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Elective Affinities at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Jyllian Gunther, Isaac Miller, Amy Carroll and Kevin Greer
Man holding film flap close up. Image from

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.

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

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