We had not attended the Full Frame Film Festival since 2008 (see coverage on PopMatters here), and we were excited as hell while simultaneously expecting the worst—always good when you want to be pleasantly surprised. The festival founder and executive director Nancy Biurski, stepped down in 2008 after ten years, succeeded by Deirdre Haj. We’d heard through various purists and fussbudgets in “the business” that Full Frame had gone down hill, lost its edge, sold out, etc., and now focused mostly on films that had already premiered at Sundance or had already been picked up by HBO.
While that proved to be partially true, it had no effect on the quality of the films, the atmosphere, or the lovely mix of regular people, good spirited filmmakers, and inconspicuous publicists and sales agents at this year’s Full Frame Film Festival. Just a bunch of folks who like to see groundbreaking, quality documentary films that they may not get to see anywhere else, or want to see before they end up anywhere else. They come because it’s a no frills, low-key festival without being low rent or too fussy.
We found ourselves pondering the eternal question: what is a documentary film festival? Endless congregating chatter; cheap hospitality coffee and cheaper hospitality wine; a byzantine system of lines stratified and rarified by degrees of priority passes and impoverished last minute pleading. But with some distance and with the purifying fumes of jet fuel carrying us away from screening marathons, a little perspective is possible. The Full Frame Documentary Film festival is a gauge of collective attention. What are the issues, characters, stories that we the people have decided to gather around, study and concentrate into films? What are we looking at? What are we listening to?
A number of themes and directions emerged at this year’s festival.
We as a filmmaking and film-going species are clearly interested in environments, built and found. Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s My Playground features the emerging sport of parkour, or “freerunning”. The film follows a group of young Danish parkour athletes called Team JiYo as it travels to Japan, China and the US to connect with and run along side other like-minded human monkeys.
Two things are required for this sport: motion and architecture. Bodies (no boards, no wheels, no sails and definitely no safety nets) hurtle through parking lots, modernist housing projects and the curious formations in public squares. The athletes are for real, organized around “clubs” and a shared ethos, but without leagues, competitions or clothing label sponsorships.
Hipster architects are, however, fascinated by the activity, and seem to be designing buildings with the intention of allowing maximum access for parkour. One philosopher interviewed in the film suggests that while most sports aim to defy nature by overcoming physical limitations, freerunning aims to defy culture by overcoming the constraints of design. But the great modernist architects have long believed that their built environments would help form the “new man.” Seeing people somersault down the side of a housing complex makes that modernist claim more plausible.
The involvement of architects does, however, create some ambiguities. The film culminates with the construction of a parkour training facility. While everyone involved loves the structures, this domesticated training ground seems to represent a loss of innocence for those committed to spontaneous interaction with their urban environment. The film’s trajectory isn’t as fluid as the movements performed, but it’s a pleasure to watch, all the same.
In the Beginning was the Word
People speak. People with degrees study speech. The fact that human beings possess language and their tendency to reflect on that fact constitute a defining characteristic of the species. Two very different films revealed light and dark aspects of homo loquens. Anne Makepeace’s We Still Live Here won the Full Frame Inspiration Award. We went to the film because we had barged into Ms. Makepeace’s cab on the way from the airport and she convinced us to check it out.
The film relates to one of the big unsung issues of the modern world: language extinction. They say another language becomes extinct every two weeks. Newspapers routinely run articles, buried deep in the folds, on the deaths of “last speakers”. Linguists race around the world trying to record their final gasps. We Still Live Here features a rare instance of language revival. The Wampanoag on Cape Cod (yes, those who greeted the pilgrims) had not had a native speaker of their language for 100 years.
We Still Live Here
Then Jessie Little Doe started having dreams about people speaking in a foreign language, realized the language was her indigenous tongue, and set about a revival project. The story is fascinating, in part because there is a Jurassic Park aspect to the way she uses old documents regarding land claims written in Wampanoag and an old Bible translation to reconstruct a living language. The DNA buried in the very instruments used to steal land and suppress culture comes back to life. Inspiration is a good award for and description of this film.
Chimp Behind Wire
Project Nim, directed by James Marsh, gave us a very different insight into the study of language. Mr. Marsh directed the academy award winning Man on Wire, and we were genuinely excited about anything new from him. This film is about the notorious experiment in the ‘70s to raise a chimpanzee in a human environment and teach it sign language. Let’s just say that the best thing about this experiment was the name given to the chimp (Nim Chimpsky), both a pun on and an intended refutation of the dominant linguistic theorist of the time, Noam Chomsky.
There are several great things about the film, however. One is the wealth of archival footage providing what looks like a satire of the liberal ‘70s. Nim is raised for a time by a hippy family in a brownstone on the upper west side, dressed in groovy outfits, given tokes off a doobie, occasionally breast fed, and generally allowed to run free with the other children of the era. He gets caught up in various love triangles and self-serving lifestyles of the students teaching him language.
Ultimately, Nim proves to be very clever and somewhat violent, but his possession of genuine language is deemed “uncertain” by the “scientists” involved. What is certain is that Nim is utterly betrayed by those who were raising him, studying him and were responsible for his well being. After the five years of funding ran out for the project, he is sent into a series of primate “centers” that resemble prisons and “medical labs” that are really torture chambers. The clueless and helpless brutality of the enlightened and liberating forces of science provide a dark, almost Swiftian, condemnation of human enterprises.
Chimps may not be human (as clarified by the refusal to let Nim “speak” at his own trial against animal cruelty), but the humans here are clearly just a bunch of Yahoos.
Hearts of Stone
Il Capo, directed by Yuri Ancarani, is a beautifully shot 15-minute short with no dialogue and no soundtrack, save for the gnashing and grinding of the crane engines and the rumbling of rocks.
The camera trains itself on a nameless, voiceless, shirtless man with a deep, dark tan, wearing nothing but cut-off denim shorts, marble-dusted work boots, and a thick gold chain with a large Jesus on the cross. He orchestrates the machinations of two gigantic cranes as they topple massive slabs of freshly cut marble on the side of a mountain in Catarra, Italy.
His movements are as subtle as they are majestic—a slight flutter of the fingers, a suddenly clenched fist constitute a sort of sign language to the crane operators. With his crucified Jesus against the gnarled black hairs of his chest, he is at the crucible of man, nature, language and machine.
Close-ups of the timeless Romanesque features of his face evoke the timelessness of the business of extracting marble itself – how many Romulus and Remuses and Renaissance masterpieces, not to mention coliseums and fancy hotel bar tops, have been carved from the very same stuff over the centuries?
Cindy Meehl’s feature length doc, Buck, not to be confused with Uncle Buck, features another kind of maestro, an orchestrator of horses. Otherwise known as a horse whisperer. The eponymous protagonist is Buck Banhamm, an ex-child rodeo star and former Kellogg’s Sugar Snaps poster boy.
Born into horses, he was also born into abuse at the hands of his father, which worsened after the death of his protective mother. Perhaps as a consequence, his method of training horses is through empathetic (if not telepathic) communication rather than “breaking” them through intimidation and force.
Footage of Buck giving seminars around the country, for which he spends ten months a year on the road, show him as a preternaturally attuned psychologist of horses and humans alike – horse problems and people problems seem to be inextricably linked – and his wry charm and aw gee down to earth insights make for a satisfying profile in courage and wisdom.