Monday, April 12, 2010
I believe that for this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, NC (in case you haven't tuned in lately) I made much better picks of what to see than in previous years - all of the movies I saw out of the available 101 that were worthwhile.
Some, of course, more than others as this round-up of films from the last 2 days should tell you. Oh yeah - please visit my recaps of Day One and Day Two.
Films I Saw On Saturday - Day Three:
WASTE LAND (Dirs. Lucy Walker with Co-Directors Karen Harley & João Jardim)
The old saying "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is taken to new limits with the art of Vik Muniz. Muniz, a Brazilian sculptor and photographer, is captured by the film makers as he embarks upon a new project involving Jardim Gramacho - the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. His plan is to create massive portraits of the individual pickers who work at the landfill out of the recyclable materials they gather.
Muniz's subjects appear to be lifted, albeit briefly, out of the squalor they live in through the process. It would be tempting to say that this film roots around in the garbage too much, but it's actually a very measured and inspiring break-down of unique artistic methods rounded out by the moving stories of the "catadores." The moments of creation are enhanced by absorbing time-lapse shots and a pulsating soundtrack mostly composed of Moby tracks.
STONEWALL UPRISING (Dirs. Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, 2010) Despite having no footage and only 6 photos of the incident, one gets a good sense of the 1969 Stonewall riots' vast importance to the gay rights movement. As one of the interviewees posits, it was actually more of an uprising than a riot when a large group of patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, fought back against police raids. Recreations and era period pictures help get us there visually, but it's the anecdotal evidence given by people who were there, surprisingly including former NYC Mayor Ed Koch (then a congressman), that makes the thing tick.
t's an essential educational experience - from the disturbing yet funny anti-homosexual propaganda films of the 50's that set the suppressed scene to the first gay pride parades that stemmed from Stonewall, there is much to take home from this well crafted documentary.
AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2010)
Another highly anticipated film of the festival featuring the work of Spalding Gray - an actor, monologist, and performance artist who committed suicide in 2004. Gray tells his own story here in this collection made up largely of transferred videotape recordings edited together expertly in the stream of consciousness style of his acclaimed spoken word pieces.
Eschewing celebrity interview testimonials and time-line conventions, an arc nonetheless forms as the clips are presented chronologically as Gray verbally illustrates his upbringing through to his years on stage. Gray often spoke of suicide in his performances giving the film an underlining context that is not betrayed by easy denotations. In other words, you want to know the biographical facts go to Wikipedia; you want to see excellent examples of his talent - see this very funny and emotionally engrossing movie.
STRANGE POWERS: STEVEN MERRIT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS (Dirs. Kerthy Fix & Gail O'Hara, 2010) Like Arcade Fire's MIROIR NOIR filled the same slot last year, it seems that the Saturday night 10 PM shift of the Festival is a great space for an indie rock doc. Oh, sorry - in his introduction of the film, Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk front-man Mac McCaughan spoke of Steven Merritt's fervent dislike of the term "indie rock" so let's just say, uh, art pop?
Well, whatever you call it you get a good sampling of it along with the zippily told tale of Merritt and collaborator Claudia Gonson's rise in the ranks of hipster approval. This bio doc does contain celebrity praises interspersed - best of which is author Neil Gaiman's description of Merrit's demeanor (based on a magazine interview he read): "He made Lou Reed look like Lil Orphan Annie."
Merritt's ornery acidic aura gives the film, especially the concert scenes, an edge many rock docs would envy. And by the way, if you don't own any Magnetic Fields your record collection is severely lacking.
Films I Saw On Sunday - Day Four:
THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS (Dirs. Judith Ehrich & Rick Goldsmith, 2009)
This was a complete eye opener - I'd heard of Daniel Ellsberg and his leaking of classified documents pertaining to the Vietnam war many times before, but I had no inkling of the full idealogical and controversial impact of the man's actions.
In the 1960's Ellsberg was a military analyst despondent about the direction of the war in Vietnam. After much deliberation he made copies of the vast files and floated them to a contact at the New Yorks Times after failing to spark the interest of several Senators.
The infamous Oval Office tapes reveal President Nixon's profane displeasure at the situation and attempts to halt publication. When Ellsberg was revealed to be the source of the Papers, a reporter asked if he was willing to to jail for what he had done. "Wouldn't you go to jail to stop a war?" was his reply. A film of startling conscience and gripping resolve, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN... (a phrase that came from Henry Kissinger) is one of the best poli-docs I've ever seen.
The audience around me seemed to think so too with cheers and many audible emotional responses throughout. One of the directors, Rick Goldsmith, was on hand for a insightful Q & A. He was greeted with a standing ovation - the first he said he's gotten for a screening at which Daniel Ellsberg himself didn't attend.
A FILM UNFINISHED (Dir. Yael Hersonski, 2009) A harrowing display of a recently found reel of film taken of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The film was shot by producers of Nazi propaganda (sort of like in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS but without the glamour). The stark images can be difficult to view - corpses lie in the street, emaciated children dressed in rags, overcrowded tenement houses, and terrified eyes fill every frame. It's all structured around color segues of a re-enacted interrogation of one of the original cameramen. A documentary to appreciate instead of enjoy as per Festival Director of Programming Sadie Tillery's introduction of the film, it's a vital piece of celluloid connective tissue that brings already thoroughly covered history once again into sharper view.
FREEDOM RIDERS (Dir. Stanley Nelson, 2010)
A chapter of the Civil Rights Era that has gone oddly unsung is lovingly recreated via black and white footage, photographs, newspaper headlines, and scores of interviews with the core participants.
The Freedom Riders were determined to challenge the Jim Crow laws of the deep South by taking 2 interstate buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. That the violent resistance they encountered in Alabama, then later Mississippi, doesn't deter them is astounding.
With stirring storytelling, from especially Robert F. Kennedy's assistant at the time, John Seigenthaler, and perfectly crafted structure, this, like STONEWALL UPRISING, is another essential educational experience that everybody must see. Alright! Another Full Frame Documentary Film Festival over with.
The films I saw were just a small percentage of what was shown so I urge you to seek out other coverage. Especially since I missed a number of highly touted offerings like PELADA, ROADS TO MEMPHIS, and HOW TO FOLD A FLAG. Now I'm off for a Vegas vacation - will try to keep posting though, so please check back in.