by Ned Phillips
Another Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has wrapped, but its reverberations will be long felt. We laughed, we cried, we made new friends, greeted old ones, and ate food from Giorgio’s Hospitality group. Oh yeah. And we saw some films. These are some of the movies I connected with most this year.
As someone who has been fascinated with trains his whole life, I naturally gravitated towards Off the Rails, the story of a NYC man with encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s subway systems. However at some point, his love for the trains became too hands on and as a result he’s been arrested more than 30 times for driving the subway while impersonating an MTA worker. Darius has Asperger Syndrome, and while the routines of transit give him a sense of comfort, they also reveal a dangerous obsession resulting in a cycle of crime and punishment. Though he’s never injured a person or property, the transit authority refuses to hire him in any capacity. Darius sees his sole purpose of existence to get people safely from point A to point B and without the ability to do that, he lives an unfulfilled and disconnected life. Ultimately, Off the Rails is about our broken mental health and prison systems that are unwilling or unable to address the roots of the problem someone like Darius faces. While Darius wants nothing more than to help others, he can’t get the help he needs to do so.
Anyone who’s ever made a movie knows there are stories behind the stories, and Cameraperson explores what most audiences never see. Things like how a cinematographer approaches shooting a scene, the emotions filmmakers feel when put in difficult situations, and the techniques used to lead subjects into certain emotional spaces. We get all this through the lens of veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who takes as around the world, showing us things that are often left out of the final cut- camera bumps, reframing, shifts in focus and behind the scenes conversations during production. The film is broken up into vignettes and scenes with no other information provided except where on the globe we are located. This approach is particularly effective because the viewer is plunged directly the emotion and imagery of the scene, rather than being forced to consider further, more complicated context. While most documentaries focus on the lives and experiences of the subjects, this film puts the filmmakers at the center. What emerges is a stunning visual poem that probes deep into the nature of human connection and storytelling.
I’ve always been a sucker for coming of age stories, especially in situations different from my own, because we can truly see what is universal. Raising Bertie explores the lives of three teenagers in Bertie County, in eastern North Carolina, where there is little opportunity for advancement. What began as the story of a special school for troubled youth turned into something more when during the first year of filming, the school closed. Undeterred, the filmmakers spent six years with the boys they met and sure enough, right before our eyes, they became men. Stories of finding a way out and breaking the cycles of crime and poverty are nothing new in documentary and never fail to uplift. The filmmakers ended up with an effective and intimate character study, though I did not find it as effective as If You Build It, a 2014 documentary also about challenged youth in Bertie County. That’s not to say Raising Bertie was without lessons for filmmakers and young people alike; among them, never give up, and find people who will not give up on you. The bond formed and strengthened over the time of this production was powerfully on display during the Q & A after the film.
I almost didn’t see Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. In fact, I originally had a ticket for another film at the same evening time slot. But earlier in the afternoon I was in the press lounge watching a screener about cats in Istanbul when I heard the director of the film giving an interview. I was so compelled by what he was saying I stopped listening to my cat movie and eavesdropped on the whole conversation. I then rushed down to the box office and swapped my ticket. I knew next to nothing about Tony Robbins before going into this film. I had some vague notion that he was the architect of get-rich-quick schemes. Or something. Less than one minute into the film, Tony Robbins was dropping f-bombs and teasing a suicidal guy about the color of his shoes in front of thousands of people, and I knew I was in for something. The film covers Tony’s annual six-day seminar, Date With Destiny, designed for, as he would put it, hungry people who want to make a radical change in their life for the better. The seminar seems to be part dance party, part guided meditation, and part hard hitting, uncomfortable psychoanalysis. Through Tony’s “interventions,” we meet people with a variety of issues in their life, and watch as Tony uncovers the underlying problems on the spot, and then offers them advice and course of action towards a better existence. Oh, and these intimate moments happen in front of thousands of people. I was blown away by the energy, emotion, and sense of community he was able to foster in nearly no time at all. I was shocked by his razor sharp insight and his knowledge of how to handle nearly every situation. I couldn’t believe the production value and organization of his “show.” Part of me would rather believe he’s a snake oil salesman pushing bullshit to messed up rich people (the seminar costs $5,000) but the honesty and truth I felt and saw in his interactions with folks he’d never met made me feel otherwise. Now what concerns me even more is that I may have somehow, along the way, drank the Kool-Aid. In my defense, I was sitting next to two psychologists who were fully impressed with his techniques. You can decide for yourself when the film drops on Netflix in July.
Full Frame audiences have a fascination for documentaries exploring autism. For the second year in a row, a film exploring the lives of subjects on the spectrum has captured the audience award. This year’s victor was Life Animated, which dives into the world of Owen Suskind whom, for most of his childhood, only communicated through lines from Disney animated films. Owen found emotional connection and understood the world through these animated characters, and it was when his family began “playing their part” were they able to reach him and help him express himself. Scenes and characters from the films we know so well blend with original animation, based on Owen’s writings, to reveal his views on the world as he nears impending adulthood. It’s fascinating and charming to watch Owen navigate the complexities of the real world, but also heartbreaking, knowing that real life doesn’t often tie up in a nice bow with a musical ending. Well-crafted and immensely imaginative, this film gives us a new character to cheer for, while bringing around some old favorites.
I can’t put into words my love for this festival. Every year, it’s like a crash course in humanity. I feel its importance so strongly that each the past three years I’ve gone out of my way to bring someone into the world of Full Frame who’s never attended previously. One year, it was my mother. The next, it was my friend who hates movies. This year, it was a doctor who runs a nonprofit that I’m working with. Every one of them had a tremendous and eye-opening experience. Seeing these films, discussing them, and meeting people from all over the world makes our community richer, stronger and more culturally aware. Until next year, friends.