Origins and Artistry in Short Documentary Film ‘Oliver Jeffers’

Oliver Jeffers is a short film documentary directed by Bas Berkhout that explores the origins of the eponymous painter and children’s book artist.

The documentary mixes interviews with Jeffers with footage of him working, old footage of his family, news clips and more to create a multifaceted portrait of the artist. The film begins with Jeffers discussing his childhood in Belfast, stating that it was quite happy despite the background of political upheaval and his mother’s struggle with MS. He attributes much of his optimism to his mother’s resilience despite her debilitating disease. Jeffers also discusses the political tumult in his home of Belfast. The film shows many striking shots of Jeffers creating both his children’s books as well as his many paintings. While retrospective in many aspects, the film also does a beautiful job of incorporating Jeffers’ present and future life, incorporating his relationship with his son and the effect that has on much of his work.

The film does an excellent job chronicling the influence of his childhood on his art. A particularly beautiful moment occurs when a shot of the ocean in Belfast transitions into one of Jeffers’ seascape paintings. Another beautiful moment occurs when Jeffers recounts asking his mother “how long does somebody live for?” to which she responds, “as long as you remember their favorite songs, and tell their favorite jokes, and remember the smile on their face.” What Jeffers takes from this moment is that stories are a means of creating immortality. The viewer is able to understand Jeffers compulsion to create stories in his children’s books but also in his paintings. This is seen most strikingly when Jeffers dips one his portraits in gold paint for a group of onlookers in his studio, thus obscuring the painting. He tells them, “everything changes, nothing is permanent…[you] witnessed death first hand.” Though a static object, the act of dipping it in itself creates a meaningful narrative.

The documentary uses an interesting technique of cutting quickly between many different shots—news footage, Jeffer’s paintings, his children’s books, etc. The quickness with which the images flash creates almost a flickering effect. The technique highlights the vitality in Jeffers work. Cleverly, it also almost mimics the turning of pages of a book, showing how each element of Jeffers’ life was so informative in the making of his work. The interweaving of all of these elements strikingly shows not only how Jeffer’s origins have come through his work but also why they have emerged in two such radically different forms of artwork. For Jeffers, it is all part of the narrative.

Samantha Bloom

Samantha is a graduate from Stanford University with a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Her previous writing projects have included a satirical Silicon Valley musical, a short film that moves the story of Jekyll and Hyde onto social media, a short film about female embodiment in the modern age, and short stories galore. She's an obsessive fan girl with an affinity for 80s pop, science fiction, and quirky historical facts. She hopes to be a writer for TV and/or film one day.

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