The honor of being the best movie I’ve seen this year is a dubious one, as the bar is pretty low so far (does anyone really want to remember Watchmen?). But a week and a half ago, I saw a raw, visceral documentary called “Dinner Time.” It left me breathless, and I’ve been thinking about it since the moment the credits rolled. The film chronicles the evening meal of an impoverished family living in an Armenian shantytown. For one minute. With no dialogue. And it was directed, shot and edited by a 14-year-old.
The meal is meager, little more than a handful of small potatoes. We see unwashed hands on flaking metal table legs as one child sits on the dirt floor to eat. In lieu of dialogue, an ominous rumbling evokes rushing blood or ringing ears as well as the earthquake that left so many Armenians to live in similar shacks 20 years ago. The scant meal is punctuated by repeated images of a baby hungrily gumming an uncooked potato. That the child is unaware of or unconcerned by the futility of his attempts only makes the repetition worse.
It would be easy to receive this as a surreal montage, but Director Gor Bagdassaryan won’t let us. Every shot gives us tactile reminders that this is no Andalusian poverty, conjured up for the sake of discussion. Crumbling walls loom in every direction, sometimes two to a shot. Rusted tin sheets form a makeshift roof and trap the audience in this shack. Even every close-up of the baby propped up on a filthy bed also shows the dirt on the potato.
Bagdassaryan also isn’t content to let us think that this is just one family, the rare exception to a happier rule. No, when he pulls back to show us that the shanty we’ve been visiting is on the edge of a field of others that stretches to the wide-angle horizon, his message is clear.
And so is his talent.
In less than a minute, he so thoroughly invested us in the lives of one family that realizing there existed others just like them hit me like a kick to the stomach. (Believe me. I’ve taken plenty of kicks to the stomach.) A 14-year-old had set up a twist ending in less than a minute, then perfectly delivered it.
Bagdassaryan’s skill as displayed in “Dinner Time” has earned him numerous awards at festivals around the world, including a special prize from UNICEF. Of course, it wasn’t his talent I was thinking about this evening, when I purchased a bag of potatoes. It was his film.