Bernardo Britto’s Yearbook could almost be a radio play. Britto’s voice is a non-stop presence, setting up the short’s premise, carrying the narrative beats, and all but explaining its themes. The score underlines the emotions that aren’t always up front in the writer-director’s dry narration; the sound design acts as punctuation, reinforcing beats that are already present in the main storytelling.
That said, you’d think Yearbook should feel uncinematic. It doesn’t, though. Or at least not in a way that dulls its humour or lessens its emotional impact. After all, it’s a story about reducing the whole of humanity to a set of facts, a list of significant people that’s meant to serve as our species’ legacy. Yes it’s visually straightforward, even a little drab. That’s exactly what the story asks for.
Given that the whole short is under five minutes, and that the effect of it comes from its narrative drive, you should probably just watch it before reading on.
A recap, in case you didn’t watch: In the face of an unavoidable impending apocalypse, Yearbook’s narrator is given the unenviable task of preparing a document, “some sort of definitive record of man’s existence on Earth,” with “a focus on names and faces and people.” A record of the people who deserve to be remembered. And he spends the rest of his life doing just that researching history, compiling stories, reducing lives to their barest facts to fit in as many names as possible.
For the narrator, his eventual epiphany comes from a memory of Cat Stephens. For me, it was Orson Welles, reduced to a single sentence as the American film director who made Citizen Kane. Because, without being able to see Kane, or the context of what made it a film, or how it capped off Welles’ early career as an indomitable prodigy and presaged his life as a frustrated auteur, a sentence like that isn’t a record or a legacy, it’s trivia. And Yearbook seems to be saying that, ultimately, so is most history.
It’s not just that the lives of “great men” are too complex to distill into a few key sentences, although that’s definitely true. Just think of how we remember Pythagoras as the triangle guy, without talking about how he was a cult leader with purported magic powers and an irrational loathing of beans—popular history is all about bits of trivia and convenient misrememberings. More than that, though, it’s that the vast majority of humanity aren’t kings and queens and generals and leaders. What makes humanity worth remembering (if it is) can’t be contained in the actions of a tiny subset of us. Yearbook’s generals are right that history is made by individuals, but they’re wrong about what that implies.
Yearbook is a bittersweet film, but it’s a deeply affecting one, a reminder that life is more important than legacy, and how easy it is to get lost dwelling on the wrong things. That it can do all that while still being this briskly paced, this concise, and this funny is truly impressive.
dir: Bernardo Britto
syn: A man is hired to compile the definitive history of human existence before the planet blows up.