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Making the Cut: The 17th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Isaac Miller and Jyllian Gunther

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.

Passion Itself

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

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.

The Image of Passion (or Mythologies)

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

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.

Kill Your Darlings

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.

Isaac Miller holds a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in intellectual history and is a founding faculty member of Bard High School Early College Queens. He is currently working with Jyllian Gunther on a documentary film about teaching philosophy to children.

Jyllian Gunther is an Emmy Award winning writer, producer and director. Her latest award-winning documentary, The New Public, aired on PBS last fall and will be released on DVD/VOD in early 2014.

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