This year, in addition to film reviews, we’re honoring the unsung heroes of documentary filmmaking by exploring and celebrating what it is that editors do.
After 17 years, Full Frame still has that ‘somethin somethin’. We’ve been dating this festival pretty steadily for the past ten years and it always gives us a rise. If you’re excited by the idea of four days spent slamming back fistfulls of documentary films, ranging from the commercial confections headed for HBO to the decades-long obsessions and passions of people with cameras, then this festival is your dream girl.
And we’re not the only ones who think so. The cliché, repeated tirelessly by directors introducing their films, is that they love screening at this festival because it is a “filmmakers’ festival”. Full Frame is affiliated with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Many attending are filmmakers, knowledgeable and serious about the craft and power of documentary film.
But lest we forget, film ‘makers’ are not just directors, even though they get most of the glory. Ask any documentary director around (which we did) and they will tell you that the editor is truly a co-maker of the film. We spent much of the festival watching films, speaking and drinking with a large group of award-winning editors who, like us, have been coming to Full Frame every year, whether or not they have a dog in the fight. They say Full Frame is their version of summer camp and the ideal place to admire each others work, which, they often say, goes rather unappreciated outside of the edit room.
Very few festivals give “craft” awards to cinematographers, composers, and editors. Sundance only started to give an editing award in 2005 and it was at the insistence of the jury that year. When Sundance announced the award, which went to Geoffrey Richman for Murderball, he was not in the audience. It turns out he couldn’t get in, and was in the “overflow” room. That was a case in point that recognition was definitely needed, says documentary director, Steve James, who was on the jury that year.
Last year a petition signed by about 20 editors was sent to Full Frame requesting an editing award, but it was denied. To be fair, Full Frame doesn’t offer a best director award, either. The films are recognized as a whole, but the directors and producers generally are the ones who accept these accolades. When we asked audience members this year what they thought of the editing of a particular film they’d seen, they commented primarily on the film’s length (too long!) and the order of the scenes, but were not really aware of the collaborative nature between the director and editor.
In light of this, we decided that this year, in addition to our usual film reviews, we would honor these unsung heroes of documentary filmmaking by exploring and celebrating what it is that editors do. We polled the editor regulars in attendance to give us their top picks for notable editing in the films they saw at Full Frame this year and to tell us which docs of all time they wished they had edited. We also spoke to five award-winning veteran documentary directors with films at the festival (Steve James, Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman, Doug Block, and Jesse Moss) about that crucial director/editor relationship and what exactly the editor does.
You can read their picks and actually hear audio clips of these directors (thanks to award-winning documentary editor, Penelope Falk, who edited their interviews for your listening pleasure) at the end of this article =, but first, let’s get romantic.
The opening night film of a festival has to be like Cheesecake: unobjectionable, broadly pleasing, soft and creamy. The world premier of 112 Weddings (dir. Doug Block, ed. Maeve O’Boyle) nestled easily into this role. Block is a regular at Full Frame and his other first person docs (51 Birch Street; The Kids Grow Up) have screened there at past festivals. 112 Weddings builds on a great cache of material: 20 years of footage shot for a day job as a wedding videographer. 112 Weddings uses that footage as a foundation for a longitudinal approach: revisiting the couples to see how the marriage is faring through the corrosive effects of time. The characters are strong and the interviews capture relationship dynamics, compromise, tension, and loss in clear and often captivating scenes that balance the then of youthful promise with the now of, well, something else.
The first person conventions did not help the film. The personal musings and reflections of the director sounded like attempts to imitate Ross McElwee, but without the layered depth of McElwee’s cinematic essays. We get the point that good weddings don’t make for good marriages (rabbinic wisdom from the film: booze and money are a boon for weddings, not marriages), but that point is neither surprising nor the result of any real pondering.
The music was also a distraction. Welling harps of enchantment seem to be luring us into a Disney fairytale. The music could have been meant ironically, as in don’t trust the glitter of the wedding; but it felt sincere, as in all of these joys and sorrows belong to the wonder of human experience. Cheesecake.
Where is My Son?
A different sort of relationship is the focus of Where is My Son? (dir. Chai-Min Ahn, eds. Jin-Sik Hyun and Hyo-Min Jin), a film from South Korea having its North American premiere at Full Frame. This slow, meditative, intimate, almost painterly film concedes nothing to the forces of commercialism. A son in his 60s suspends his life to take care of his mother in her 90s. That is the basic plot, without narration or cards to distance the viewer from the immediacy of the scenes.
The cinematography is lovely, assisted by the traditional wooden, light filled building where the mother lives. The house frames many of the shots so that the film has the aesthetic richness of a painting. There is a big theme to the film, filial piety, an abstract cultural value enacted in this specific relationship. Symbolic motifs of gardening and seasonal change reinforce the idea of give and take between successive generations.
Interestingly, Where is My Son? is not about personal character. It does not interrogate the personal motivations, attitudes or ambivalences of the two subjects. The film is an observational study of a relationship. It is touching and emotional, but not in any way that attempts to dramatize the material through conventions that we already understand. It may be difficult to find this film outside festival like Full Frame, but it is well worth finding.
The Case of the Three Sided Dream
The Case of the Three Sided Dream (dir. Adam Kahan, eds. Adam Kahan and Liv Barratier) is a love song to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind virtuoso jazz musician in the ‘60s and ‘70s most readily associated with playing three saxophones simultaneously. The film immediately shuts down the notion that this was a gimmick or parlour trick. If there is an overarching theme to the film and the character it is that of overcoming limits, beginning with blindness that was the result of a botched eyedrop job in the hospital at birth.
Rahsaan evolves in the world as a force of musical possibility, every object an instrument, every sound part of the score, his entire body musically productive. The generous concert footage finds him strewn around the neck with bunches of instruments, playing several at a time at full tilt, sometimes with his nose. Mind boggling.
The style of the film playfully matches Rahsaan’s inventiveness: blending nicely-framed interviews, flickering super 8 footage of his home movies, live performances, and original animated graphics that have been described as “Fat Albert meets Yellow Submarine”.
The theme of overcoming limitation works on social and political levels, as well. Rahsaan challenged the categorization of musical form and the way those categories get mapped onto race. He referred to jazz as “black classical music”. He also exploited the possibilities of live television in that era. He summoned groups, called “the jazz and people’s movement”, to sit in the audience of live broadcasts and disrupt them with noise. In some amazing archival footage we see Rahsaan on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971, supposed to play “My Cherie Amour” (apparently suitably ethnic for a television audience), but instead, with a band of all stars including Charles Mingus, blasting uncontained through a free form improvisation. Ed was pissed.
This film is an ear opener. The big question is: who will play Rahsaan in the narrative feature?
Another film about a character whose passion trumps hardships takes us to the world of lightweight women’s boxing in India. Light Fly, Fly High (dirs. Susan Østigaard and Beathe Hofseth, ed. Siv Lamark) follows Thulasi Ekanandam, a young woman from the “untouchable” caste whose life teeters between winning at boxing or getting pushed into an unwanted and arranged marriage.
Light Fly, Fly High
There are distinct virtues to this film. It gains intimate access to Thulasi’s adopted family, the training gyms and the competition grounds. Her story evolves and shifts in unexpected directions (court case, failed marriage, new career) in a way that clearly rewards continuing to follow a character as her story develops into unknown territory. The scenes are dramatic and evocative, referencing conventions of the boxing film genre (hard scrabble kid fights to survive) in an entirely new context. We also get to feel the mire of corrupt boxing associations run by pudgy “Sirs” at desks peddling opportunity and hope in exchange for meaningless fees and sexual favors.
There are some missteps. The music is heavy handed. The power of the fight scenes is crushed by the overly dramatic soundtrack and the pop song that bookends the film makes it feel not just too commercial, but also like an actual commercial. The symbol of the bird (caged or free) also needed some editing. Two thirds of the way through the bird felt not so much like a symbol hovering on the edge of conscious attention as a finger poking you in the eye. And when Thulasi says “free as a bird”, we wanted to fire a scriptwriter somewhere.
Although we were not able to attend The Overnighters (dir. Jesse Moss, ed. Jeff Gilbert) which was awarded the Special Jury award for Intuitive Filmmaking, we heard passionate raves about the film from just about everyone. Lucky for you, writer/filmmaker Adam Kahan did see it, and he shared his review with us, here.
The Overnighters tells the story of Pastor Jay Reinke’s crusade of compassion to help and house many of the men who are drawn to his small town by the promise of work in the present day oil boom in North Dakota. It’s Grapes of Wrath meets Fat City. It is a film that explores small town fear, morality and redemption.
This really is a timeless story – economic hardship, men looking for work, and Good Christian Americans who want nothing more than for these men to get the hell out of their town. The men are there with little choice. For many of them, it appears, this is their last chance to avoid homelessness, sinking back into drug abuse, or a life of crime. The townsfolk don’t make it easy for them, nor do they make it easy for Pastor Reinke, as pressure on him increases to kick out The Overnighters or lose his church.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss disarms his audience with his straightforward honest approach to filmmaking. No glitz, no fancy graphics, no heavy-handed music (this so refreshing when the trend seems to be the opposite these days). Pastor Reinke is a plain man, a good father and husband, and a good Christian. He likes tuna fish sandwiches and waving at passing Amtrak trains. We might at first wonder why we should, or would, care about such a Ned Flanders of a man, or this story. But we are subtly and swiftly sucked in.
The Overnighters is a film that slowly creeps up on you and slowly creeps into you.
As the film methodically and steadily builds to its climax, we get a sense that it cannot end well. Things fall apart. People fall apart. It is an exploration of a deep and troubled man in an impossible situation — Pastor Jay Reinke, who is running out of fingers with which to plug the increasing number of holes in the damn.
Documentaries define themselves by claiming some unbroken contact with reality. These films must be documents even as they exploit all the devices of fiction film, such as narrative, framing, point of view, and symbolic reference. Two films this year especially caught our attention along these lines.
Happy Valley (dir. Amir Bar-Lev, eds. Dan Swietlik, David Zieff and Brian Funck) explores the scandals at Penn State surrounding assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky (convicted of child sexual abuse) and head coach Joe Paterno, who had some awareness of the criminal activity. The style of Happy Valley is conventional: interviews with family members, Paterno’s biographer, lawyers, and riveting footage of the football crowds either expressing collective support or protest relating to the scandals.
The great thing about this film is the way it frames the story. The story is not about Jerry Sandusky and what he did. The story is more about Joe Paterno, but not really about what he knew and what he did or did not do about it. The real story of Happy Valley is about what happens to a society when the mythical center of its symbolic universe is tarnished and falls. The Penn State community revered Paterno, not just as a winning coach, but also as a figurehead of moral excellence and the transcendent possibilities of life guided by athletic values. When the university fires Paterno, the community becomes untethered from its symbolic moorings.
Happy Valley documents this experience. Crowds gather around the Paterno household to secure their identification with the symbolic center; they turn violent against the press, which is presenting a counter-story that undermines the myth. Some of the best scenes in the film center on struggles over representation. A mural depicting Penn State divinities has to be adjusted repeatedly to fit the shifting universe (Sandusky painted over, Paterno given a halo, losing the halo, gaining a white rose). A bronze statue of Paterno outside the football stadium becomes a contested site for those who want to label him accomplice and those who want to continue in the purity of their veneration. Here we see the symbolic seams tearing and resulting in real physical conflict. Then the statue is removed altogether and paved over as if it never existed.
Can we just erase the past entirely? Happy Valley is ultimately about the archaic power and reality that mythos still holds for our collective identity. And we can only see this reality precisely when it comes undone.
Our Man in Tehran
In a different way, Our Man in Tehran (dirs. Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein, ed. Steve Weslak) also plays on the lines between fiction and documentary. This is only because it is about the exact same topic as Argo, the Hollywood blockbuster directed by and starring Ben Affleck. They are based on different books, but one can’t help but view Our Man in Tehran in relation to its fictional predecessor.
During the Q and A it came out that the documentary was conceived prior to the release of Argo, and when the makers of Our Man in Tehran watched Argo they did so with the question in mind whether to proceed with the documentary. So, to some extent, the documentary was made in relation to the fiction film, as well.
The most obvious revision to the Hollywood version is the shift of focus from the US to Canada. Where Argo centers on the CIA caper to smuggle out of Iran the six American diplomats who avoided becoming hostages by hiding out with the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, Our Man in Tehran gives primacy to Taylor and the Canadian government for making possible all of the logistics of the rescue effort.
The documentary also shows that politics was the key mechanism for securing escape. Taylor and his staff were providing intelligence on the ground back to the Canadian government and from there on to the US. Various Canadian agencies and members of parliament were pushing levers and pulling strings to facilitate the operation. Argo, as its title suggests, elevates the daring imagination of inventing a fake Hollywood film as a vehicle for smuggling out the diplomats. Taylor politely suggests that the scheme was poorly conceived. The diplomats were exiting with Canadian passports, so why wouldn’t they be a Canadian production company?
The pieties of this contrast between documentary and fiction film should not be overdrawn. It’s not surprising that Hollywood would present historical events as if they were a Hollywood film. Ken Taylor was present at the screening and onstage afterward for a panel discussion and Q and A. His comments both in and out of the film remind us of the true heroics of a functioning government and an active diplomatic corps. The real problem is not Hollywood, but government policies that mistake themselves for their movie version.
William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Essentially, lose what you love if it doesn’t serve the story. The same goes for filmmakers, and this task, for the most part, is the job of the editor, (AKA, “the cutter”.)
As promised, here are the film darlings that made the cut for notable editing at this years festival. Remember, these films were chosen by the editors in attendance (about ten in total) and none of them saw all the films, these are just their picks from the films that they did see with the intent of giving you an idea of what an editor thinks is a well-edited film.
The E-Team, Editor: David Teague, director: Katy Chevigny, Ross Kaufmann
One Cut, One Life, Editor: Lucia Smalls Director: Lucia Smalls
Watchers of the Sky, Editor: Jenny Golden, Kareb K.H. Sim Director: Edet Belzberg
Happy Valley, Editors: Dan Swietilk, David Zeiff, Brain Funck Dir: Amir Bar-Lev
Alive Inside, Editors: Mark Demolar, Michael Rossato-Bennet, Manuel Tsingaris, Director: Michael Rossato-Bennet
The Case Against the 8, Edtior: Katie Amend, Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White
Here are some documentary darlings of the all-time that our editors said they wish they had edited:
Man On Wire (2008), (Most noted) Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), Editors: Doug Abel, M. Watanabe Milmore, David Zieff
Murderball (2005), Editors: Geoffrey Richman, Connor O’Neill
Capturing the Freidmans (2003), Editor: Richard Hankin
Billy the Kid (2007), Editor: Michael Levine
In a Dream (2008), Editors: Keiko Deguchi, Jeremiah Zagar
Paris is Burning (1990), Editor: Jonathan Oppenheim
Celluloid Closet (1995), Editors: Jeffery Friendman, Arnold Glassman
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Editors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Relationships Are a Give and Take: Part Two
Lastly, we’ll end our reader/writer relationship with you by sharing four short audio interviews with award-winning veteran documentary directors who had films in the festival. Hear them talk about that crucial director/editor relationship. And with that, we’ll see you at next year’s 18th Full Frame Festival.
Steve James, (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, At the Death House Door, and more) who was honored by Full Frame 2014 with a retrospective of his work.
Katy Chevigny and Rob Kauffman, co-directors of The E-TEAM, (editor: David Teague), which won the cinematography award at this year’s Sundance Film festival)
Doug Block, whose latest doc, 112 Weddings, (editor: Maeve O’Boyle) was this year’s opening night film and will air on HBO this year.
Jesse Moss, whose film, The Overnighters, (editor: Jeff Gilbert) won Full Frame’s Inspiration Award and also won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Special Jury award for Intuitive Filmmaking.