Full Frame—2013 Retrospective: An Adventure in Non-fiction
by: Ned Phillips
To me, there is no sight more romantic than a beautiful woman standing alone in line for a movie; few other images stir my imagination so. We sit near each other in the theater, palpable anticipation buzzing about the darkened room. Once the screen flickers its final time and the house lights come up, our eyes meet and for a brief instant, there’s energy, despite being drained by the power of the story we’ve just experienced. I’ll say something casually charming and related to the film we just saw like, “Molecular gastronomy is fascinating and may result in the single most memorable dining experience of your life but soul food, real comfort food you grew up with, will be there your entire life, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.” We’ll decide we both need a drink, and over cocktails talk about the movie, spinning its themes into anecdotes from our own lives, laughing into the night as the universe gets smaller and smaller.
Every April, when the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival gears up, this kind of magic happens.
For the second year in a row I’ve enjoyed the festival as not only avid film fan but also a journalist. One of the nice things about being a member of the esteemed press corps is the press lounge. Here you’ll find the incomparable Roberta Patterson of ROMO*PR, who’s quick with a smile and helpful information. Though she bubbles with energy and enthusiasm, the press lounge is generally a quiet place where you’ll find a hunched-over bunch, wrapped in headphones, clacking away on laptop keyboards. The opening day of the festival was also the final day of Roger Ebert and within minutes of his passing, the headphones came off as writers and media people shared stories and thoughts about the legendary film critic. “Goodnight sweet prince,” one remarked before slipping into his ear goggles and turning back to his screen.
My first film of the festival was Blood Brother directed by Steve Hoover. This colorful, visceral documentary succeeds as both a physical and emotional journey, demonstrating the difference one person can make in the lives of others. Like so many of my generation, twenty something Rocky traveled abroad in search of adventure. Yet he found more than he intended for after visiting an orphanage in India for children living with HIV. Without hesitation, Rocky sells his worldly possessions and moves to a small village near the orphanage to answer his calling- being a brother to those with none. Influenced by his own troubled family past, Rocky and the kids find a mutual understanding, and love, which fill voids in both their lives. The kids are clearly transformed by Rocky’s friendship and guidance, which makes it even harder to watch when the inevitable tragedy strikes.
Captured intimately by Rocky’s best friend, we witness a hero taking on hardship for the sake of others, and proving to be the difference between life and death for these children. We laugh with Rocky, just our soul aches with his. The film ties up its narrative arc to Justin Vernon’s heart wrenching rendition of the Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, accompanied by a chorus of blowing noses from the back of the theater.
Overwhelmed, I pulled from my seat thinking, if every movie is this intense there is no way I make it through the weekend. Everyone in the audience exited the theater in a daze, looking for someone, anyone, with whom to decompress. Though I was starving, eating a plate of George Bakatsias’ chicken souvlaki was a tall task with mind and body out of balance. A colleague and I had just begun to unpack the movie (and ourselves) when a producer from New York pulled up a chair and started asking us about what we’d been through.
By this point it was late night, a wonderful time at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The programmers wisely save the wildest, most magical and surreal films for the witching hour. Last year after seeing Samsara, I wandered the streets of Durham for hours in the dark, questioning my seemingly irrelevant existence in this vast, beautiful, and infinite universe. This year an 11pm showing of Expedition to the End of the World seemed exciting and full of possibilities. Directed by Daniel Dencik, the film features a motley crew of Danish artists and scientists who load up on a rickety old boat and head for the fjords of northern Greenland, making for certain areas that are only accessible for a few weeks out of the year when the ice melts.
What results is a composition of diametrically contrasted opposites- a soundtrack of heavy metal and classical music, discussions about art vs. science, the cramped quarters of a ship’s hold vs. the endless wild expanse. These zany Danish make Steve Zissou’s crew look like the Clever Family and strapped with shotguns and colored pencils, they explore the unknown while discovering new species, flying around in a homemade hovercraft, and catching fresh salmon in pristine streams with their bare hands. Terrified yet fascinated with the polar bear that seems to be on their trail, the team spends most of the time battling one another with philosophies on the meaning of life from the safety of their schooner while the glaciers crash down around them.
The next day, my first move is coffee and grub from the hospitality lounge, graciously provided by a rotating cast of Durham’s finest establishments. Some of the most interesting interactions happen here and I start the morning chatting with the director of something showing tomorrow that I’m eager to see. Caffeinated and carbed up, I’m ready for a day of movies and first up is Medora, directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart.
Even if you’ve never seen Hoosiers, most Americans are aware of the mythic proportions of basketball in the state of Indiana. High school revolves around hoops, especially in the rural communities, where everything but the family farm is gone, and even that is on the way out. One of the things causing these communities to suffer is consolidation; smaller high schools close and get lumped together to form one larger regional super school. Identity and tradition are lost, swallowed whole. This has happened to every school in the area except Medora High, where the student body is 70. The Medora Hornets only have 33 guys from which to select their basketball team and now, the once dominant Hornets cannot even win a game.
The film follows the season and its players in the face of great adversity on and off the court. Job loss and foreclosure means drug, alcohol, and family problems run rampant in the community. You find yourself desperately wanting every kid and the team to succeed. As a former high school athlete, I remember how devastating a loss was and can’t imagine what these players go through in an entire season. Young people in high school have enough to worry about without having to face the bitterness of defeat constantly. But hard work and focus render amazing things and what I thought would be “Hoop Dreams” in the sticks turned out to be a film about community and what America can regain, if we return to the small town sensibilities that once caused us to thrive.
The theme of youth struggle continued on into the afternoon, but took a much darker turn. Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children directed by Patrick Reed follows Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the commander for the United Nations forces during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Since then, General Dallaire’s mission has been the eradication of child soldiers, frequently used as instruments of war by militant groups throughout central Africa.
General Dallaire has the countenance of a bird of prey. His eyes are sharp and alert and it’s clear that he is well beyond tears in dealing with the horrors of the region. The film is peppered with firsthand vignettes told from the perspective of indoctrinated child soldiers and through these, we understand the terror inflicted upon these children. Though Dallaire’s dedication to the mission is undeniable, the film failed to take hold of me. The most moving interviews were with young people who escaped Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but his was as close as you could get emotionally to the film.
Though I have great respect for Dallaire’s undertaking, the film did not translate into a compelling story. With groups such as the LRA terrorizing peaceful villages with no clear intent (other than to visit horror upon residents) diplomatic and non-violent solutions don’t seem plausible. This proves is the film’s most powerful, though challenging statement- the malignancy of child soldiers will not end until the political structure in the region is such that militias are not required. Brave, driven men like General Dallaire have committed to the cause, knowing the long-term nature of their work, and knowing it will take more than walking around shaking hands.
In contrast to these dour depths, Friday night in Fletcher Hall was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Though I’d been excited about Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s Muscle Shoals, I had no idea what I was getting into. The music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama is legendary. FAME studios founder Rick Hall and the Swampers made history on the banks of the Tennessee River by cutting some of the best records of all time. Muscle Shoals is literally the stuff of legend- Native Americans believed there was a lady in the river that sang to them and thus the soul of the music bubbles up through the mud.
With an all-star soundtrack built from the original master recordings, I’ve never seen such an active cinema during a movie. During the opening sequence set to Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” I was certain the white-haired woman next to me was going to boogie all the way out of her seat and start dancing on top of it. There were whoops and hollers from the audience while we heard stories and music from Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, just to name a few.
The film brilliantly uses the tragic but determined life of Rick Hall to frame the narrative and draw us into the story. Powerful insights from Bono, Mick Jagger, Steve Windwood, and an inaudible, mumbling, chuckling Keith Richards give the movie real star power, and make the case for Muscle Shoals being a mystical vortex of musical magic all the more convincing. It’s a story we’ve heard about the South before- the culture just seeps out of the earth. Like southern hip-hop trio, the Cunninglinguists, reflect on their track Dirty Acres, “The lies, the pain, the truth, the hurt, the music, the soul, it’s all in the dirt.”
Next was 12 0’clock Boys, the first film from director Lotfy Nathan. It’s about a gang of rogue ATV and dirt bike riders, who tear about the streets of Baltimore in a critical mass style herd of machismo and sonic annoyance. The gang has mythical connotations and many younger boys in the city long to ride with pack, one of which is Pug, our charismatic young protagonist. Though quite capable of doing wheelies on his bicycle, to ride with the pack takes speed and skill, especially the way they weave about the roadways, on the run from cops with no regard for traffic law. People have died during the Sunday rides and the Baltimore P.D. is constantly trying new methods to combat the nuisance, including helicopter tracking and harsher penalties for offenders.
Yet Pug remains determined to join the crew. For many kids stuck in inner city Baltimore, it’s a way to escape mediocrity and touch greatness, if only for a moment. The pack is rebellious against the system yet welcoming in its brotherhood. From the film, it’s clear that what began as a visual study of the group from the outside became a real story once the director met Pug, our way inside the culture. Torn between the pressures of his home life and desire to be a 12’oclock boy, Pug makes decisions with serious implications on his future and even put’s himself in harm’s way, just to belong.
I almost skipped my next movie. The weather was beautiful and I had ambitions to drink a gin and tonic and lounge around Durham Central Park until the evening shows. I even perused the last minute line to see whom I would give my ticket to, but in a flash, I saw someone I had been trying to track down all festival long and went into the movie with the sole hope of finding a seat next to her. I never saw her again, but I’m glad I went in because, for me, the world premiere of If You Built It directed by Patrick Creadon, was the sleeper hit of the festival. The film takes place over the course of an academic year at a high school in Bertie County, North Carolina, where two teachers implement an innovative educational model known as Studio H.
Studio H is a design program that allows high school students to think creatively and then teaches them skills they can use in the real world to bring their vision to fruition. Operating under the motto “design, build, transform”, Studio H is an amazing example of outside the box education paired with a level of community engagement that yields true results. It’s clear that schools and communities around the country could benefit Studio H and every young person would benefit from teachers and mentors like Matt and Emily, the architects of the program.
Like the building projects featured in the film, the movie was trim, efficient, and well constructed, though not without beauty and imagination. There was a standing ovation as the kids, teachers and filmmakers took to the stage for one of the most moving and informative discussions of the weekend. I left the theater knowing I had just witnessed one of the finest examples of how documentary film can translate to positive change in lives of individuals and communities at large.
The final film of the night was the creep-fest Leviathan, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. I’d heard about this film prior and was interested in its moody and immersive approach to commercial fishing. Minutes into the movie, I couldn’t tell if I was watching high art or the biggest bullshit ever. Had I not been stuck in the middle of a row, I might have snuck out, as many others did, but I was determined to stick it out and take something, anything away from it.
I quickly became annoyed with the Go Pro dragging through the water and the whoosh of the ocean it captured. When a piece of machinery moved on the boat, which we never got a clear view of, it sounded like tormented children were screaming. At one point there was an injured seagull on deck that was so miserable he struggled over and jumped off the edge. Finally, someone who understands my experience!
Leviathan succeeds in giving you the monotonous, disgusting reality of life on a commercial fishing vessel. I didn’t need 87 minutes to figure out that it sucks being on a boat full of fish guts with a bunch of inked up, tough guys cranking cigarettes – I knew right away. I wanted the filmmakers to be there so I could ask them why in tarnation they made this “movie” and if the goal of being aboard this ship from hell was to make the viewer feel like they were going insane, in which case, they would have succeeded mightily. There is a time limit to how long humans can watch over-contrasted seagulls flying upside down.
But films like Leviathan, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, are the reason to come to Full Frame– innovative storytellers illuminating some of the farthest reaches, and most unknown places in our world. After the weekend I felt like I’d been around the globe, made dozens of friends, and been educated on a variety of subjects. Slowly, but surely, these films will make their way to wider audiences. Many are in the process of being bought and are setting up distribution deals at this very moment. Several of the films I saw at last year’s festival are just now making appearances on Netflix, cable television, and even theatrically.
Documentary is full of passion- passion for story, passion for character, passion for topic. There is no money in documentary film. These artists are telling these stories because they are things that need to be said and things we need to hear. Full Frame is more than a bunch of movies; it is a colorful celebration of life and art.
By the end of the festival weekend, things are packed up and people are gone, like the carnival that has rolled out of town with all the acrobats and elephants in tow. After The Full Frame what remains are the seeds planted by the films. Seeds that make you want to take action, seeds that make you smile, seeds that make you weep and know of the struggle of complete strangers. And like the carnival, Full Frame will be back next year. The film people will descend and the community will be here in support. The tents will be erected; they will fire up the grill, and flip on the projectors. Plan to be there, so you too can get lost in the magic.
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