Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
ATX Screen Scene
Among the more thrilling of the documentaries at #AniFab was Justin Zimmerman’s SMART.
The project follows the members of Los Angeles’ Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team as they recount their humble beginnings, regale their hopes for the future, but most of all, rescue the hapless pets and strays of SoCal—no matter the size or situation. They’re the last lifeline for many a suffering animal, serving the community in a manner more effective than other emergency response units. Put simply, and to make an animal-themed allusion to a certain serpentine sequel: “when all else fails, they don’t.”
The SMART team, helmed by charismatic leader Armando “Nav” Navarrete, perform acts of derring-do on a day-to-day basis, and the documentary does well to capture the energy of their mission. Once it starts, it doesn’t let up for all 73 (and a half) of its action-packed minutes. In this way, it’s similar to a day on-call with the team—an experience Zimmerman knows intimately.
While answering questions at the screening, Zimmerman spoke about his experience shooting the film, and I had the chance to follow up on the discussion with other attendees over dinner. Though a veteran of the doc game, Zimmerman understood there was something different about this project from the start. While this was his first animal-related feature, he took to the challenge like a fish to water (or a horse to the sky). He told the story of an early experience on assignment when he nearly dropped his camera to help the SMART team as they saved a cat from a tree. Such is the effect Nav has on folks: his passion is contagious.
Indeed, the standout element of the doc lies in its central character. Justin and I discussed the importance of such over our KBBQ, citing examples like Free Solo as documentaries whose greatness stems from the intrigue and impact of a singular subject. Alex Honnold and Nav share more than just an uncommon affinity for heights. Their dogged pursuit of a dangerous goal is inherently compelling, and SMART smartly centers its narrative around a profile of Nav’s persistence, rounded out with thematically resonant background on his personal life, as well as team testimonials to these ends. Perhaps it’s Zimmerman’s respect for documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (an interesting character in his own right) which sowed this instinct in him. His work certainly follows Morris’ unnarrated example, using various interviews cut together with an abundance of field footage to tell a cohesive story with a light touch.
The strength of the doc manifests further, as Nav and his motley crew demonstrate their unique aptitude by staging remarkable save after save, each executed with the reckless abandon required to embark on such risky maneuvers and just enough expertise to see them through to completion. Stitching together all manner of footage—handheld, GoPro, locked-off interviews—lends the project a sense of completeness, assuring the viewer that they’re seeing the totality of SMART’s endeavor, seamlessly negotiated in the editing room. The result: a fun, sturdy, and engaging look into a fundamentally exciting (though understandably taxing) part of LA’s ecosystem. And who knows—Errol Morris’ breakout hit Gates of Heaven helped springboard him to an Academy Award in short order. And like Zimmerman’s SMART, it was his first foray into animal stories.