Elective Affinities at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

This year Full Frame Documentary Film Festival celebrated its 15th festival. We’ve been crashing this party since 2006 and have come to recognize many familiar faces of like-minded filmmakers, producers and viewers.

Unlike most film festivals, when it’s straight up documentary you can be sure that nobody’s in it for the celeb factor or the money, (except maybe the editors, who are most often the only ones that get paid up front). That means the crowd is fairly serious and passionate about the artistic, social and intellectual possibilities of the work. So allow them to bask in their integrity just a bit, because everyone knows that beyond these five days, it’s probably back to Mad Men and Downton Abbey for most of us.

We’ve come to appreciate the energy this eclectic (OK, maybe not so eclectic) company generates in its annual rite of assemblage. And we’ve also come to appreciate the interactive power of bringing an array of people and docs together in one setting to produce unexpected connections, cross-fertilizations, uncanny reflections, and strange attractions.

In short, the Full Frame Film Festival is a rich collection of “elective affinities” that forces us to ponder the relationships between stories placed side-by-side, like so many books on a shelf. Here is our selection of affinities from the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The Ties of Permanence and Change

Aranda, from the Finnish director Anu Kuivalainen, is a beautifully shot and poetic meditation on an oceanographic vessel as it trails across the Baltic Sea and the southern fringe of the Atlantic. Although the film is about a scientific pursuit, the visual references evoke science fiction in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The vessel and the scientific instruments are their own characters, seats swiveling by themselves with the rhythms of the sea, bolted panels rattling from some mysterious impending force, odd contraptions lowered into the depths or erected on barren stretches of ice.

The dialogue is sparse, mostly from voice letters home, often drifting into a silence that reflects the imponderable loneliness of the quest. Aranda has a lovely score, reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, and a philosophical poignancy about the brevity of a human life compared to the vast oceans under investigation.


We are reminded that the Atlantic is 80 million years old, and that the ocean currents take 1,600 years to complete a cycle. The humans in this film get to enjoy whiskey with an ice cube that is a million years old, but the sea itself remains unknown and perhaps unknowable to them.

In one shot we are faced with a tiny shrimp-like creature from the depths viewed through a microscope. It seems to be smiling and waving back to us, as if in kinship with our own smallness.

And now a word from the peanut gallery — in other words, what did the gen pop make of this wayfaring rumination? Spacey audience members filed out of the theatre at a markedly slower pace than they piled in. Were they contemplating the universe or had they just woken up from a feature-length nap? It was hard to tell… so we asked them, and here’s some of what some said about the film: “Wonderful!” “Experiential” “Provocative!” and “Slow…but worth it.”

The only haters were two teens who said they “didn’t know what was going on, it was scientific, and a bit boring.” When asked about the big picture meaning, they blankly said they “got no message about life.” When asked what the meaning of life was, they snickered, “some old movie by some British guys,” and walked away. Talk about minisculating.

The effects of outsized forces on our little lives is echoed in Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, winners of the US Documentary Editing Award at Sundance. The forces at work in Detropia are economic and social.

The film opens with the demolition of a home as if it were a matchstick play fort. This is an image of the withering of Detroit from the great and opulent industrial city it once was to today’s iconic rustbelt wasteland. The city lost over half its jobs and inhabitants at the end of the 20th century. Entire neighborhoods are left with streets where maybe one house is occupied.

Homeowners make the rational choice to burn their homes for insurance money. The most industrious form into packs of scavengers to extract metals from the city’s structures and ship them to China for genuine industrial production. They are a haunting indication of a de-developing region, first world becoming third world.


Detropia provides gorgeous, lush imagery of urban blight and a few different viewpoints for our orientation. On the poetic side is a young blogger who likes to sneak into the abandoned palaces of yesteryear and feel the “memory” of the city like an archeologist in Roman ruins. A UAW president and a Blues Bar owner provide most of the “analysis” of the decline of Detroit, which rarely gets beyond blaming the Chinese for taking our jobs. City officials get mired in public meetings on the “repurposing” of the city, i.e., shutting down the outer districts and huddling everyone in the center where some services could perhaps be provided.

Like the oceans, economic forces leave us lonely, confused and astonished by the fragility of our smallness.

On that note, care for a “Job-Killing Health Care Law”, anyone?

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, directed by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, delivers a devastating critique of the American health care system, weaving together a familiar yet satisfying balance of “talking heads” – medical reporters, health care professionals, heads of government – with gripping personal stories of doctors and patients in the trenches. Though the US spends nearly 18 percent of its gross domestic product on health care – twice as much as any other developed country – health outcomes lag far behind. As one commentator notes, we have a “disease care” not “health care” system – with economic incentives that drive doctors to perform high-cost procedures to manage symptoms, not resolve the underlying causes (often with less costly, less invasive measures).

Juicy facts help convey the big picture: if the price of other goods had risen as fast as health insurance premiums, a dozen eggs would cost $55 today, while a dozen oranges would set you back $134. With current debate focused on whether and how to sweep the uninsured into the existing insurance system, the film is a potent reminder that our current for-profit system is simply not structured to improve health for the vast majority of us.

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

The opaque title is a reference to the crazy-seeming fact that to save yourself in the face of a fast-moving wildfire, you’re best off lighting an “escape fire”, to burn away the brush around you, so the larger fire passes over, leaving you unharmed. The film points to the many “escape fires” that could avert the coming health care crisis, including modest interventions in diet and lifestyle. Even the US military, alarmed at the spike in addiction to prescription painkillers, has had success treating returning injured vets with acupuncture and meditation, not the bags full of prescriptions used in the past. Escape Fire is among the best, and most absorbing, critiques of the health care industry out there.

Director Peter Nicks’ The Waiting Room delivers a vivid portrait of the doctors, nurses, and patients that cycle through a public hospital’s emergency room in Oakland, California over one day. With little commentary and less context (economic, historical, or personal to the individuals we see), the film nonetheless lays bare all the tensions exhaustively explained by Escape Fire. We see, first-hand, the strains on a system that must triage the gunshot wounds and other emergencies, while also providing primary care to Oakland’s poor and uninsured.

The filmmaker has landed on some of the most compelling and diverse subjects you could conjure: the out-of-work father terrified over his young daughter’s tonsil condition; the scruffy young couple desperate for surgery to remove the tumor in his testicle; the carpet-layer suffering from crippling back pain and likely loss of work; and the snappy queen-bee nurse with pink glasses who keeps patients moving as fast as possible through the backlogged E.R.

The Waiting Room

At a time when the “medical profession” is often vilified, the film shares the humor, compassion and commitment of the hospital personnel without sentimentality. This is vérité at its best: an unvarnished, unfiltered look at the lives of its subjects, which quietly captures the intersections of poverty, race, and disease. Escape Fire largely tells you, in compelling detail, how the current system is broken. Waiting Room shows you the same thing, with a quiet and moving respect for each of the individuals it follows.

Yes! We Have No… Glaciers

Chasing Ice and Big Boys Gone Bananas!* both feel like the “Disc 2” to a companion flick you really want to see. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* tracks the kerfuffle ignited by the Dole fruit company when filmmaker Fredrik Gertten moves to premiere his movie Bananas!* at the L.A. film festival.

Bananas!* is a courtroom drama, tracking litigation by Nicaraguan banana farm workers against Dole for use of pesticides (banned in the US) that, they claim, led to infertility and other health problems. After scoring a big jury verdict, Dole appeals – claiming that some of the plaintiffs fabricated evidence (though, apparently, not contesting that the pesticides it used were toxic). As Bananas!* is set to screen in L.A., Dole moves aggressively to shut it down: threatening the L.A. film festival itself, and eventually suing the director and producer for defamation – notably, without ever having seen the film it claims is defamatory.

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

A prototypical David and Goliath story – the richest fruit company in the world, versus a small Swedish film company and director – Big Boys Gone Bananas!* follows the unfolding drama to its (thankfully) mostly happy ending. Corporate power trying to crush dissent, and spinning the media coverage along the way, is an old story, and this film provides a particularly juicy incarnation. But it feels like there’s a hole in the narrative, seeing Big Boys Gone Bananas!* without having seen Bananas!* Sadly, Bananas!* is unlikely to show in your local theater any time soon: Dole’s aggressive tactics continue to hamper distribution of the film.

Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, on the other hand, views as the disappointing “Making of” accompaniment to a much more interesting film you wish you’d seen. Chasing Ice follows Jeff Balog, a nature photographer with a passion for ice and, increasingly, an obsession with sparking public outrage over climate change. As Balog proclaims, the world doesn’t need more statistics or data, it needs images that capture the impact of global warming.

To that end, he cooks up a mad plan to install digital cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana, which will take hourly time-lapse shots of the retreating glaciers over a three-year period. And he does capture stunning – and shocking – images, of glaciers tearing apart, roiling, heaving, and receding hour by hour.

Indeed, the small snippets we see hint at the beautiful, compelling film that could have been made. Instead, the director follows focuses on his own experiences: montages of bad weather, treacherous hikes, medical challenges, and near misses are paced like a new “dangerous work” reality show. Bland voiceovers, which are notably light on hard science, do little but distract from the images. And stock footage of Balog’s family speaking with pride about his endeavors (though sweet and understandable), adds nothing to the film.

If only the director had heeded his subject: rather than narration and exposition, he should have let the images speak for themselves.

Chasing Ice

Teaching to the Converted

Jesse Owens, directed by Laurens Grant, Reportero, directed by Bernardo Ruiz), and The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki, fall into our elective affinities category of things we know all about but don’t know anything about. Most of us (liberal documentary-goers) have heard of Jesse Owens’ triumphs of the will at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; likewise, no one would be surprised to learn that corruption, bloodshed, and narco-trafficking are all the rage along the Mexican border; and it’s an article of faith in these parts that the War on Drugs in the United States has done more harm than good.

Rather than breaking new ground, cinematically or conceptually, these films fill in the blanks of our knowledge with compelling narratives, images, histories, contexts and arguments. There’s something to be said for preaching to the converted.

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens, co-produced by Stanley Nelson, who was honored at this year’s festival, was selected as the opening night film at the magnificent Fletcher Theater; it was also the film’s world premiere. There’s no denying the symbolic importance of Owens as an athlete and cultural ambassador, however ambivalent and, in the end, embittered. But at 54 minutes, the film has the look and feel of made-for-public television educational fare; it will surely live a long and life in American high school social studies classes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just seemed an uninspired, if eminently safe, choice to kick off the festival.

Reportero is a non-sensationalistic portrait of courage and journalistic integrity in the face of very real danger at the hands of drug-dealers and politicians, more often than not one and the same. Sergio Harto is a veteran of the groundbreaking newspaper Zeta, which was founded in the ‘80s by Jesus Blancornelas with the mission of exposing corruption and exercising journalistic freedom.

Unlike the firebrand Blancornelas, who narrowly survived an attempt on his life (he was critically injured; his bodyguard died), Haro is an unassuming hero. Despite death threats and the loss of several friends and colleagues, he goes about his work as a matter course, driven by a thirst for mere truth and justice. The sheer numbers of drug-related shootouts and assassinations, however, along with the public’s thirst for bloodshed and the paper’s need to sell copies, leaves little time for the in-depth investigative journalism that Haro strives to produce.


Just as Haro observes that the lure of narco-trafficking is fueled by poverty and inequality, The House I Live In explores the ways that the War on Drugs has exacerbated poverty and inequality in the United States. In short, the War of Drugs is a war on the poor, and especially, but not exclusively, on African-Americans.

Again, for your average documentary-viewing liberal, this is hardly new stuff. Rather, with an updated cast of talking heads (notably, The Wire creator David Simon and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander) and case-study profiles of convicts and cops and families devastated not only by drugs but by the draconian (read: racist) sentencing practices politicians so shamelessly exploit to gain an edge at the ballot box, the film serves mostly to reinforce what we already know or believe.

Jareki’s focus on the family of his childhood nanny adds a strained personal note to the film and is presumably the inspiration for its title; but whereas her story is entirely sympathetic and illustrative, his self-referential musings on his own privilege and complicity, while not irrelevant, are somewhat distracting. Some of the most compelling interviews in the film are those of law-enforcement officials – judges, police-officers, corrections officers – who have come to see the counter-effectiveness, to put it mildly, of our tough-on-crime regime. One imagines that if anyone could move the hearts and minds of the unconverted, it would be these guys.

The House I Live In

All In the Family

This year’s thematic program, curated by Ross McElwee, was on family documentaries, the products of those who point the camera at their own flesh and blood. Being huge fans of McElwee, we made sure to check out a couple of films in this program. Intimate Stranger, made by Alan Berliner in 1991, is an absolute gem about Joseph Cassuto, Berliner’s maternal grandfather. The film is made out of an archive of letters and photographs (and postage stamps) acquired by Berliner after his grandfather’s death.

Cassuto, who was a Jewish businessman in Egypt early in the 20th century, moved the family to Brooklyn during WWII and then spent the rest of his career in Japan doing business. There is no great revelation of story in the film, but it masterfully deploys the sounds of old typewriters, rhythmic graphic treatments and the hilarious voiceover from his mother and uncles as they comment on the virtues and failures of their father. The film pulls us through the 20th century in a way that reflects both the shifts in world events and the personal repercussions of an individual life.

McElwee’s latest film, Photographic Memory, had its US premiere as a centerpiece at this year’s Full Frame. It’s a dense and intricately constructed film that interweaves the story of the strained relationship between McElwee and his adolescent son ,with the return of McElwee to a small town in Brittany, where he spent a meaningful stretch of his own youth. Thematically, it explores the entanglement of technology and human relationships, and the disjunctions between memory, photographic reproduction and present experience.

McElwee’s voiceover, cinematography and editing create a nuanced piece of art that is as much literature as it is film. That said, the character of McElwee in this film is somewhat harsher than the wry, gentle, forgiving character of his earlier films. He’s demonstrably frustrated with his son and with his own apparent inability to avoid repeating the relationship his father had toward him as a young man.

Some of the shots of his son absorbed in texting on several screens at once were clearly framed in anger, even as McElwee tries to connect with him from the far side of his own camera. Photographic Memory is both a testament to McElwee’s craft and an indication of hard times in the McElwee home.

Photographic Memory

The Spirit and the Flesh

Two films, neither about religion per se, raised questions for us about the role of the spirit in a secular age. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple screened at Full Frame as part of this year’s tribute to director Stanley Nelson. The film was made in 2007 for the PBS series American Experience. Jonestown feels like a made for TV doc, but it also packs several punches. This is in part because it offers a sympathetic perspective on cult members who followed Jim Jones from Indiana to California and then to Guyana, where over 900 of them committed “revolutionary suicide” in 1978.

The power of the story also derives from the way Jones forged his own charismatic power from several more mainstream religious and social movements of the time. He dealt in the ecstasies and trickeries of Pentecostal Christianity, as well as in the social causes of racial integration and communal living. He moved easily in the political hierarchy of San Francisco and was appointed Chairman of the Housing Authority Commission by mayor George Moscone. Jones developed a tyrannical cult of personality in the idiom of mainstream society.

The third punch comes from the unbelievable fact that the mass death in Guyana occurred when Congressman Leo Ryan and a news crew were in Guyana investigating the Peoples Temple. Video, audio and photographic documentation confronts us with the moment when the spirit, in the form of Jim Jones, turned on its followers.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

We now turn to the Q&A that followed the film, which offered us another perspective of elective affinities — that of the director and his editor. Nelson made it known before the film began that his editor, the very talented and accomplished, Lewis Erskine, resented that the audience never directed any questions toward the editor. Nelson asked us to prove him wrong.

We’ve heard this complaint from many an editor before, that they don’t get the glory of the director, but feel they are usually just as responsible (if not more so) for the outcome of the film. When the film ended the two stood before the audience side by side. Three questions in, and still none were for Mr. Erskine. Finally, we posed one for him. His spirits were notably lifted.

A different kind of spirit, and a different kind of cult, possesses Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, directed by Matthew Akers with Jeff Dupre. In case you were not in New York and at the Museum of Modern Art between March and May of 2010, Marina Abramović is a performance artist whose retrospective involved her sitting in a chair every hour the museum was open for three months, available to audience members should they want to sit in a chair opposite her.

Marina Abramović has been performing body endurance art for over 40 years. The question she claims to have been provoking and avoiding all that time is, “Why is this art?” But our question is, “Why is this not religion?” Simeon Stylites lived on top of a column for 37 years and it was clear to everyone in the 5th century that such ascetic practices were a form of religious devotion. Much of the vocabulary of Abromavić’s art, self-flagellation, nakedness, endurance walking, comes directly from religious traditions in which the flesh is there to be tormented.

The centerpiece of the film is the drama of getting the MOMA show up and then surviving it. The film nicely presents Abramović both as a charismatic figure of true devotion and as a showwoman with a taste for very expensive fashion and an ability to market the purity of her endurance. The museum-goers respond to her performance with instinctive religiosity. Unfailingly, those sitting across from her burst into tears. One woman pulls off her dress.

The cult grows and people wait days for a chance to sit before her. All are religious gestures detached from any organization and displaced from the church into the museum. A curator at the MOMA comments on Abromavić’s intense need for the audience. Tellingly, Simeon Stylites climbed up the pillar to get away from the crowds who wanted a piece of his holiness. This distinction reveals more than anything the role of the spirit in the modern age.

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

All’s Well that Ends

At the closing night party, a cluster of some of the finest editors known to the business of documentary were gathered around a small table sipping free Pino and nibbling on some local North Carolinian hors d’oeuvres (of the salami rolls and cheese sort). As they gazed at their peers, an elective affinity of directors, cinematographers, producers, one editor noted that this crowd wouldn’t look like much to anyone who didn’t know who they were (think Pennebaker, McElwee, Berliner, Nelson, Froemke and Hegedus, to name a few). But if a bomb dropped on this party right now, the history and future of documentary would pretty much be obliterated. Nobody laughed.

Jyllian Gunther Jyllian Gunther is a writer and filmmaker. She is currently post production on a documentary called The New Public about the first 4 years of a small, public high school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Learn more at wonderful6inc.com.

Isaac Miller is a writer and history professor at Bard High School Early College Queens.

Amy Carroll is the Deputy Director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a national non-profit organization that builds organizing power and transforms the local and state policy landscape through deep, long-term partnerships with leading community organizing groups and labor unions nationwide.

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