Saturday, April 06, 2013

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2013: Day Two

The sun came out for the second day of Full Frame 2013, and so did masses of movie fans as attested by the long lines to the Carolina Theatre in Durham throughout the day. It’s late and I got to get up early for Day Three, so let’s get right to the documentaries I saw that screened today:

(Dir. Nicole Triche, 2012)

As I tweeted earlier, Taxidermy has always weirded me out but after seeing TAXIDERMISTS ...well, it still weirds me out. Still, it's a good breezy 20 minute film that told me something I didn't know, that World Taxidermy Championships (WTC) are held every year. Durham film maker Triche's neatly edited succinct short doc puts forth interesting insights into a few of the competition's participants. If you don't get spooked by some of their work, that is.

(Dir. Patrick Reed, 2012)

A moving portrait of Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian Senator and retired general who has made it his life's work to end the employment of child soldiers mainly in Africa. 

Based on Dallaire's book, “They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers,” the film features striking animation (produced by Together: Words+Pictures for Art and Culture) narrated by a former child soldier, and such stirring moments as when Dallaire visits a transit camp for former LRA abductees and notes: “These soldiers were killing machines, and abused, and indoctrinated, and seen every possible horror, and then they were there, back as children. Because the raw material of youth and positiveness was still there.” Highly recommended.

(Dir. Scott Calonico, 2012)

This 8 minute hoot and a half concerns recently declassified White House telephone tapes of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, with photographic and official diary enhancement. It's hilarious to hear LBJ's folkys gusto when talking with a clueless operator, or discussing his diet with his assistant.

(Dir. Penny Lane, 2012)

LBJ’s successor, Richard Milhous Nixon, gets a lot more screen time in this full-length doc constructed from over 500 reels of Super 8 home movies filmed by his top staff members (Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin) that had been confiscated during the Watergate investigation and went unseen for 40 years.

Vintage news clips of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and other late '60s to early '70s newscasters help the footage form a narrative, from the set-up of the Oval Office’s taping system to the dark downfall of the administration, and excerpts from those incendiary tapes give us some priceless Tricky Dick dialogue. I was into it, greatly enjoying all the glimpses behind the scenes (it felt like watching an evil version of The West Wing at times) however sloppy the filming, but other folks not as fascinated by the enigma that is Nixon might get bored.

(Dir. Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier, 2012)

The legendary “Muscle Shoals Sound” gets its doc due in this rock, rhythm, and soul packed film that tells the story of two studios in the small Alabama town and the iconic artists who recorded there. First, there’s producer / songwriter / music publisher Rick Hall’s FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios, where Hall took elements of his tragedy filled life and turned them into hit songs, and then there’s the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which was started by three of the Swampers, former members of FAME’s Rhythm Section.

Hall’s once trusted crew being enticed away by Jerry Wexler and leaving him meant that a war was on (in Hall’s words), but the doc never takes sides or tries to determine who won, but it doesn't need to when it has so many great anecdotes told by folks like Keith Richards (often ending sentences with a mumbled SLING BLADE-ish “Mhmmr”), Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Mick Jagger, Clarence Carter, and U2’s Bono, who waxes philosophically about the river being the source of the soulful country sound: “it’s like the songs came from the mud.” Musical documentary gold.

(Dir. Alex Winter, 2013)

The final film for Friday was Alex Winter’s DOWNLOADED, which examines the downloading revolution through the story of Napster, the ill-fated file-sharing Internet service that was all the rage in 1999 to 2000. Winter, is best known for playing Bill in the 1989 cult classic BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (and a sequel and animated series), but he came to the subject via decades of directing music videos. 

Winter’s cutting and swift establishing shot skills are immediately apparent, and he engagingly covers the twists and turns of both a personal (mostly seen in the passion of Napster co-founder and developer Shawn Fanning), and a far-reaching narrative that asks good questions about how growing technology threatens the long running business models of the recording industry. Indeed Napster, at one point 80 million registered users strong, was taken down by über-expensive lawsuits, one that had co-founder Sean Parker (later of Facebook and Spotify) in trouble for using the dreaded words “pirated music” in an email.

As a former user of Napster, a lot of the film was a trip down memory lane with television clips (a lot of MTV when they actually had somewhat substantial news reports), old interfaces I’d forgotten, and Senate hearing footage (involving Lars Ulrich of Metallica, one of Napster’s biggest adversaries, but what made Winter’s doc ultra compelling is how he filled in so much fascinating information that I, and I’m sure many, hadn’t heard before. A production of VH1 Docs, DOWNLOADED is one of the finest films of the Festival, and one of the best documentaries about the Internet age that I’ve ever seen.

Whew! Another solid day of docs, especially those last two. But tomorrow's roster, which includes films about war photographer Tim Hetherington, songwriting icon Doc Pomus, and the infamous Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, doesn't look too shabby.

Check back for coverage of Full Frame days three and four, and check out Day One if you haven't already.

More later...

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