Monday, April 10, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Days Three & Four

This was my ninth year covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for Film Babble Blog. I had attended various films before at the event, but my four day coverage became a thing in 2009. Now, I only saw a smidgen of the 90 films shown from last Thursday morning to Sunday night's last screening, mine is, of course, a pretty limited perspective. There were a number of films I missed that I heard great buzz about, like the Frank Stiefels short HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405, which won a few Full Frame Awards, but I’ll catch up with those later. Here’s what I saw on Saturday and Saunday:


(Dir. Sławomir Batyra, 2016)

This 30-minute short joins STILL TOMORROW and LONG STRANGE TRIP in having an excellent sound design. Whether it’s the echoes through the rafters, or the clamor of the orchestra practicing, or the bustle of assemblers, upholsterers, and prop masters getting the sets for in place, everything audibly pops in Sławomir Batyra’s backstage breakdown of the rehearsals for Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at The Grand Theater (Polish name: Wielki Teatr) in Warsaw. 

There is no voice-over narrator, no interview sound bites, just a series of shots of people doing their jobs in seemingly every nook and cranny of the largest opera theatre in the world with only random voices giving instructions like “Fishermen, to the boats please.” Made up of a number of visually pleasurable shots that match its immersive sound, Batyra film is a wonderfully artful tour of a magnificent venue. 

Post note: THE GREAT THEATER got an honorable mention in the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short category.

ONE OCTOBER (Dir. Rachel Shuman, 2017) “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether,” a quote credited to Harper’s Monthly from 1856 starts off this film shot in New York City during October 2008, in the weeks leading up to the historic election of Barack Obama. The film follows WFMU radio host Clay Pigeon around as he interviews random people on the streets, capturing the flavor of that memorable season when the world economy faced its most dangerous crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cinematographer David Sampliner’s camera also captures the Big Apple beautifully in vivid shots, whether of protesters, parades, street musicians, or bird watchers in Central Park, that are interspersed throughout the film. This is enhanced by Paul Brill’s lively score performed by cellist Dave Eggar.

But it’s the people that Pigeon (real name Kacy Ross) talks to that will be the film’s biggest takeaway, like the old coot who says, “listen, the white guys have been in charge for so long, give the black guys a chance, they can’t do worse than we did,” or the young mother who complains about the gentrification of Harlem, “five more years I won’t even be living here, this won’t look like this no more.” The one hour and seven minute ONE OCTOBER is a fine time capsule as is, but I could’ve gone for some more New Yorker straight talk. 

BRONX GOTHIC (Dir. Andrew Rossi, 2017) I had never heard of dancer, writer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili before, but I know I’ll never forget her after this powerful doc about the performance artist’s acclaimed solo show “Bronx Gothic.” 

Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES) films Okpokwasili as she takes her show on tour to small theaters in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta. Alongside the ample samplings from the show, which depicts the dialogue between two 11-year-old black girls growing up in the Bronx, we also get a glimpse of her life offstage, and with her family. The audience reaction shots are priceless as the performer’s material, demeanor, and especially her chaotic, seizure-like dancing obviously pushes many buttons. 

Okpokwasili, who calls her work 
memories from a rupture that's never been sutured, is an engaging presence so there’s a lot of entertainment value in watching her talk with students, discuss the recent remake of “Roots” with her white husband (Peter Born), and play with her daughter, all elements that give the intense performance art segments a great grounding. I’d be remiss if not to mention how well-timed and funny the woman’s work can be as well. Though what we see of Okpokwasili’s show leans towards darkness, there are cracks where the light gets in. I’d like to see the entire performance some day.

MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (Dirs. Judd Apatow & Michael Bonfiglio, 2017) I was a bit distracted as this film began, as the legendary D.A. Pennebaker (DONT LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, THE WAR ROOM, do I need to go on?) sat down next to me in Fletcher Hall ten minutes before the film began. Pennebaker, and his wife and film-making partner Chris Hegedus are regulars at Full Frame who helped get the festival started so it’s not the first time I’ve been in their presence, but the idea of watching a rock doc sitting next to the guy who invented rock docs was hard to shake.

When the doc, which is about the popular North Carolina folk rock band, the Avett Brothers, began and there was footage of the group walking through the hallways of a venue before a show, I couldn’t help but think about how the well worn tropes of following around and filming artists backstage, hanging with them in hotel rooms, and capturing them interacting with fans are all things that the guy to my right did first. But soon into Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s film, I was able to focus on the story of a band I basically knew nothing about. 

Hailing from Mount Pleasant, N.C., Scott and Seth Avett are depicted as two simple farm boys who get along great together unlike other famous musician brothers like Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, or those damn Gallaghers in Oasis. They start off rebelling against the country music of their father’s generation and take to wanting to be Nirvana, but they returned to their roots after a revelatory encounter with bluegrass icon Doc Watson at Merlefest, the musician’s annual traditional-music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C.

The doc takes us through the Avett Brothers’ career, but largely focuses on the making of their 2016 album, “True Sadness.” One of the film’s highlights is a stirring studio take of “No Hard Feelings,” which emotionally drains the brothers. They ask producer Rick Rubin if they can take a break and Scott and Seth walk outside to regain their composure as various folks congratulate them on the performance. Alone, they discuss how weird it feels to get complimented for work that calls upon very personal, naked feelings (particularly about Seth’s 2013 divorce). The scene reminded me of something Bob Dylan said when complimented on his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks,” which many felt dealt with his divorce, “It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”

Speaking of Dylan, the guy who shot famous footage of his legendary 1965 and 1966 tours was right next to me! Sorry, back to the Avett Brothers. 

Despite having seen them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro back in 2005, I’m not really familiar with much of their music but I enjoyed the concert sequences, and may give them more of a listen as a result of this fine summation of the Avett ethos. The screening was well received by the audience, but the panel Q & A afterwards in which guests Scott Avett, the band’s cellist Joe Kwon, and codirector Michael Bonfiglio came onstage to great applause, was a lovefest with questioners who the band often recognized from their gigs taking them for their music more than asking them questions.

The last film I saw at the fest was Yance Ford’s STRONG ISLAND, which was an encore on Sunday afternoon because it won two awards at Full Frame’s Awards Barbeque at noon: the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award.

The awards are well deserved as Ford’s film is an impassioned exploration of his brother’s murder by a mechanic in Long Island, New York in 1992. William Ford Jr., 24-year-old black teacher, was going to confront the people at an auto repair shop who weren’t fixing his family’s car after an accident that was actually caused by the same people. William was unarmed, but was shot and killed by .22 caliber rifle fired by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic. Reilly was not indicted by a white judge and an all-white jury for the crime and went free, while the Ford family sat in mourning helplessly by.

In extreme close-ups, Ford, pours his heart out about the grief over his brother’s senseless killing, the racist system, and his transgender coming out, while his mother, Barbara, and sister, Lauren, give us their takes on this angering, all too common tragedy.

A well made, straight forward, and up close and personal film that wrestles with the wounds from injustice that can never be healed. STRONG ISLAND is one of the strongest documentary debuts I’ve ever seen.

I probably could’ve come up with a better last line for that review, but I’m tired after four days of docs in Durham so it
ll have to do. 

So that’s Full Frame 2017! It was one of my favorites of all the years I’ve attended.

If you haven’t already, please check out my coverage of Days One, and Two.

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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Day Two

Day two of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriot Convention Center in Durham, N.C., was a lot livelier than the first day as the weekend crowds starting pouring in. This was also due to the capper of the second day of the fest - the North Carolina premiere of Amir Bar-Levs epic four hour Grateful Dead band biodoc, LONG STRANGE TRIP. But first let me get to some other worthy docs I saw on Friday.

(Dir. Olympia Stone, 2016)

This fascinating 20 minute film, part of the New Docs Program, concerns outsider artist Richard McMahan, who makes miniature versions of some of the world’s great paintings. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, McMahan is the creator and curator of the Mini-Museum, a traveling and online exhibit of thousands of his hand made replicas including intricate recreations of Egyptian tombs, 20 years in the making. McMahan’s work is incredibly impressive, and he's a likable, if extremely eccentric character (he wears period costumes at his installations) so the doc is a short but sweet treat.

Next up, I saw another film in the New Docs Program, Garret Atlakson’s MOMMY’S LAND, which was making its World Premiere at this year’s Full Frame.

The film tackles the protest that was formed by a group of women who were dislocated when the corrupt government of Cambodia forcibly evicted them from their homes in 2006 and 2007 to make way for new developments funded by World Bank.

The former residents, mostly young mothers, of the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) area in Phnom, Penh, whose houses were flooded and destroyed by property developers filling the lake with sand, rally behind a fellow resident, an elderly grandmother they call “Mommy,” in often violent demonstrations. Watching this unfold in brutal confrontations with Military Police, while uncaring ruling party members stand uncaringly on the sidelines, is heart breaking. Mommy’s perserverance is inspiring, and filmmaker Atlakson’s eye never shies away from the excruciatingly uncomfortable imagery of bloody assaults that were made on these women fighting for the land titles owed to them. It can be a bit grueling, but the timeliness of Mommy and her people’s struggle makes for a powerfully emotional 68 minute viewing. 

(Dir. Nicole Triche, 2016)

Miss Doris, a woman in her late 70s who runs a 50-year-old roller skating rink above a post office in Topsail Island, N.C., is the subject of this charming 20-minute short. Miss Doris takes us through her operation, her family’s history, and displays her own skating skills for us as well. Another inspirational tale of an old unstoppable lady, albeit under severely different circumstances than MOMMY'S LAND, Triche’s film celebrates Miss Doris and her beloved community venue, which looks like, with no plans for retirement, she will keep rolling as long as she can.

BALLOONFEST (Dir. Nathan Truesdell, 2017) This is a six minute curiousity, mostly made up of archival TV news reports, about the United Way of Cleveland, Ohio, attempt in 1986 to break a world record by releasing over a million balloons in the air. However, a high pressure system approached, causing many of the balloons to end up in Lake Erie making a search for two missing fishermen difficult. Despite the event not being recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records, the initial release of the balloons, with swirling clouds of color engulfing the skyline is quite a site to be seen. 

LONG STRANGE TRIP (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2017) Ive had my ups and downs with the Grateful Dead. I loved them in the late 80s to mid 90s, seeing them close to a dozen times, but came to loathe them later in that decade. Ive come back around these days, but still wouldnt consider myself a Deadhead. Ive loved the work of Amir Bar-Lev (MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, THE TILLMAN STORY), so I was pysched to see his take on the iconic San Francisco bands legacy (Martin Scorsese being one of the film's executive producers added to that as well).

This new four hour, career-spanning documentary (thankfully containing an intermission), features a wealth of archival footage, both vintage and current interviews from band members, and a intoxicating exploration into the Deads philosophy and vision. That philosophy can simply be stilled down into having fun as the late lead guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia puts it, and that vision can be seen as to just keep on truckin,' but there's a lot of ins and outs and what haves you involved, as the Dude would say.

From the 1965 Acid Tests, to a hilarious late ‘60s appearance on the Playboy After Dark TV show where they dosed the coffee pot, to their famous 1972 European tour to their performance in Egypt in 1978 to their surprise success in the ‘80s with their first top 40 single (“Touch of Grey”) and beyond, Bar-Lev’s pacing never falters, and the music never stops. Bar-Lev, in attendence at the fest, boasted before the screening that he and his crew utilized the original individual instrumental tracks of many of the band's studio recordings to provide a musical bed for the film, and it sounded great through the Carolina Theatre’s Cinema One speaker system.

A must see for Deadheads and those curious about the band, but maybe not recommended for haters as such a lengthy breakdown of the ethos of Garcia and company is doubtful to win them over. For the folks in the audience I saw it with on Friday night, some of whom shouted their appreciation for individual gigs being mentioned, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Coming soon: Coverage of Days Three & Four. And be sure to check out coverage of Day One, if you haven’t already.

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Day One

ith a chill in the air, day one of the 20th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicked off today in Durham. The Festival is celebrating its 20th year (it started as the Double Take Documentary Film Festival in 1998), with a roster that includes 48 films in the New Docs program (27 features and 21 short films), 23 films in The Invited Program (22 features and one short film), and 19 returning films included in the DoubleTake program (one from each year in Full Frame’s history).

Here’s what I saw on the first day of this year’s four day fest:

STILL TOMORROW (Dir. Jian Fan, 2016) 

This New Docs selection is the story of Xiuhua Yu, a Chinese woman who rose from poverty when her poem, “Cross Half of China to Sleep with You” became a hit on social media, having been shared over a million times in 2015. 

While the writing of Yu, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is discussed on talk shows and seminars in Hong Kong and Bejing, her life back home in a rural village in central China is in dark contrast as struggles with a cold, unfaithful husband and her mother dying of cancer. 

The sexual nature of Yu’s poetry is scrutinized, with her responding “So, I’m a slut, so what?” on one show, but the achiness in her desperate pleas for divorce, and her yearning for freedom via her newfound fame is ever present. 

The sharp cinematography by director Fan and Ming Xue beautifully illustrates Yu’s world and her poems, which are quoted via titles throughout, while the sound design by Li Danfeng captures the serene isolation of Yu’s farm-life amplifying the wind through the fields with sweet between scene sweeps. A thoughtful, stirring doc that’s as poetic as its subject.

LIFE - INSTRUCTION MANUAL (Dirs. Jörg Adolph & Ralf Buecheler, 2016)

This German film, part of the Invited Doc Program this year, is a perplexingly disjointed affair. It’s a bunch of short segments, all about how humans learn to do things, covering a wide range of activities – from childbirth classes to indoor skydiving to some weird movement that involves people walking around with their arms lifted above their heads as a coping mechanism.

That last bit comes off a bit Monty Python-ish, as does the stream of consciousness editing of these fragments of film together, but the doc feels thematically off, and gets really tedious pretty early on. There were a number of folks in the audience that left early who I bet felt the same way. One scene has us watching a robot slowly get a carton of orange juice out of a refrigerator then take forever closing the door of the appliance. Like so much of this film, I was left wondering what the point of all this purposely out of context stuff was.

THE GROWN-UPS (Dir. Maite Alberdi, 2016)

Fairing much better on Full Frame’s first day this year was Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s THE GROWN-UPS, also part of the Invited Docs Program. Alberdi paints the picture of four middle-aged students at a Chilean school for people with Down’s Syndrome, who spend their time training at the school’s catering class. A couple of them, named Anita and Andres fall in love, but their respective families, and Chilean law, are against them marrying and living together.

THE GROWN-UPS is a touching window into the kind of lives that don’t get much exploration on the big screen. Anita, who is certainly the film’s protagonist, gets a lot of sympathy from the camera as it captures her sad, worrying eyes over her predicament, but is also able to make us laugh with how she rolls her eyes at yet again hearing the repeated “Who are we? Conscious adults” mantra as said in unison by her classmates.

There are some story strands that aren’t followed up, and I can’t decide if the ending is simply sad or unsatisfying, but overall Alberdi’s doc is a keeper. I’m just unsure if the device of blurring, or obscuring the images of everyone around the central subjects – i.e. staff, family members – was really necessary.

Best Doc of the Day: STILL TOMORROW

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