Depending on how long you’ve been a reader, you may remember that last August “Rocket Wars” by Variable was featured as a “Doc of the Week” here on Documentary Drive. The film uses the latest high tech filming equipment, such as a drone mounted Sony A7S, to capture the stunning annual event known as Rouketopolemos (Rocket-War), in which thousands of home-made rockets are launched between two rival churches in the village of Vrontados on Chios island, Greece, each year around Easter.
While filming the event is not an original concept, as you will see towards the end of this post, I recently discovered a second short documentary covering Rouketopolemos, which like Variable’s film above, was also released in 2015: “Rocket-War.”
It’s great to have multiple perspectives on the same subject, but how different are the films from each other?
Let’s be honest, neither film’s title is all too creative.
At the time of this posting, the production companies are also using identical thumbnails on their Vimeo uploads, which will likely be confusing to some viewers. I know when I first saw “Rocket-War” listed on Vimeo I actually thought it was Variable’s “Rocket Wars” which I had seen months earlier.
These similarities are unfortunate and will likely result in less views for “Rocket-War,” which is already the underdog of the two, given the amount of press Variable’s film has already received. As awkward as these similarities are, I applaud the director of “Rocket-War” and Just So productions for seeing their concept through and not being intimidated by the scope or reach that Variable’s film has had before them.
While the general quality of each film is excellent, “Rocket Wars” is more cinematic, whereas “Rocket-War” has a more journalistic sensibility about it.
The big shots in “Rocket Wars” could easily fool someone into thinking they are watching a dramatic short film and not a documentary. It’s a film that one doesn’t have a difficult time imagining being shown on a large theater screen and impacting its audience. After all, Variable meant for “Rocket Wars” to be a visual stunner.
“Rocket-War,” on the other hand, while beautiful and has a couple of my favorite shots out of the two films, is a much smaller production. Scenes prior to the rockets being launched have an investigative spirit about them. To me, this film possesses qualities that would make it a fantastic pick for a New York Times Op-Doc or to be featured on another large-scale news website such as TIME or CNN.
But how about the films’ storylines? How different are they?
In truth, not very.
Both films follow similar outlines that include observational footage, commentary from one or two anonymous people about the event, the showing of the actual event, and then boom, it’s over.
As far as scenes leading up to the climax of the rockets being launched, “Rocket-War” succeeds with its opening shots of the aftermath of some of the rockets lodged in different locations and for including coverage of one of the wooden launch platforms being prepared during the daytime.
In contrast, “Rocket Wars” opens with pretty scenes inside one of the churches, and some scenes on a rocky beach, presumably to emphasize the community’s coastal location.
Yet, compared to this minute and a half long film from 2009 the content of neither film is strikingly new.
One thing I didn’t like about “Rocket Wars” or “Rocket-War” is how they feature unidentified people.
In “Rocket Wars” you at least see one of the men who is talking, but in “Rocket-War” you just hear the individual’s voice. No names are given during either film.
Both films fail to fully answer the “Who?” of the Five Ws by not providing information to backup why the individuals featured are credible sources. I get that they are likely Chios locals, but why should viewers believe or care what they are saying compared to some other residents of the island? What is it about these individuals specifically that caused the filmmakers to choose them?
The films also disagree on who is launching the rockets.
“Rocket Wars” says it’s two church parishes, whereas “Rocket-War” says it’s two rival gangs.
Wikipedia and most other sources I’ve found on the subject agree that it’s two church congregations.
It’s possible that there may be some gang members within the parishes, but for goodness’ sake, for “Rocket-War” to lump everyone together as gang members? That just doesn’t seem 100% right. For this, accuracy points have to go to “Rocket Wars.”
Neither film made me feel like I was actually partaking in the event.
While watching both, I felt like an observer with glorious vantage points but that something was still missing.
I want the full experience. And for me that experience includes sound.
“Rocket-War” allows some of the natural ambiance of rockets being launched to come through, though many scenes still have music or talking layered over them.
In “Rocket Wars” you only hear music while the rockets are being launched. It’s powerful music, but its use is disappointing since it mutes the realness of what’s happening on screen. The event becomes seen more as an action sequence and less of a tangible experience.
The film that best captures the experience of actually being at Rouketopolemos isn’t high-tech “Rocket Wars” or “Rocket-War,” but a YouTube video simply called “Easter Rockets on Chios island, Greece” filmed by a rather brave traveler.
For me, this video captures the event perfectly. The sights. The sounds. Everything.
While “Rocket Wars” may be visually impressive, you don’t need expensive drones or equipment to capture feeling. You just need to be there.
“Rocket-War” and “Rocket Wars” make for an interesting study.
If you want to feel like you’re watching a movie, then “Rocket Wars” will be your winner.
Sometimes though, simpler is better.
For an already exciting event like Rouketopolemos, how many enhancements do you really need? Is dramatic music more thrilling than the sound of a hundred thousand rockets buzzing overhead?
When watching a documentary I want to be engaged. However, I don’t want the natural experience of the event that’s being filmed to be drowned out or to feel second to vision.
Rouketopolemos could be filmed any number of different ways, but the most powerful and most authentic way to capture the event is perhaps also the easiest.
Point the camera up.
Let the audience see.
Let the audience listen.
If they only see smoke, fine. If they only hear rockets, well done.