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.
How the Other Half Lives
This year’s festival informed us of a new term: “poverty porn”. Needless to say, docs about the suffering and dignity of the less fortunate are as old as the genre itself. The question is, is it the filmmakers or the audience who make it “porn”?
Two films, Steve James’ The Interrupters and Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth take us deep into the heart of darkness of American inner-city poverty and violence. Both are films of remarkable integrity, digging well below the surface issues, inviting complexity and questions over simple, black-and-white victims and villains.
Nonetheless, one can never get over that fact that the audience at the festival is almost entirely pale, liberal, and relatively well-to-do.
The Interrupters is another verité masterpiece from the director who brought us the academy award winning Hoop Dreams which ranks #1 on the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries list. The Interrupters takes us into the streets of inner-city Chicago, where a violence prevention program called CeaseFire trains and employs a team of ex-cons, gang enforcers, and murderers to go into streets and diffuse potentially deadly conflicts as they occur. While CeaseFire is the brainchild of Dr. Gary Slutkin, an Epidemiologist who argues that violence can be best treated as a contagious but preventable disease, the film focuses on three compelling street-level interrupters: Ameena Matthews, daughter of an ex-gang kingpin; Cobe Williams, who served time for drug trafficking; and Eddie Bocanegro, who was convicted of manslaughter as a teenager.
Like Buck, all three protagonists are deft communicators—dare we call them gang whisperers?
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth likewise takes us to places where no white man has dared to go. As it happens, St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe projects in were shuttered in 1972 after a short, beleaguered history that serves as a lesson in failed ambitions and desecrated dreams.
Built in the heyday of post-war manufacturing factoring boom, the massive project of some 33 11-story buildings—penthouses for the poor—was touted as a solution to St. Louis’ housing crisis and urban blight. But as the film shows, the seeds of destruction were sown from the very beginning.
In 1954 when the towers were built, the manufacturing base that was supposed to employ Pruitt-Igoe’s residents—or for which Puitt-Igoe was intended to provide cheap labor, depending on how you look at it—was in rapid decline, and white flight to the suburbs just picking up speed. And because maintenance for the projects was dependent upon revenue from the residents’ rent, the projects soon fell into abysmal disrepair.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Testimonies from former Pruitt-Igoe residents are as prideful as they are bitter, describing the euphoria of moving in to multi-bedroom units with the modern-day amenities of electricity, plumbing, elevators and garbage chutes and warm sense of community that survived even while the projects slide into disrepair and danger.
If The Interrupters forces us to confront present-day manifestations of the inner-city violence epidemic, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth shows us, at least in part, how the conditions were created in which it could thrive. While both films are in the vein of How the Other Half Lives, neither offers easy answers to the difficult questions they pose.
You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Tell You Which Way the Wind Blows
Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain, which won honorable mention at the festival, delivers a cogent critique of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Coal accounts for 50 percent of the power generated in the US. And the race for ever-increasing profit has quickened an industry shift from (unionized) labor-intensive mining to literally blasting down through mountains to access the layers coal beneath.
Aerial shots reveal the devastation: mountaintops formerly carpeted in lush forest reduced to moonscape wastelands. That mountaintops of scrub grass, rocks, and stone “streams” (designed to funnel rain water off the mountain and, incidentally, in to the towns below) count as “restoration” is thanks to a Bush-era tinker to a key regulation.
The film traces the stories of local residents’ increasingly bold moves to preserve the last untouched mountain in the Coal River Valley, West Virginia, area. Joined by Bobby Kennedy and a motley crew of tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked, and earnest youth, the community plays David to Big Coal’s Goliath.
The Last Mountain
According to the film, the alternative to Big Coal: Big Wind, harnessed by a chain of ridge-top windmills, feeding energy in to the grid. Graceful, serene, all clean lines: these gentle giants promise “green” energy wrapped up in Danish-modern aesthetics. You can almost feel the residents of the Coal River Valley humming with fervor (desperation?) that windmills will deliver a viable substitute to our addiction to coal, and an alternative to blowing up Coal River Mountain.
The film suffers a bit from a fairly standard structure and a love affair with Kennedy, who gets too much air time. Young Bobby’s visit to “Uncle Jack” in the White House, complete with pet salamander and a budding environmentalism, is much too precious—especially when compared to, say, residents’ stories of brain tumors found in those who live near coal facilities. But laying aside these minor flaws, the film offers a lovely portrait of a community tilting at Big Coal and Big Money—and a disturbing window into the role of Big Coal in local, state, and national politics, and how the drive for ever increasing profits is threatening the health and future of us all.
Kennedy-approved big wind, however, proves a less friendly force in Laura Israel’s Windfall. Here, Corporate big wind is blowing through the small town of Meredith, New York, with foreign companies “prospecting” for promising wind sites, and leasing property rights (for pennies, compared to eventual corporate profits, and an iron-clad confidentiality clause) to erect industrial wind turbines. In the fifth poorest county in New York State, Meredith is confronting questions of economic survival: large dairy farms are giving way both to high unemployment and to “newcomers” opening niche farms or raising grass-fed beef for small batch sale. (Note: even 30+ year residents are considered newbies, when they speak out against big wind.) Wind promises not just income, but green energy and the opportunity to do one’s part to protect the environment.
But at 400 feet tall, with blades that spin upwards of 195 miles per hour, the giant windmills lose the gentle air they enjoyed in The Last Mountain. Windfall visits neighbors of other “wind farms”, where turbines emit endless low-frequency noise that disrupts sleep and causes health problems, fling hunks of ice at nearby homes, collapse and burst in to flame, and cast strobe-shadows that drive film-goers bonkers after just moments. No glamorous Kennedy or calming soundtrack here: just folks too poor to move away once big wind sets down next door.
This is a tale of politics, economics, and the environment writ small, local, and personal. And Windfall’s cast of characters is transfixing—each clearly feels, deeply, that he or she has the best interest of the community at heart. But as planning and town board meetings grow long and contentious, and residents attempt to obtain and make sense of the science and economics of Big Wind, the strain is palpable.
The film feels a bit thin on Hard Science (just what are the health effects of low frequency noise?). But perhaps that’s the point: we watch as one small community, without funds, expertise, or an existing regulatory framework, grapples with economic stagnation, complex science, big industry, and the challenge of regulating something as ineffable as wind.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.