Half Empty or Half Full?
An annual event in Durham, North Carolina, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has become a prominent international showcase for nonfiction films. Docurama’s third DVD of the Festival’s shorts series highlights the winners and notable entries from the 2004 festival. It’s a great opportunity for the filmmakers, since there is little or no chance for shorts to get exposure outside the festival circuit. For viewers, it’s a chance to see works by emerging filmmakers in easily digestible, small chunks.
Half of the six shorts were made by film students, and overall Shorts Vol. 3 has the feel of a student film festival. Many have no distinct voice. The shorts tend to be needlessly long, and a hodgepodge of visual and conceptual techniques produce varying results. The subjects are refreshingly diverse and include current affairs (gay marriage, capital punishment), broad concerns (overpopulation), and personal interests (familial relations). Surprisingly none of the documentaries touch on the topics of Iraq, terrorism, scam corporations, and the Bush administration, which proved enormously popular in the previous year. These shorts mostly disappointed me but, like a good student festival, the DVD offers intermittent thrills from filmmakers approaching their craft with a fresh eye.
Shorts Vol. 3 starts off with what is easily the best film presented. With its intriguing blend of abstract and concrete imagery and focused intensity, I was not surprised to find out that A Thousand Words was the Festival winner. Director Melba L. Williams attempts to understand her aloof father and his Vietnam War experiences by creating a collage of the incredible photographs and 8mm-film footage he took while serving in the war. The images are aurally juxtaposed with Williams interviewing both her brother and father. The memories of the father meld with his children’s observations, casting an ironic light on the title. The father’s art is emotionally charged, but the pictures can’t supply the words his children need to understand him.
The second short swings wildly around in a light-hearted direction. The Great Cheesesteak Debate starts off hackneyed, but also fun and brisk, a man-on-the-street chronicling Philadelphians’ intense opinions on who makes the best cheesesteak. The short quickly becomes repetitive with endless shots of people saying either “Geno’s” or “Pat’s.” My initial suspicions that this wasn’t going to be much more than a Food Network segment proved prescient.
Full Frame primarily highlights American work, but the organizers pride themselves on putting together an international festival. Rosalie’s Journey is the first of two global works presented. A well told, if inconsistent biography, it is the true story of an Aboriginal girl picked out from her school by a filmmaker and taken to Sydney to star in the big budget Australian epic, Jedda. Director Warwick Thornton uses the Aboriginal walkabout to channel Rosalie’s story through her own culture and not as a cliché of Western corruption or matriculation. The film uses footage from Jedda, screen tests, and shots of Rosalie’s school, along with her narration, to depict the beguiling transition she made from her girlhood home to the alien film industry. However, the music is horribly maudlin and the use of expensive-looking helicopter shots at the beginning and end are distracting attempts to impress with sleek professionalism.
Again, a comic documentary follows a serious one. Texas Hospitality is a mind-boggling selection. Its only conceit is to use a black screen where a picture of a death row inmate is placed in the upper left hand corner, below that the details of their crime, and then the inmate’s last meal request appears in that same space. At the end, statistics on Texas’ inmate executions appear. This last bit of information, along with the title, indicates that director Michael Pfaendtner is mocking the audacious last meal gesture. But the film, particularly with the overly satiric Western swing guitar, seems to make fun of the inmate’s meal requests. Either way, it offers neither stimulating criticism nor imaginative visuals; this could have been done with a PowerPoint presentation.
By far the most experimental of the six shorts, Journeys, explores issues of overcrowding, workaday struggle, urban planning, and dignity in Bombay by using almost nothing but images of commuter trains. Except for a bit of poetic narration, sound is either nonexistent or from the camera. What starts off as a shocking expose on how people cram and cling to any available space on the trains, morphs into meditations on the perceived worth of the individual in an overpopulated community. The slow pace draws the viewer into its lyrical rhythms: shots of clustered hands and knees, bodies riding on rusting trains against the bustling backdrop of a 21st-century city let viewers reach their own conclusions about the state of Bombay’s modernity. That said, the film is too long; it lulls you into its engrossing vision of a monotonous nightmare and then to sleep.
The Full Frame series closes with a sweetly and inventively told story of two army officers who found lifelong love in Vietnam. Foxhole challenges our expectations in simple but effective ways, touching on a range of topics. The turn towards support of gay marriage is not surprising, but the transition from romance to politics feels a little forced. Some additional technical details, like the interview’s sound echoing through bad microphone placement at one point, mar what is otherwise a confident debut by director Franko Galoso.
Overall, the six shorts resist strict thematic similarities. They are all essentially journalistic in approach; they raise a philosophical or narrative question and then attempt to uncover the information that will answer it. The journey is the only constant—for the makers of A Thousand Words and The Great Cheesesteak Debate, the individual life in Foxhole and Rosalie’s Journey, and the existential life in Journeys. They don’t feel rooted in 2004, particularly the politics, but rather a broader documentarian’s urge to chronicle general concerns. I can’t help but wonder if Full Frame was trying to make a point about exploiting current events in choosing these shorts. But I also can’t help but wonder if they didn’t sacrifice something in ignoring the sticky trap that is the highly opinionated now. Besides A Thousand Words, these shorts crucially disappoint in lacking passion, the individual constant that’s not visible from afar.