On Truth and Lies and the Full Frame Film Festival 2011

by Jyllian Gunther, Isaac Miller, Kevin Greer, Amy Carroll

27 April 2011

From Julie Moggan's Guilty Pleasures 

Applause for the Film – or for the Man in the Film

Better This World, from directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega,  unexpectedly dovetails with this pair of environmental flicks—with a portrait of two young liberals from Midland Texas (birthplace of Bush) as they too try to make sense of America, war, injustice—and to take action against it. The film is fascinating, not least because the two key subjects are themselves sensitive, thoughtful, and compelling individuals—not your stereotype of disaffected youth.

They are joined by a third character, a slightly older, though not wiser, activist who guides them on their journey from anger to action. It’s difficult to say too much about the film without hinting at the mind-bending twists and turns that it takes. The filmmakers pace and structure the film brilliantly, so the sensational twist comes at the right moment, leaving plenty of time to unravel the rest of the story. It provides a trenchant view into questions of democracy, power, the criminal justice system, and when and how regular folks can assert their voice against Big Forces—be they Big Coal, Big Wind, or Big Windbags such as McCain and Palin at the RNC in Minneapolis, where much of Better This World unfolds. Better This World is a must-see.

Better This World

Better This World

A former junta member and Burmese soldier turned anti-government protester turned political prisoner turned torture survivor turned refugee turned…Fort Wayne, Indiana resident.

Another “legal” doc, Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaigh’s Scenes of a Crime, won this year’s Grand Jury prize– and was quite the buzz. The film’s poster sure is snazzy; if only the same could be said for the film.

Built around police footage of a ten-hour interrogation of a father in Troy, New York suspected of shaking his four-month son to death, the film sprinkles in interviews of defense lawyers, the detectives, and various experts. The interrogation footage unfolds as plodding, painful, and mind-numbingly repetitive. But so, too, the film!  Experts articulate the obvious: detectives use psychological pressure, lies, and other tricks to get what they want. Goofball shots of journal covers and resumes establish credentials. And thin context or backstory on the criminal suspect, or the detectives, means we just don’t care that much.

We had a glimmer of sympathy for the detectives, who had been told, incorrectly it turned out, that the child’s skull was fractured, and thus the charge of child abuse was incontrovertible. (The medical story, and the presumption of abuse, offers glimmers of more compelling, interesting tale that gets short shrift.) 

Scenes of a Crime

Scenes of a Crime

Better This World said more, and said it better, about criminal (in)justice (plus a whole range of other thorny, compelling issues). It’s a puzzle to us, indeed ,why Scenes of a Crime won over Better This World, though to be fair, no one we met agreed with us, and the filmmaker among us learned later that her sales agent wasted no time in becoming the proud representative of this criminally uninteresting film. When she asked him why he liked it so much and she didn’t, he replied, “Because there’s something wrong with you.” But then he added that he had not seen hidden camera interrogation footage used in a documentary that way before. You decide.



Junto por Siempre

Burma Soldier is the latest from directing duo Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, who together received this year’s Full Frame Career Award. The movie tells the story of Myo Mint, a former junta member and Burmese soldier turned anti-government protester turned political prisoner turned torture survivor turned refugee turned…Fort Wayne, Indiana resident (who knew?). Using an extended interview with Mint in the refuge camp and later in Indiana, historical and smuggled footage of Burma, a historical narration by Colin Farrell, and swelling strains of U2 to close it out, the documentary takes the Story-of-Man-as-Stand-in-for-the-History-of-His-County approach.

A highlight of the film is the beautiful photos snapped by Nic Dunlop over years in Burma. Dunlop is the one who first spoke with Mint, and pitched the idea of the film to Stern and Sundberg. The history of Burma, Mint’s own story, and the assembled historical and recent footage woven throughout are stark and compelling.


Burma Soldier

Burma Soldier

But the film itself is oddly flat. The audience stood clapping for minutes as Mint, Stern and Sundberg took the stage. As one wise festival-goer noted, the thunderous applause was for Mint, not the film. Putting aside the artfulness of the film itself, discussion of how the film is being used, both in Burma and around the world, make clear its value.



A Separate Reality

Lyon Forrest Hill’s Junk Palace, is a brilliant, visually stunning gem of a short. With intricately built sets and papermâché marionettes, the film uses puppets to retell the tragic tale of the Collyers—brothers who lived in East Harlem in the early 20th century, slowly accreting around them mountains of junk (scavenged trash, newspapers, and lord knows what else). As most know, the pair was eventually discovered crushed to death beneath their hoarded possessions.

Festival twittering turned, apparently, on whether a film without much source material, recreating rather than documenting a historical event, should in fact show at a documentary film festival. This echoed a fellow festival-goer’s question to the lawyer in our group of whether she found legal documentaries, such as Better This World, reliable or manipulative of the facts. Our lawyer was a bit puzzled, as isn’t that question inherent to all documentaries, not just “legal” films?  All documentaries have directors and editors shaping the story. And obviously all film subjects (notably, almost always called “characters” rather than just “people” by filmmakers and reviewers) are not always themselves better positioned to capture the objective “reality” of what in fact happened.


Junk Palace

Junk Palace

But the reality is (no pun intended) it wouldn’t be a documentary film festival without audience members emerging from screenings in the midst of deep heated arguments about what the “true” definition of documentary is. So, while perhaps it is better to say Junk Palace “captured” rather than “documented” the events it portrayed, no matter. It’s still a brilliant film.



Questions of fabrication and fiction hovered around the two films that bookended the festival. The opening night film, Julie Moggen’s Guilty Pleasures looks at five characters, er, subjects, er, people, that are obsessed with romance novels. One is an unlikely male writer, three are devoted readers from Japan, India, and England, and one is an American cover model, who was present and signing autographs—and was the by far the most attractive attendee of the festival. That status isn’t such a great a feat at a documentary film festival, but that’s no insult festival-goers or to his book-cover-worthy looks and kind and quirky personality.

Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures

The film itself was a guilty pleasure, in that it was entirely enjoyable, but it was crafted like an extremely well done (and well cast) reality TV show, in which it’s obvious that you are watching characters who have been directed to act and “act out” like themselves in choreographed scenes. This is not meant to be a secret, and those scenes, such as a man on his way to his office job, practicing his ballroom dancing while he waits alone on a subway platform, are beautifully done, but nevertheless, done. We heard many a purist grunting about these artificialities as we left the theatre, but none denied the fact that they enjoyed every minute of it.



The final film before the awards ceremony, was Errol Morris’ Tabloid, which poses the eternal question: “What is the connection between cloned puppies and a 32-year-old sex in chains story?” The connection is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who was just your average American girl until a few twists and turns landed her smack in the center of a ‘70s scandal. Her attempts to reclaim her Mormon fiancé with handcuffs, fine chocolate and sex fueled competitive and contradictory stories in Britain’s tabloids.

Joyce was hounded by the press, and she also exploited it. The entire tempest got reawakened in 2008 when Joyce, long reclusive, decided to send her dog to Korea for cloning. Apparently, the cloned puppies could, just like their mother, fetch cans of soda from the fridge and open them.




OK. This film is highly entertaining and Mr. Morris’ signature interviewing device, the “interrotron” (eye-contact through the use of video screens, an adapted Teleprompter technology), captures fascinating material from his subjects.

However, the entertainment value of the film is really no greater than that of the tabloid stories themselves. To the extent that Tabloid wants to be a parable about or meditation on the effects of media and sensationalism, it barely rises above the objects of its study.

In closing, Full Frame continues to hold its reputation for being friendly, intimate and well organized. The films were consistently good, if not great. After four days of watching, talking, drinking and writing, we boarded the plane bleary of eye, sharp of tongue, and stiff of limb. We left enriched, engorged and enlightened by the experience, and our expectations for next year’s Full Frame are so high that we expect to be disappointed.



Jyllian Gunther is a documentary filmmaker currently working on a story for This American Life and is also post production on a film called Growing Small about the birth of a small public high school in New York City as seen through the journey of a parent, a student, and a teacher (who is Kevin Greer, co-author of this article)––learn more at GrowingSmallMovie.com

Isaac Miller  teaches at Bard High School Early College Queens.

Kevin Greer is a writer and co-founder and English Department Chair of the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School.

Amy Carroll is the Legal Director of Make the Road New York, an immigrants’ rights, community-based organization in New York City.

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