Spotlight: Three Short Documentaries - An Underdog Fencer, A Surrogate Mother, and a Budding Jihadist

By David Schonauer   Monday March 2, 2020

The documentary field has never been richer.

Today we spotlight three shot films focusing on a variety of subjects, and all widely praised.

Filmmaker Leslie Tai’s My American Surrogate provides a look at the business of surrogacy through the perspective of a businesswoman who connects wealthy and infertile Chinese people with American surrogates in southern California. “The 25-minute short film, featured earlier this year as an NYTimes Op-Doc, charms with its lighthearted approach and charismatic character, but also chills—by revealing how easily human life can be reduced to a business transaction,” notes Short of the Week.

The second film, Stay Close, has been shortlisted for this year’s Oscars. From filmmakers Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan, the 25-minute documentary tells the story of Keeth Smart, who overcame adversity to become a silver-medal-winning fencer at the 2008 Olympics. The film. The film was begun while the directors were still in their MFA program at Northwestern University as a kind of passion project: Clement was himself a former fencer.

The third film, Esther Niemeier’s Tracing Addai, follows a young German man who decided to join a Salafi Extremists Group in Syria, as told through the stories of the people he left behind. Like Stay Close, it makes use of animation techniques to advance its narrative.

My American Surrogate

“With China’s strict one-child policy loosening up, and its longstanding economic shift from communism to capitalism minting an ever-expanding middle class, Qiqi, a recent immigrant, found a lucrative opportunity providing surrogacy as a service to the growing number of Chinese who are infertile or otherwise unable to carry children of their own,” notes Short of the Week. Her work became the focus of this film from Leslie Tai, who met Qiqi while researching a feature film project called How to Have an American Baby.

“The first time I met Qiqi, in 2015, we bargained over the price of my eggs (their value shot up when I told her I had attended Stanford),” wrote Tai at The New York Times.

“It embodied all the themes I was most interested in: the commodification of all things we ‘hold dear’, such as American values, the female body, U.S. citizenship, and the allegory of a global power reversal,” Tai tells SOTW.

Stay Close

“To say that Keeth Smart overcame adversity is an understatement. After losing both of his parents and battling a near-fatal blood disease, he ended up winning the silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games,” notes Short of the Week.

Luther Clement himself trained as a fencer at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York but did not make the cut for the 2012 Olympic team. “Looking to leave the sport behind and find something else, Clement-Lam discovered a new passion in the form of filmmaking, eventually attending Northwestern for grad school,” notes the Daily Northwestern.

He eventually brought fencing and filmmaking together when he and fellow Northwestern student Shuhan Fan began working on the project about Smart, who had also trained at the Peter Westbrook Foundation.

“Clement and Fan blend genres and utilize a mixed-media to carefully capture their subject’s tone and perspective while dismantling some of the most common cliches of sports storytelling,” notes SOTW.

Tracing Addai


In his early twenties Addai leaves life and family in Germany and moves to Syria to to join a Salafi Extremists Group in Syria. In a letter to his mother, Addai writes, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

“[T]he film’s narrative mostly centers on Addai’s mother and her contemplation around why her son chose to leave her and Germany behind, without even a good-bye, in order to look for a higher purpose in militant Islamism,” notes Short of the Week. “Niemeier tries not to judge the absent protagonist – all we get are altered reenactments and artistic screen-grabs of Addai’s emails with his mother.”

Tracing Addai has played over 70 festivals worldwide, winning Best Animation at the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, and was a finalist for the 2018 Student Academy Awards, notes SOTW. It subsequently was released as a New York Times Op-Doc under the title Losing My Son to Syria.

Go here to see a "making of" video about the film.


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