a sure-fire way to flush money down the toilet.

With that being said, Indy Film Library is different – we also provide a feedback service. While it is unlikely that we will end up playing your film in this case, filmmakers are welcome to send unfinished films our way for advice on how to proceed with the project. Just make sure you are clear about what status the film is in, and try not to take it too personally if the fact things are rough around the edges gets brought up.

Andy Bystrom’s eclectic history documentary Too Good to be Forgotten is one example of this. Sent to us in September (we’re working through a backlog due to a sudden spike of submissions around then), the film has undergone a number of changes since. Having already been lengthened by 10 minutes earlier in the year, Bystrom has added a further three minutes while it has been sitting in our inbox, and plans to add a further 10 minutes in the coming months.

Made up of home movies, military film and newsreel clips, Too Good to be Forgotten sees Bystrom attempt to piece together the experiences of his late father, Lieutenant (junior grade) John Bystrom, during the Second World War. While inevitably this work in progress has more than a few cracks to paper over, it is admittedly as impressive an array of original material that any filmmaker or historian could be blessed to work with.

Mixed together with some more benign clips of life before the war in America, and some amusingly antiquated sea-faring traditions, we also see Bystrom senior’s Navy vessel engaged in the sinking of a Japanese submarine, his witnessing of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific, and, in the age of segregation, the rise of one of the first racially integrated units in the US armed forces. At the same time, the director intersperses this with interviews of veterans who also served during the same war as his father, and an excerpt from a letter the LTJG wrote following a particularly tense encounter with a sea-mine.

It is clear, even from this incomplete incarnation, that there is a great deal of potential for this project to be something insightful and informative, while also being emotionally charged and politically challenging. If the final product were to live up to this, it would be unique among the glut of World War Two films that were churned out to mark the 75th anniversary of that war’s ending. What is also clear is that there is a great deal of work still to be done before it can be said this comes close to being ready for a proper release.

At present, Too Good to be Forgotten seems caught in no man’s land – caught between two conceptions of what it should be. In some instances, it tries to become a heart-felt portrait of a late loved-one, but then in others, it instead veers drastically into a minutely detailed account of the US Navy’s manoeuvres during the war. It is at the same time too dry to be consistently emotionally compelling, and too frivolous to be a thorough examination of the historical period it seeks to depict.

It will take quite a drastic facelift for Too Good to be Forgotten to overcome this butting of heads between its two core themes – but it is not too late to reconcile them. I suspect that the key issues are of time and organisation; there needs to be more space to include primary source footage and personal testimony of the events featured, while in turn this needs to be more cohesively gathered into a singular narrative structure, through which the film will be better equipped to address the harder-hitting moments of the story.

First and foremost, John Bystrom needs to play more of a role in his own story than he currently does. A commonly deployed device in fiction writing when addressing a tumultuous and confusing setting, is to use a relatable, ‘ordinary’ main character as a means to guide the audience through the environment, and better engage with the narrative as a result. The LTJG could provide this same function in his son’s documentary – we see him as a young graduate before he enlists, we witness him hiking with his girlfriend (the director’s mother) days before he ships out, and we see him letting his hair down at a Lūʻau, all of which could lay the foundations for becoming a protagonist through whom we can relate to the larger narrative.

What we don’t get are much of his hopes or fears, the things that would both further humanise him, and make the conflict we witness feel all the more real to us. The all-too-brief reading from one of his letters give us a glimpse of what could have been, with his ship having brushed against a mine which turned out not to be active, but even then, this is cut short before John Bystrom can allude to how any of this made him feel. At the same time, Andy Bystrom might do well to talk more personally about how his father spoke to him about the war. What made him so determined to enlist? Was he afraid while he was at sea? Did he miss his girlfriend, whether or not their relationship was ‘on hold’ during the war? Even if he was reluctant to talk about it, that is something which the audience could use to interpret the situation, and relate to it.

At the same time, by more closely tying the goings on of the film to John Bystrom, the documentary will be able to better contextualise the weightier historical content. For example, it currently touches on the ‘paradise lost’ of the Marshall Islands, and Bikini Atoll, which he visited during his service. The footage which he accrued coupled with some testimony from him recounting its beauty, if it is available, would really allow for the hammering home of the horrors that awaited the islands – many of which were rendered uninhabitable by the US’ tests, or resulted in generational cancer which is still hitting resident communities to this day.

There are other areas which need to be addressed. At the moment, the film’s conclusion feels a little grafted on – with another generation of the Bystrom clan joining the armed forces. Her testimony could come in earlier or be spread through the film to better contextualise it. Meanwhile, cosmetically there needs to be a better balance between still photographs and moving images – certain points of the film which are more photo-heavy become a little like PowerPoint presentations as it is – and there are a number of talking heads who we never see in any form but still-life, which needs to change if there is video footage available.

All these problems will continue to drag the movie down, even if it becomes thematically more air-tight. For this reason, it might be best advised for Andy Bystrom to seek out a fresh pair of eyes. Certainly, there will be plenty of filmmakers out there who would jump at the chance of working with raw materials as good as these. If indeed he can find someone with a little more filmmaking know-how to work as an assistant director or editor, his film’s final form could be greatly elevated.

I would ask that you do not read too much into the score given to this film. There is undeniable potential here, but it would not be fair to the other completed films reviewed on this platform if I were to evaluate it on that basis alone. Hopefully, if the film’s structural issues are addressed, it can live up to that potential in its future life as a completed product.

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