Monday, April 07, 2014

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Days Three & Four

I started off the third day of Full Frame the same way I had the last two with a documentary about a soberingly serious subject. In the very packed Cinema 4 (one of the large rooms in the Marriott's Convention Center) I saw Stanley Nelson's FREEDOM SUMMER, a sequel of sorts to his doc FREEDOM RIDERS, which screened at the festival in 2010.

An installment of PBS's long running The American Experience series, the dense 113 minute film examines a crucial chapter of the civil rights era, the summer of 1964, in which more than 700 student volunteers entered Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote. 

Via a well structured mix of archival footage, tons of photos, and excerpts from recent interviews with folks like “Freedom Summer” author and historian Bruce Watson, civil rights chronicler Tracy Sugarman (who died last year), Pete Seeger (who died earlier this year) and civil rights leader/later politician Julian Bond, Nelson's doc forms a necessary history lesson. It also does a better job of telling the story of the investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers that summer than MISSISSIPPI BURNING did. FREEDOM SUMMER is due to air on PBS on June 24th, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of that empowering summer.

Next, also in Cinema 4, was a couple of films paired together about a couple of guys who play dress up - one as McDonald's mascot clown Ronald McDonald; the other as our current Commander and Chief, President Barack Obama. The first film was John Dower's amusing documentary short RONALD, about Joe Maggard, who's one of 9 men who've played the famous commercial spokesman Ronald McDonald. The North Carolina native Maggard, who still puts on the make-up and costume despite being no longer employed by the fast food empire, is an affable fellow well worth spending this doc's 8 minute running time with.

Following that was the Festival Cut of Ryan Murdock's feature length BRONX OBAMA, about President Barack Obama look-alike turned impersonator Louis Ortiz.

The Bronx born Ortiz has parlayed his uncanny resemblance to the commander in chief into a somewhat lucrative career that's included appearances on Flight of the Conchords, several music videos, and even a Japanese comedy film (SARABA ITOSHI NO DAITOURYOU). There's some momentum to Ortiz's tale, as when he and a Mitt Romney impersonator argue over politics on the eve of the 2012 election, but there's only really about 20 minutes of good material here.

As funny and likable as Murdock's movie is in places, it gets a little tiresome hanging out with Ortiz as worries about money, dotes on his daughter, and goes from one paid appearance to another. Ortiz asks the audience at one point: “If you woke up one morning and found that you looked like the President, wouldn't you be doing what I'm doing?” I would probably have a heart attack, but I get what's he saying. BRONX OBAMA is listed on IMDb as THE AUDACITY OF LOUIS ORTIZ - glad they changed it. Maybe they can make some more changes that would make it more interesting.

That evening, I attended the Center Frame feature presentation of Ben Cotner and Ryan White's THE CASE AGAINST 8, which is my favorite film of the fest so far. With its fly-on-the-wall coverage of the case to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage spanning five years, Duke alum Cotner and White follow the two lawyers leading the case, Ted Olson and David Boise, and the two same-sex couples - one female (Kris Perry and Sandy Stier), and one male (Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami) - who took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

I found THE CASE AGAINST 8 to be an emotionally powerful doc that plays like a courtroom thriller, albeit a giddy one, as I tweeted. By the time the film reaches its climax involving the couples’ separate City Hall wedding ceremonies you'll be rooting like hell for these people. The huge audience at Fletcher Hall for the film on Saturday night sure was. The filmmakers, along with Perry, Stier, and Triangle area same sex couple Joni Madison and Gina Kilpatrick all got a lengthy standing ovation when they came out for an insightful panel discussion.

As I've written before, late Saturday night is usually the perfect time for a rock documentary at Full Frame. Previous year's have had docs about Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt, and Pussy Riot on the third day of the fest's schedules, this year Australian musician Nick Cave in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH fits the bill. Since it screened at 11:00 pm, the audience had thinned out a bit in Fletcher Hall, but who was there seemed pretty entranced by this odd doc. Well, except for the old couple who left 30 minutes into it.

The film actually more a pseudo-doc about the 57-year old performer, songwriter, author, and sometimes actor, as segments are clearly staged, and cameos by the likes of Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue strangely appear in the passenger seat of Cave's car to tell their stories then disappear as our star subject keeps driving onward. 

Although it has Cave discussing old photographs, and rocking archival footage of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Forsyth and Pollard's doc is one of the most abstract career retrospectives I've ever seen. I mean what other rock doc has the artist telling his stories to a therapist? The more recent concert footage of Cave intensely singing “Stagger Lee,” “Jubilee Street,” and “Higgs Boson Blues,” at the Sydney Opera House makes me want to go out and get more of his stuff. That's the best you can hope for from a music documentary, isn't it?

Sunday, I saw one last serious historical doc: Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein's poli-doc OUR MAN IN TEHRAN, about how Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's hid six Americans in his home in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and helped them to escape the country. This is, of course, is what Ben Affleck's Oscar winning 2012 thriller ARGO was based on, but here we get more of an overview of the circumstances that led to the crisis, and the un-Hollywood-ized facts about how the events really went down.

The former Ambassador Taylor (no relation to the co-director) sits down to give us his recollections, along with retired CIA agent Tony Mendez (the guy Affleck played in ARGO), Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald, and former CIA agent and hostage William Daugherty. As much as I liked ARGO, I agree with former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, who appears in the film when he said “I think the truth is the better story.”

I attended the Awards BBQ in the Durham Amory - read my coverage of it for the Raleigh N & O - and was glad to see that two films that I actually saw won awards: Darius Clark Monroe's excellent THE EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, which won the festival’s top prize, the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award for feature-length documentary, and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and Scott Calonico's THE SILLY BASTARD NEXT TO THE BED, which won the Full Frame Audience Award for Best Short.

There were a lot of docs I didn't get to see that I heard good buzz about like Cynthia Hill's PRIVATE VIOLENCE, which won the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, Jeremy Zagar's CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART, Amir Bar Lev's HAPPY VALLEY, Kenneth Price's THE HIP-HOP FELLOW, Joe Berlinger's WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V. JAMES L. BULGER, and many more that I'm too tired to list.

Read more here:
Well, that's it for Full Frame 2014! Hope to see you there next year.

More later...

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