Monday, April 16, 2012

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2012: Days Three & Four

I certainly got my fill of non-fiction films over the last several days. It was another fine Full Frame at the Carolina Theatre in Durham (in case you haven’t tuned in lately), and I saw as many documentaries as I could of the 102 being screened.

Here’s what I saw on Day 3: Saturday, April 14th (Oh, yeah – please visit my recaps of Day 1, and Day 2):

DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (Dirs. Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent Jorgen-Perlmutt, & Frédéric Tcheng, 2011)

“The first thing to do, my love, is to arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows quite naturally.”

The late Diana Vreeland was an influential fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar (1937-1962), Editor-in-Chief of Vogue (1963-1971), and a consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but its her blustery acerbic wit that makes her such a great subject for a doc. This one, which utilizes interviews that Vreeland did with esteemed author George Plimpton, exploits her hilarious quotes grandly, while colorfully flipping through the magazine pages of her life. As I tweeted, it's a “a savvy stylish film about a savvy stylish lady.”

JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE (Dir. Stanley Nelson, 2007) Full Frame is paying tribute to Stanley Nelson this year with re-screenings of 4 of his films, including this stirring breakdown of the events that led to the largest mass murder-suicide in history (909 poeple), at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. I remember hearing about the tragedy when I was a kid - Time Magazine images of the bodies on the ground around vats of Kool-aid are seared into my psyche forever - but I was unaware of how exactly it all went down.

The scene of the crime is laid bare by interviews with the survivors mixed with footage, and photos (thankfully no re-enactments). Nelson makes makes plain-spoken yet profound, deftly designed docs that pack a huge emotional punch. This is one of the best of them.

RADIO UNNAMEABLE (Dirs. Paul Lovelace & Jessica Wolfson, 2012) Another almost forgotten figure gets their well deserved bio-doc: Bob Fass, a free-form radio personality who broadcasted on WBAI, New York for half a century. Fass's show, also entitled “Radio Unnameable,” was a late night program in which Fass took calls, spun records, and interviewed a who's-who of '60s and '70s musicians (including Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Arlo Guthrie who premiered "Alice's Resturant" on the show).

Being an outspoken member of the counter-culture, Fass got involved in various controversies involving unions, free speech battles, and political rallying - all of which this doc defly covers with choice audio excerpts from Fass's archives.

BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* (Dir. Fredrik Gertten, 2012)

“When you go to a documentary screening at a film festival, it’s almost always about some kinda controversial story, who knows, war crimes or corporate abuse, family abuse - documentarians tend to traffic in misery and horror. And I’ve been to many films like that, but never to one that had this feeling that the room could kind of…blow up.” – Alex Rivera (Jury member of the LA Film Fest)

This is a film about a documentary filmmaker getting sued by a large corporation. You see, the Dole Food Company took issue with Fredrick Gertten's 2009 doc BANANAS!* and did everything they could to suppress its distribution. Gertten is amazed by Dole's scare tactics and how much money and effort they put into trying to stop his small film. Since Gertten's film was about Nicaraguan banana workers involved in a legal battle over Dole's use of a banned pesticide, one can see why they were nervous but it's ridiculous and self defeating that they would go to such lengths to discredit this man. A must-see for anyone who dreams of picking up a camera and sticking it to the man.

THE BUS (Dir. Damon Ristau, 2012) My last film of the day was thw World Premiere of this 63 minute tribute to the legacy of the VW Bus. Ristau draws together testimonies (mostly by hippy folks) to the German utility vehicle turned counter-culture icon with vintage advertisements and many clips of the camper's cameos in the movies including EASY RIDER, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, CARS (firringly George Carlin voiced the vehicle) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (What? No Lost?).

There's also the Grateful Dead connection - the bus was so associated with the historic jam band's fans that the company took out a large ad depicting a VW bus with a tear in its left front headlight/eye in Rolling Stone when Jerry Garcia died. I didn't really learn anything new in THE BUS, but it was a fun trip, especially when he get a look at the world's largest VW Bus (13 feet high, weighing 19,500 pounds), that's named Walter incidentally.

Here’s what I saw on Day 4: Sunday, April 15th:

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (Dir. Joe Berlinger, 2012) Paul Simon returns to Africa in this celebration and examination of his classic 1986 “Graceland” album. In the mid '80s, Simon recorded the bulk of the album in South Africa with South African musicians (including Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and courted controversy by breaking the cultural boycott against the apartheid regime. In an affecting one-on-one with Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid, Simon makes his case for the collaboration, but Tambo states that the music, as much as he liked it, wasn't helpful at the time.

Berlinger (the PARADISE LOST films, SOME KIND OF MONSTER) keeps the very musical movie going with studio footage from the original sessions, film of live performances from then and now, and interviews with “Graceland” fans David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, and Peter Gabriel.

THE IMPOSTER (Dir. Bart Layton, 2012) This was one of the 'To Be Announced' Sunday selections, which are usually made up of the films that won awards at the Awards Barbeque at the Durham Armory earlier in the day.

“The Imposter” didn't win any awards, but Full Frame Director of Programming Sadie Tillery said in her intro for it that it was one of the most popular docs at the fest with a much talked about sold-out screening Saturday afternoon. I myself had heard folks raving about it, so I got in the last minute line.

I'm glad I did - Layton's film is a both chilling and funny true-crime story about a 23 year-old Frenchman who is able to convince a Texas family that he's their missing teenage son, despite his different appearance and, ahem, strong accent. Frédéric Bourdin, the serial imposter who pulled it off, appears to give his side of the story, while the deceived family members and authorities give theirs. It's as compelling as many thrillers (especially these days), with even the dark re-enactments hitting the right notes.

A couple of films I saw on screeners in the Press Lounge:

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING (Dir. Neil Berkeley, 2012) I missed this when it screened on Friday afternoon, so I was glad to catch up with it via screener. It's a snazzy bio-doc of Wayne White, the guy who brought his awesome art skills to Pee Wee's Playhouse, Beakman's World, Shining Time Station, and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video. White tells us: “I’ve worn many hats: painter, sculptor, cartoonist, puppeteer, set-designer, art-director, illustrator…” as we see tons of examples of his work, in particular his word paintings which feature vast landscapes with giant letters spelling out phrases like the title of this film.

White might want to add comedian to his list of occupations, because his anecdotes told from the stage while he's showing slides are hilarious. “Art is a lifestyle,” White says more than once in this doc, and, man, that’s an appealing ideal when you see this guy’s life’s work.

CATCAM (Dir. Seth Keal, 2012) This very amusing 16 minute doc short concerns a German engineer (Jürgen Perthold) living in South Carolina who outfits his cat, Mr. Lee, with a tiny camera (on a collar on the front of the cat's neck) so he can see what his pet does and where he goes. The pictures that come back are quite interesting - the cat encountering other cats, a street sign in an area Perthold doesn't recognize, and some almost artistic shots of nature. Bet anything none of my cats would take pictures anywhere as good.

Well, that's another Full Frame. Stay tuned for more extensive reviews of the best of the documentaries this year, as many of them may be making their way to a theater (or streaming service) near you soon.

More later...

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