On Independent Vision, Art and Democracy: The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2008

There are reasons why documentary film is currently the most important cinematic genre around. On the opening night of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival we were informed of these reasons by a two-time first lady hopeful. Keep reading to find out who she was and what she said.

Full Frame is the premier documentary festival in the US. It has a new executive director this year, Peg Palmer, and our feckless trio wondered if it would remain an alternative to celebrity film festivals as well as a standout for good films, good food and good people. Full Frame’s exclusive focus on documentary films makes it gravitate toward academic and humanitarian affiliations rather than ski resorts and beach towels in the south of France. No limos, no red carpets, no champagne, no gigantic flashbulbs. And yet…there are reasons why documentary film is currently the most important cinematic genre around, and an opportunity to spend four days gorging on the best docs of the year is not easily passed up. Here’s how it goes.

Opening with a Bust

Film festivals present an existential crisis of choice. We have been known to disperse to separate theatres and text message our impressions after the first 15 minutes of our respective films. We have been known to walk out of a film to catch a different film, walk out of that film to catch a third, then walk out on the third film and return for the end of the first.

But no one ever questions going to the opening night film. It’s the one screening that doesn’t run opposite any others, and the festival is more or less staking its reputation on the power of the opening film to carry everyone over the next three days.

At the opening invocation we heard a brief and rousing statement from Elizabeth Edwards, apparently the best gig in town after canvassing for her husband’s failed Democratic presidential nomination. To paraphrase her comments: our democracy is in a bad way. The greatest threat thereto is the suffocating dross of infotainment and the deadweight of blockbuster movies. Massive, self-interested corporations control the visual and conceptual landscape, and if we are not quite in Orwell’s nightmare, neither are we that far off. The beacon of hope, the lifeboat from our media Titanic, is none other than the humble independent documentary film: educator of democracy and shining light of art and truth against the tyranny of corporate, or rather, “popular” culture.

That said, the festival opened, appropriately, with Trumbo, directed by Peter Askin. Trumbo is a portrait of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Beside the usual stuff of documentary (newsreels, photographs, talking head interviews), Trumbo features prominently the letters written by Trumbo during the period of the blacklist. These letters are eloquent and spirited defenses of free speech spun out in mock-Ciceronian invective.

We had doubts about this film when we read about it in the program. How is this letter reading thing going to work on screen? It turned out worse than we expected. The film is based on a play by Trumbo’s son Christopher that featured Hollywood actors such as Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, et al. not only reading the letters but declaiming them as if they were making closing remarks in a courtroom drama.

There were those at the festival who liked this film, but we found the self-importance of the “acting” insufferable. The staginess of the readings detracted from the documentary value of the letters. We could only imagine that this film was selected for the opening night because it carried so much Hollywood clout (it came with its own press release the size of a small town phone book). In unsurpassable irony, Trumbo catered to the very forces of darkness that Ms. Edwards had roused documentary films to fight against. O Tempora, O Mores.

Say it Ain’t So, Liz

Other films at the festival lived up to the standards set by Ms. Edwards. Here are a few we thought epitomized her ideals for documentaries that stand against the media monolith of our times.

From The Betrayal

The Betrayal, directed by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, exemplifies the potential of documentaries to explore sentiments and stories in ways that never appear in mainstream cinema. The titular betrayal refers to the fate of a Laotian family whose father, a soldier in the Laotian army, had assisted the US military during the Vietnam War. Laos ends up bombed into a pulp; the father ends up in “re-education” camps under the communist regime; the family ends up in New York expecting some kind of assistance from the US government but finding only the squalor of Brooklyn in the 1980s (that is, prior to the Brownstone revival).

Documentaries like this are perfectly suited to showing how major historical events play out in the personal dramas of individual lives. The Betrayal was shot over a period of 23 years. There are no trite resolutions or pat endings in this film. Instead, we see how historical convulsions continue to shape the lives of those affected, as the traumas of Laos spill over into the next generation’s struggle with gangs, drugs and violence on America’s mean streets.

The cinematography is gorgeous, but does not aestheticize the predicaments and conflicts of its subjects for our viewing pleasure. The lingering shots allow us to see the landscapes of Laos and Brooklyn, as well as the characters involved, through the emotional vantage point of the story being told. The beauty of the film signifies loss rather than redemption. This film received and deserved the Full Frame Spectrum Award.

Another film that spoke to Ms. Edwards’ fears for our comatose democracy was Boogie Man, directed by Stefan Forbes. This portrait of Lee Atwater, notorious political operative for the extreme wing of the Republican Party in the 1980s, exposes the poisonous relationship between media and politics. The argument of the film is that Atwater, an upstart without grooming or connections, used ruthless butcher-block politics to advance his standing as advisor to Ronald Reagan and to the George Bushes, and as mentor to Karl Rove. He created the smear campaign that defines our current political process and helped remake the Republicans into the party of populist jingoism and the party of the South.

Indeed, Atwater was the craven worm at the rotten core of modern American politics. Fear mongering, racist allusions, character assassination and bald lies leaked into the press, plastered up on unclaimed advertisements and unloaded on television talk shows were Atwater’s trademark contributions.

From Boogie Man

Boogie Man effectively displays the arsenal of sucker-punch campaign strategies and then provides a commentary from a range of political players and journalists. Michael Dukakis comes across as still dumbstruck by his loss in 1988 (at one point he held a 17 point lead in the polls), to the man who transformed himself from Northeast Brahmin to Texas dumbhorn, and should rightfully have been arrested for illegally selling weapons to a declared enemy of the United States then using the proceeds to fund a terrorist organization. Atwater ran that campaign and was, ominously, assigned to be the personal guardian and playmate for George Jr.

Director Stefan Forbes was also on a festival panel called Video Op-Eds – A Brainstorming Session with The New York Times. This was in essence a call to documentary filmmakers to work with the increasingly on-line editions of the press. Documentary footage, it seems, is an excellent way to focus attention on the means of communication in journalism and will no doubt play a broader and more diffuse role across the spectrum of journalistic media.

Documentary footage is also a way for The New York Times to pay next to nothing and back up their breaking news with excerpts from your labors of love as a filmmaker — but lest we forget your work will also be exposed to the millions of viewers that subscribe (get your subscription today!) Let’s face it, exposure is exposure. And in this day and age, almost everyone has some footage and opinion they’d like to share and not that many people to share it with. So if you’re a filmmaker with a documentary in progress or a documentary on the shelf, get it down and think about pitching a piece of it. If it’s good enough for Stephan Forbes, it’s good enough for you.

The most popular film of the festival, winner of the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award, was Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh. The film captures the oddly under-heralded art/crime of Philippe Petit who, in 1974, shot (with bow and arrow!) a line across the Twin Towers and walked the tightrope in between. Man on Wire uses archival footage, interviews with the participants and reenactments, performed in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek “great caper” style, to create a masterpiece of suspenseful and funny story telling.

The core story (sneaking into the towers, rigging the wire and walking across) is inter-spliced with all the back-story of Petit’s previous wire walks at Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and the seemingly insurmountable odds of preparing for the World Trade Center walk. The story telling in this film is as finely honed as any narrative drama.

Philippe Petit

Man on Wire is about art, not politics, but a distinct political afterglow can be detected. We were relieved that the film made no mention of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, an event that obviously comes to mind while watching it, especially when we see a photograph of Petit walking between the Towers as a plane, scarily large and close, flies by. As a site for a tightrope walk, the Twin Towers were symbols of global capitalism, icons or idols of the sheer force of money, and focal points for the full range of human energy. Seeing the Towers again, with the little man artfully suspended between them, reads as an anticipatory response to the attacks. It suggests the possibility of relating to our times with the power of creation rather than destruction.

The critical favorite this year was a riveting insider account of the harrowing events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, won The Grand Jury Award, the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, was co-winner of the Full Frame/Working Films Award, and winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Award to boot.

When aspiring rapper and full-time 9th Ward street denizen Kim (a.k.a. “Black Kold Madina”) Roberts bought a camcorder for $20 off the street (a.k.a. the back of a truck) about a week before the flood, she had no intention of capturing footage of biblical proportions. But when the exodus began, she trained her untrained camera onto the neighborhood regulars, like herself, who lacked the requisite resources and wheels to get out of town. Her streetwise interviews with school children, front-porch mavens, corner store managers, drug peddlers and town drunks are as familial and funny as they are foreboding. Before long we’re stuck in the attic with Roberts and about 20 other men, women, and children, including her husband Scott, as the waters continue to rage and rise.

This is decidedly not CNN, and we are not in a helicopter looking down hopelessly and helplessly on a national tragedy. As Robert’s batteries start to give out on her camcorder, death seems imminent, but for the incredible hope and heroism of the filmmaker and her stepbrother Larry, who braves the water and single-handedly shuttles people to (temporary) safety on a homemade raft. Lessin and Deal meet Roberts and her clan at a shelter and pick up where she left off. They skillfully weave her heartfelt amateur footage with their own and shed light on a story that was all but left in the dark.

From Trouble the Water

Ultimately, Trouble the Water is a film about fortitude, faith and redemption. When the film ends, we find ourselves back where we started, in New Orleans, the 9th Ward, amidst the rubble of lost lives and livelihoods. But Kim and Scott seem to have found the better angels of their natures. Scott, a former drug dealer, finds steady employment as a construction worker; Kim dedicates herself to uplifting her community and her career through her music.

Taking Care of Business

There was only one film this year we couldn’t get into due to lack of seats. The festival did some expanding and shuffling of venues and reorganized the ticketing process. Apparently, there was record attendance this year and more people got to see more films. On the down side, we noted a more subdued and perhaps more sterile atmosphere. Maybe it was the economy, or maybe it was lack of last minute scrambling for tickets and standing around lumped with the other regulars, but this year the festival was less like shopping in Chinatown and more like taking an automated train in Zurich.

The after-hour parties were moved to loftier venues that seemed to heighten status and dampen revelry. The Saturday night gala affair was at the Nasher Museum of Art, a cavernous space that somehow felt ill suited to the hands-dirty, workaday, point-and-shoot world of documentary film. The monumentality of the institution seemed to squash the people inside. There was no place to sit with your food, no utensils to eat the food with, and the bar was pushed into a distant corner. The party felt designed to prevent us from overstaying.

Taking it Personally

There is a lot of self-reflection in the world of documentary film, whether directors making themselves the stars of their own films in the manner of Michael Moore, shooting mostly their friends and family, a la Ross McElwee, or simply fretting about what it means to turn real life into movies. Since money is rarely an incentive, humanitarian and aesthetic values guide the motives and anxieties of documentarians. We hold such films and moments of hand-ringing dear to our navels.

From Summerchild

Summerchild, directed by Irs Olsson, won the Full Frame President’s Award for best student film. It’s about a young Russian girl living in an orphanage on the Russian-Finnish border who spends the summer with two Finnish host parents. Olsson informed the audience that this national border is also the border with the greatest socio-economic discrepancy between its two sides. She wanted the film to question what motivations drive such acts of charity and who really benefits from them.

At the award ceremony, she turned that question to a room filled with documentary filmmakers who are often in the service/business of championing the causes of the needy and the suffering. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder what motivates filmmakers. After all, it’s still the entertainment business, now, more so than ever before.

We felt those questions could and should be reflected back to Summerchild. Although the film is a sensitive and skilled veritè portrait, there is a removed feeling to it that had us wondering what the filmmakers motivations were for telling the girl’s story. Did the passion bring her to the story? or did she seek out something that would read passion, as is the case in the self-serving world of TV docu-soaps. (a.k.a reality TV.) Olsson revealed in her post-film Q & A that she crossed the border to a depressed town in Russia to find a story for her film school feature. Make what you will of that explanation. And maybe it doesn’t matter if the product still does its trick.

In other self-reflexive news, veteran filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt turns the camera on himself and his four-year old daughter in Beginning Filmmaking. His effort to turn his daughter into a clone of himself, to school her in “the grammar of the film language” and to produce her first precocious masterpiece backfires. The father’s frustrations are as squeamish-making to watch as it is a pleasure to see what the daughter does in spite of his pressure. Definitely worth seeing if you’re a baby bomber as to what not to do as a parent.

Lastly, in keeping with the theme of self-reflection, and wholly worth indulging in if you can get your hands on it, is Diaries (1971-1976) by pioneering documentary filmmaker, Ed Pincus. Filmed over the course of five years, then set aside for five before he picked it up in 1980 to edit, this autobiographical piece captures a time in history and a way of thinking that embodies the utopian hopes, fears and neuroses of the ’60s generation.

From Diaries (1971-1976)

It’s refreshing to see the real self-consciousness of Ed, his wife, his girlfriend and his three kids in front of the camera instead of the apparent normalcy that people now seem to have when being followed 24/7 by a film crew. Diaries (1971-1976) may be a precursor to the naval-gazing schlock that dominates our present world of popular entertainment, but it is also a genuine document of its historical moment and an authentic act of self-reflection. Incidentally, Ed was teacher to genius naval gazer, Ross McElwee, and the influence is apparent. Now that’s the kind of self-servation we like to be served up.

All Mixed Blessing Must Come to an End

Our own navels were tired and sore after four days of sitting in theatre seats. With pulled pork still in our teeth from the Awards Barbecue, a backpack stuffed with festival literature, and a fistful of complementary screeners of all the films we missed, our trio headed north to write it down and sleep it off.

Despite it’s box office successes, The Full Frame Festival has become a bit more tame and perhaps, as one couple who has traveled up from Charlotte, South Carolina annually since year one put it: “Something about the way it was so organized stole some of it’s character. We missed socializing on the wait list lines, the small parties, and the kindness of strangers.”

Still, The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival remains the event for those devoted to the ideals and the art of documentary film. Perhaps we’ll see you there, next year.

See also Gunther, Greer and Miller’s coverage of The 10th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Isaac Miller, is a cultural/intellectual historian with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He has taught at Stanford University, Oberlin College, and the University of Melbourne, and is currently a free-lance writer.

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

Jyllian Gunther is a documentary film maker and an Emmy award-winning television writer and producer. Please visit Wonderful 6 Inc.com to view the trailer to her latest documentary, Growing Small, about Mister Greer’s school, as well as her previous documentary Pullout, and more.