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

More later...

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