We’re still in love with historic downtown Durham, North Carolina where the admirable Full Frame Film Festival just held its 19th season. We’ve covered eight of those festivals so far, and we’re here to say that Full Frame has still got that roughly perfect doc fest combo of grit and grits: viable texture, timely and challenging subjects, more heavy than fluffy, little pretense, at times a bit cheesy, sometimes sweet, with a potential for bland but always surprises and ends up feeling like a worthwhile if not exhausting indulgence.
It’s no wonder that audiences and filmmakers keep coming back year after year. While it may not have the caché of some of the buyer’s market festivals like Sundance, it’s at Full Frame that you’ll see the best of current documentaries, many that you won’t find anywhere else.
Here are our picks for films we saw at Full Frame that you’ll want to watch for. (Actual Full Frame Festival winners are listed below.)
Documentary enjoys a stricture and a rigor about its forms. Too strong a whiff of fictionalization or artifice and audiences at Full Frame begin to sneeze. That said, docs that ingeniously bend, twist or break the rules engender a special form of delight. Cameraperson, directed by Kirsten Johnson, was a crowd favorite for an audience filled with artisans of the documentary craft. Johnson is an eminent cinematographer who received a special tribute at Full Frame this year. She described Cameraperson as a “memoir” formed from 25 years of her work.
Cameraperson is a cinematic montage of moments captured in the making of a wide array of films ranging from conflict zones such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, to a personal film about her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, to high profile features like Citizenfour and Fahrenheit 9/11. Cameraperson presents the magic that can occur in the unscripted serendipity of the documentary process that often doesn’t end up in the films because it’s not part of the story.
Here, the presence of the camera person is underlined rather than erased. Her hand reaches around to wipe the lens or pluck some weeds out of the frame. Her laughter, surprise, excitement are audible and often visible in the motion of the camera. In one scene, Kirsten inadvertently turns a cagey moment around when she admires the outfit of an elderly survivor of Bosnian genocide. Suddenly the woman opens up and speaks about herself and her past.
The film allows us to feel the immediacy of a cinematic present, which is often unavailable or groomed away in the final product. We get to see film more directly through the cinematographer’s eyes rather than those of the director and the editor. Of course, this film did have an editor, Nels Bangerter, who did an outstanding job cutting all of this disparate material into a coherent and illuminating whole.
Kate Plays Christine (2016)
Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, did elicit a few sneezes from those around us. It’s initially difficult to gauge where the film is going, but allowing it to unfold reveals a fascinating exploration of truth and fiction.
The documentary is “about” Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who committed suicide by gunshot on live television in 1974. That incident was the basis for the acclaimed film Network, which is about real anger at the “bullshit” of the world becoming more “bullshit” in pursuit of high television ratings. The real story about a depressed woman’s televised suicide became a fake story about male anger at “bullshit”.
The non-documentary part of Kate Plays Christine is about an actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, getting the role of Christine Chubbuck for a cheesy film and going to Sarasota to research the part. So, we have a fake fiction film, an actress playing an actress doing a bad acting job, and an apparatus for discovering the documentary materials of the Christine Chubbuck story. The film is clever in all of its meta-layering, but it’s not only clever — it forces the audience to reorient expectations and frames of reference for watching a documentary film (not everyone will like doing this).
The film contemplates the ways fiction can find truth, as when Kate interviews a seller of guns at the shop where Christine purchased hers — the guy didn’t work there at the time and never heard of the case. Then in a mirror scene she goes to the same store fully made over in character to purchase a gun from the same guy. It’s pretty revealing about how this process works. Kate Plays Christine also points a finger at the fantasies and desires underlying the documentary urge to access reality. There’s apparently only one taped recording of Christine Chubbuck’s televised suicide known to exist but it’s hidden from the public.
Good Times, Bad Times
The Bad Kids, director’s Lou Fulton and Keith Pepe’s notably well-crafted film, follows three at-risk students at a last-stop alternative high school in an impoverished California desert community. An alternate and much less sexy title for this film could plausibly be “The Extraordinary Principal”, because it’s as much if not more about the heroic efforts of Principal Vonda Viland.
The “hero” story structure, especially in docs about victims of, well, anything, often means a two-dimensional, agenda-pushing tale that either plays the heartstrings or brews skepticism. There’s no question that this film advocates as emphatically for Viland as she does for her students, but it never feels myopic or manipulative, and that in itself is a testament to how thoughtfully The Bad Kids was made.
The Bad Kids (2015)
Fulton and Pepe clearly gained the trust of their subjects to have been able to capture such intimate, observational footage. The characters are sensitively drawn, the editing lyrical, and the score doesn’t work too hard to cue appropriate feelings. Place is as much a character as the subjects the film follows. These strengths helped The Bad Kids win the 2016 documentary Sundance Jury award for vérité filmmaking. They also enable the film to transcend being simply an issue film and make it accessible to a much wider audience.
Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated, however, will likely gain a much wider audience than The Bad Kids. With the exception of motherless baby elephant-haters or people who O.D. easily on the voice of Gilbert Gottfried or his imitators, there basically isn’t a person in the world who wouldn’t get some enjoyment from watching this film. It’s based on the book of the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind about his autistic son Owen, who couldn’t speak for years, but memorized dozens of Disney movies and turned them into a language to express himself.
Life, Animated (2015)
Ron, his wife Cornelia, Owen, and his older brother, Walt, are all featured in the film. They are open, vulnerable, smart, funny and entirely sincere, without being in any way nauseating. The production value is incredibly slick, which is in keeping with its fantastical quality. The editing is pretty much flawless (not surprising, as it’s editor was David Teague, who also cut Cutie and the Boxer and other doc gems), and manages to combine Disney excerpts, vérité, interviews with the family, and new animation. Life, Animated has all of the qualities of a great Disney film except for a villain.
The major conflict is internal for each of the subjects as they grapple with how to find their relationship with Owen, and as Owen struggles to find his relationship to the world and himself.
The privileged, dream-like world of the Suskinds is in stark contrast with the world of Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, which offers a captivating look at the lives of girls in an Iranian juvenile correctional institution. Where you might expect to find an “issue” film or a redemptive story of struggle and survival, Starless Dreams offers an existential picture of vital girlhood in the midst of pointless brutality.
There’s no authoritative context around the film. We hear the girls talk about theft, drugs, sexual abuse, but there are no cards to provide sociological information and no adult talking heads to explain the situation for us. Interview questions are posed in a blank tone that evokes the flat candor towards life of French New Wave cinema. There’s no appeal for sympathy.
The energy of the film comes from the vibrant social interactions of the girls. Where you might expect a vicious Hobbesian world of survival in a cold institution, the girls exude warmth and giddy creativity as they sing and improvise puppet stories and play in ways they were no doubt deprived of outside the detention center. There’s no issue to resolve and no story to tell. There’s simply life.
Our Bodies, Our Selves
A personal ad for the Full Frame audience might read: Choir Seeks Preacher. That said, among that choir there are always a number of strict judges of the preacher’s style. One film that we heard the choir debate about, but ultimately agree on it’s merits, was Audrie & Daisy, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. It tells the separate stories of two teenage girls who were sexually assaulted by boys they considered friends. Both were subsequently taunted online, became social outcasts and both attempted suicide (one survived).
Audrie & Daisy (2015)
The film employs numerous devices that work hard to draw you in: various graphic treatments, highly stylized masking of the perpetrators, emotional music cues — manipulations which may or may not offend your artistic sensibilities. That said, none of this detracts from the fact that Audrie & Daisy tells an impactful, heartbreaking, and useful story, one that was clearly constructed by a sensitive team of filmmakers with a specific audience in mind.
In the director’s own words, “from the early days of production… we dreamed of distribution for the film that could reach millions of teenagers and their families.” In other words, their audience is primarily people who are directly affected by the film’s issue and will relate to the film’s style. You may not like the style, (or you may love it, or you may not think twice about it), but the message is on point.
Also on point is Dawn Porter’s Trapped, which chronicles the Sisyphean efforts of a group of passionate reproductive health clinic owners and workers in Alabama and Texas. Despite the TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers), which have drastically reduced the number of reproductive clinics across the South, these “last clinics standing” struggle to remain open and to keep abortions safe and legal.
We hear difficult stories from women seeking abortions, but only two women actually speak on camera; the rest are kept anonymous or we hear their stories through those who run the clinics. The film gives voice to lawyers like Nancy Northup, CEO of The Center for Reproductive Rights. The result is a highly effective issue film that draws you in without pandering to the typical victim/hero cliché.
I (Jyllian) saw this film twice; once at Sundance, where it won the Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking, and then again at Full Frame. At both screenings every woman I encountered or overheard left the theatre feeling enraged and motivated to do something about reproductive rights in America. The filmmakers are encouraging folks to organize grassroots local screenings to show that there is universal outrage about TRAP laws regardless of where you live.
National traumas provide obvious subject matter for documentaries. Such films run the risk of being at best solemn rituals of commemoration or at worst a maudlin reopening of wounds. Kim Snyder’s Newtown, about the devastating mass shooting in 2012 at an elementary school in Connecticut, avoids these pitfalls and captures some of the profundity of genuine tragedy.
The strength of the film comes from the interviews with families who lost children, families who did not, and other members of the community. The film is less about the pain itself than the processing of the pain, which allows for philosophical depth without being pat or indulgent. The subjects articulate the process of trying to think through, in an attempt to give some kind of order to the chaos, all of the causal factors that had to line up just so for the random catastrophe to occur. They meditate on the imponderable unfairness that one child was killed while the neighboring child was not, that the killer turned left inside the school instead of right.
The Greeks knew there was a point to watching tragedy and that meaninglessness was part of that point. Newtown makes the more obvious point about gun control and the less obvious point that tragedy is not what happens to “them”, it’s what happens to “us”.
Kivalina, directed by Gina Abatemarco, also achieves tragic dimensions in its depiction of life in a tiny Inupiaq village 80 miles above the arctic circle. Caught between forces beyond their control — the rising tides of climate change washing under their doors, the maze of federal agencies that could relocate them but repeatedly opt for a temporary sea wall — they can’t go on; they go on.
The film calls to mind a particular cinematic history. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, one of the very first documentary films, celebrates the heroic survival techniques of an Eskimo family. In Kivalina we observe a family watching the 1933 feature film Eskimo, that romanticizes the noble natives as they spear whales and walruses to the soundtrack of a string section.
Kivalina is an anti-romantic retort to this tradition. The villagers are still, impressively, catching whale and walrus, but their survival is more gross and gritty than heroic. The camera luxuriates in the slicing of whale fat and seal meat and the bloody butchery of caribou carcass. Boys spit in the mud and wish there were some girls in town. The villagers can’t drink the local water but they can stock up on junk food and soda from a dire looking market. They embrace, admirably, traditions of hunting and gathering that have allowed them to survive for eons, but those traditions don’t seem to have accounted for the fossil fuel industry or federal bureaucracies.
The Ones That Won
This year’s Full Frame jury included at least three people we know personally and consider go-to folks for recommendations. So even if we didn’t review all of them, the films below are most definitely worth checking out.
Starless Dreams, directed by Mehrdad Oskouei. The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award; The Full Frame Inspiration Award
Clínica de Migrantes: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin. The Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short.
Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams, received the Full Frame Audience Award Feature.
Pickle, directed by Amy Nicholson.The Full Frame Audience Award Short.
Sonita, directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. The Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award.
Kiki, directed by Sara Jordenö. The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights.
The Mute’s House, directed by Tamar Kay, received the Full Frame President’s Award.
Call Me Marianna, directed by Karolina Bielawska, received the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.