Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Set Design Wore Warhol

When a scene in a movie or television show is set in a lavish, extravagant mansion or penthouse, there is often a familiar sight. That would be large, square artwork featuring the same image repeated, often in different colors, each a portrait of the rich, usually famous resident of the posh palace.


The style is recognizable as being of iconic pop artist, Andy Warhol. He produced many of these screen-print works of such ‘60s and ‘70s stars as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and, of course, Campbell’s Soup cans. 


Sets that include the fake movie versions of Warhol’s art are designed to emphasize that the character depicted is an extremely wealthy, and influential figure. So powerful that an artist of Warhol’s stature would add their visage to their oeuvre.


Several years ago, the Whitney Museum in New York hosted a retrospective entitled “Andy Warhol –From A to B and Back again.” Joelle Magazine explained how this status symbol came into being:From 1968 to 1987, Warhol received hundreds of portrait commissions from business moguls, art collectors, socialites, fashion designers, models, royals, and celebrities of all kinds.” So basically it’s an extremely plausible detail to add to a fictional rich character’s decor.


Slate’s Heather Schwedel in the 2019 article, “Why Warhol Became the Symbol for Characters With Big Bank Accounts and Bigger Egos,” pointed out one of the first films to include faux Warholian artwork, Mike Nichol’s 1988 comedy WORKING GIRL. Melanie Griffith’s character happens upon a wall graced with four canvasses portraying her boss, played by Sigourney Weaver (see picture at top).


But there is an earlier example from four years previous, in Charles Shyer’s IRRECONCIBLE DIFFERENCES. A scene set in a mansion owned by Shelley Long as a bestselling author, appears on a wall behind Long and her failed filmmaker ex-husband, Ryan O’Neal (I blogged about the film a bit back). 


Over the years, this opulent aesthetic has appeared in such movies as:







And such TV shows as:


The Watchmen (HBO, 2019)


The Office (2008)

This one, from the fourth season fan favorite episode, “The Dinner Party,” is pretty easy to miss as you can tell from my hard-to-get-a-good-shot screen capture that it only appears for around 10 seconds, and not in full. It’s pretty hilarious that Melora Hardin’s arrogant character, Michael Scott’s girlfriend Jan, would have such a portrait of herself. Delusions of grandeur indeed.


The Good Place (2016)

I must give credit where credit is due to Schwedel, who in addition to writing the Slate piece I referenced above, posted a bunch of other examples of the Warholian set designs on her Twitter, @heathertwit. In sharing these screen shots, she tweeted that it’s “one my favorite movie tropes, which is when you can tell a certain character is stuck up because they have a Warhol portrait of THEMSELVES in their home.”


It’s only right to give Schwedel a plug, since I’ve taken some of the pics above directly from her feed. 


Now, I’ll leave you with one more, even though Schwedel says it “only sorta counts.”

Bojack Horseman (2015)

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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Spoiler Alert: This Post Is About Spoiler Etiquette

Not long ago, I was hanging with friends, and I mentioned that I been catching up with a new show on HBO (I’m not going to say which one) in the midst of a conversation about shows that everybody had been watching lately. I said to one of my friends that I wished he hadn’t, at a previous meeting, dropped a Spoiler from the third episode of the series – it was actually just one word that he said when he remarked about how nothing was really happening in the show’s first few episodes, and then - the one word. Now, it was a loaded word – think a major plot point that can be summed up with one or just a few words like murder, or car accident, or divorce. So I was miffed that I had heard that word before I had gotten to that point on my own. 

I had only seen one episode, which was largely set-up, and was still trying to feel out the tone of the show. When that word was spoken by father, my brain noted it, and it greatly affected how I watched the show from then on. Since my friend knew that I had only seen one episode, I would think he’d keep mum, so I told him that when I got to the point where the event happened that he so sloppily spoiled, and that his careless blurting out of the word diluted the impact of the scene.


His reaction floored me - he laughed like what I said was ridiculous, and invalid. Nobody else laughed at this, mainly because nothing funny was said at all – just somebody offering their opinion on something that they found important – the experience of viewing a program or movie with somebody who has already seen it obnoxiously spoiling a key moment.


Which brings us to the Urban Dictionary’s definition of Spoiler:

The thing that maybe bothered me most is that my friend reacted as if this was the first time anyone had ever voiced this opinion. Now, I’ve been a big fan of film since I was a kid, and the idea of not ruining people’s experience is one that has been big in the pop culture conversation that I’ve been in for over four decades. I’ve worked in video stores, and movie theaters where I’ve had thousands of conversations with co-workers, and customers, about keeping important plot points to yourself unless you know that the person you are talking to is caught up with whatever TV show, movie, or book you may be discussing. I seriously, but stupidly thought this was something that everybody knew - in fact, I hesitated even blogging about this because these points feel so redundant, so obvious, and so universally relatable.


But instead of being reasonable, and respectful to a world that he knows his son has passion for and has written about for decades, my friend just said, “I don’t care about Spoilers.” In all of those previous conversations, and the many many many that I’ve had or read online, I’ve never heard or read or seen that statement. That’s because it’s a bullshit thing to say. Everyone I’ve ever known or talked to about this cares about not having their experiences spoiled, and I know there are shows that it would’ve highly annoyed him if, say, someone spouted out who was the murderer in in a show he had invested a number of hours viewing. 

I mean, that’s why we watch these things in the first f-in’ place! We want the real storytellers to reveal this stuff to us, not somebody who says that they don’t care about others experience. This is major common courtesy stuff! I comfort myself in thinking he just said that in the defensive. Some people just can’t concede a point in the moment, you know. Even one as rock solid as my argument.


It was also sad to me because in the 18 years of maintaining this blog, I’ve referred to Spoilers hundreds and hundreds of times (Google it). I’ve started many reviews with Spoiler warnings, and I’ve highlighted the word Spoiler in red so that readers will be aware that they might be coming. So I guess I learned that my friend doesn’t read my blog although they've often said they did. I’ve long suspected that they just skimmed it, and now I know for sure what’s up.


Fun fact: The phrase “Spoiler Alert” has existed long before the internet - it has been traced back to a review of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN in 1982.


I received an invite to the latest Marvel movie, DOCTOR STRANGE: THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (love that title), and it had this request for critics:


I mentioned this to another friend – sent them the screen capture above – and they replied, “Hmm. You’d think that would go without saying.” Well, apparently not. I mean, again, I hesitated to write this post because I would think that everybody reading a movie blog would know this drill. But, yeah, apparently not.


So millions and millions of people care about spoilers. Movie studios spend a lot of money and time trying to hide the things that DOCTOR STRANGE request specified so that audiences can have a fresh experience going in. Iconic film critic Gene Siskel (of Siskel & Ebert fame) notably would wait in the lobby while trailers for other movies were playing because he didn’t want to see anything from upcoming movies before seeing them himself. Siskel passed away in 1999, so I wonder how if he had lived, he would maneuvered during the internet age when a glance at any social media platform can reveal something from some current film without any warning. I bet he would and just not go on the internet, just like he didn’t enter the theater until after the coming attractions.


Here ends my rant. Good Gawd, that felt good to get out of my system!!!! I guess I was triggered by the shocking event of somebody being so clueless to something that’s so embedded in our pop culture experiences. Revealing spoilers to somebody, especially without asking or acknowledging where they are in viewing said show or movie, is a definitive cultural taboo. The rule of respecting others experiences by not spouting out spoilers is something I’m very glad exists for the people that do care. You know, everybody, but my so called friend.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Final Fest Report: Full Frame 2022: Part 3

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and pictures of his poisoners in Daniel Roher’s NAVALNY

My coverage of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival now concludes with my musings on the last three docs I watched while exercise-biking, and wearing pajama pants - the only pluses to having to watch the festival’s offerings at home instead of at the Carolina Theatre, and the surrounding venues in downtown Durham, N.C. Here’s hoping we can all get back to that in 2023. I’ve made this joke before, but when Full Frame does return in full effect from all the pandemic-set conditions, the program will be nothing but documentaries about the pandemic. Yeah, it’s not really that much of a joke.

Anyway, onto Daniel Roher’s NAVALNY, which has been likened by many critics to a thriller for its detailing of the investigation into the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The 44-year old anti-authoritarian was infected with a nerve agent, later to be revealed as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “signature poison,” on a flight home to Moscow from Siberia in 2020. After recuperating from a coma in exile, Navalny goes undercover in Germany to find the men behind the assassination attempt, and further expose the wide-ranging corruption of Putin’s regime with the help of journalist/hacker Christo Grozev.


The media-savvy Navalny is a charismatic, jovial dude who makes a great protagonist/narrator for the film, as he takes us through the paces of his procedural, which involves an elaborate evidence board (also known as a “crazy wall,” or “murder map”) - you know, a wall covered in pictures of people, newspaper clippings, charts, etc. connected with strings - and, funnily enough, tik tok videos. One of the film’s most crucial moments comes when Navalny, posing as a fellow conspirator in the poisoning plot, gets a Federal Security Service (FSB) scientist to confirm in great detail how the state-sanctioned murder endeavor went down.


NAVALNY is indeed a thrilling portrait of a driven man, and his mission, and is the best film I experienced at Full Frame 2020. Look for it on the festival circuit now, and, with hope, in theatrical release later, before it finds its eventual home on HBO and CNN, the outlets responsible for its production.


Next up, Jon Ayon’s doc short NO SOY ÓSCAR, which insightfully displays s a lot in its 15-minute running time as it follows the journey of the filmmaker through the treacherous border regions between the U.S. and Mexico in search of the area where Salvadoran migrants Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned. 

While it contemplates harrowing, heady issues, the film is more meditation on the meaning of the definitely divisive, and deadly dangerous border wall which Ayon describes as a “Trump inspired, ridiculous monstrosity of concrete and steel.” NO SOY ÓSCAR won the President’s Award for Best Short at this year’s fest, but no word yet as to its availability either theatrically or streaming in the coming months. I’ll keep you posted. 

Finally, a very fascinating doc that ended my Full Frame 2022 experience nicely, Yaara Bou Melhem’s UNSEEN SKIES, which explores the work of landscape artist, photographer, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen, who specializes in studying mass surveillance. We witness his processes via his time-exposure photographs showing the streaks of light left by classified satellites taken in the Nevada desert, as his prepares to launch a 100-foot-long mylar sculpture into space, a $1.5 million project dubbed Orbital Reflector.

The project runs into red tape as it apparently didn’t fit into Trump’s concept for Space Force, but the bureaucratic hassle doesn’t deter Paglen from his life’s passion of watching the skies. The film has a glossy look, but it well contains Tom Bannigan’s cinematography, which captures the rocky terrain, and the milky way above it so stunningly that it certainly makes this the doc with the most eye-popping scenery at the fest this year. Bou Melhem’s film equally honors technology, and art, but like many of the best docs at Full Frame (or docs in general) it most celebrates perseverance in the face of odds no matter what size. 

So that’s my coverage of Full Frame 2022. While there were a good number of worthwhile docs, the festival as an online-only event is wearing thin. There were times throughout the four-day event that when I took a break from the films and would do other stuff, that I would almost forget the fest was happening, and that is unacceptable in my world. This can’t be how it goes down next year, new strains of coronavirus be damned. Come April 2023, this thing better be back on in full. You hear this lowly blogger? You Full Framers get on it!


More later…

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

So Many Docs, So Little Time - Full Frame 2022: Part 2

THE MARTHA MITCHELL EFFECT (Dirs. Anne Alvergue, and Debra McClutchy)

So many documentaries, so little time. I crammed as many doc viewings as I could in the four day window of the online offerings of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival around working shifts at two different jobs, and, of course, sleep. I was able to see some good ones (check out Part 1), but I was sorry I missed the winner of the Full Frame Grand Jury Award, Reid Davenport’s I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE, and the other award winners, Alejandro Alonso’s ABYSSAL, and Jannis Lenz’s SOLDAT AHMET, which won The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award, and the The John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Award respectively.

A prize-winning doc that I did catch was Timothée Corteggiani, and Nathalie Giraud’s THE SILENT SHORE (French title: LE SILENCIEUX RIVAGE) which scored The Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. Running a swift 36-minutes, the film concerns famous fantasy author, Pierre Dubois, and his wife Aline’s quiet life living an idyllic yet haunted home and garden existence in Cartignies, a village in northern France. The couple recount the suicide of their daughter as they go about their days in their lush, often foggy settings, and the aura, and warmth of their resigned sentiment will likely remain in the minds of this film’s audience long after the last credits have faded. 

There always has to be at least one retro political doc in the roster at Full Frame, and this time it comes in the form of Anne Alvergue, and Debra McClutchy’s 40-minute short, THE MARTHA MITCHELL EFFECT. Mitchell was the loud-mouthed socialite wife of President Nixon’s Attorney General, who became an unlikely whistle-blower in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in in the early ‘70s. One of the burglars, James McCord, had been one of Mitchell’s bodyguards, which tipped her off that it had been an inside-job, so the cabinet wife blabbed about it over-time to the press leading to her being sequestered in a hotel room, injected with a tranquilizer, and held for four days to quiet her (one headline was “Who’s Needling Martha Mitchell?”).  

While the White House and the Republican Party did what they could to discredit her, there was a leftwing “Free Martha Mitchell” movement making itself known at the Democratic National Convention in 1972. Mitchell, known as “The Mouth of the South,” channeled her cause célèbre into a stint co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, and stealing nearly every doc on Nixon and Watergate in the following decades with her outspoken soundbites. Alvergue and McClutchy wonderfully weave the archival footage into a supremely entertaining narrative, which organically mimes the material for key laugh lines.


Mitchell was memorably portrayed by Madeline Kahn in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic NIXON, and later this month, Julia Roberts will step into her shoes for the Starz series, Gaslit, so this doc could serve as a primer if its production company, Netflix, would give it a premiere date in time. Whenever TMME becomes available, folks should seek it out as its illustration of how someone who’s widely painted as being delusional, but later turns out to have been telling a crucial truth, makes Mitchell’s story so much more than just a funny footnote. 

Next up, Kevin Shaw’s LET THE LITTLE LIGHT SHINE shines a light on the fight to keep a high-performing predominately Black public elementary school, Chicago’s National Teachers Academy, from being replaced by a new gentrified high school in 2017. We get close up to the heated concerns of the students, and educators as they protest against the Chicago Public School system, and we watch as Isaac Castelaz gets in way over his head as the stressed-out NTA principal in the middle of it all (Castelaz gets frowned on by the board for wearing a “Black Students Matter” T-shirt at one point).

This professionally polished, and compelling film, the second doc I saw this fest about African American educational predicaments, has a lot of emotional drive in its conventionally stream-lined structure, and doesn’t waste any of its 86-minute screen-time in getting us to care about this community, and pull for these passionate people’s plight. The appearance of Chance the Rapper, an advocate for Chicago Schools through his foundation Social Works, certainly helps to power up the protests. Director Shaw has obviously learned well from documentarian great Steve James (HOOP DREAMS), with whom he worked with on America to Me (another Starz series), in making this inspirational crowd-pleaser. This is one that would’ve been great seeing with a packed Full Frame audience on the big screen. 


So that’s a few more docs from Full Frame 2022. I’ll wrap up the remaining films I saw at Full Frame 2022 in Part 3 so stay tuned.


More later…

Monday, April 11, 2022

Online Only, But Still Thriving - Full Frame 2022: Part 1

A shot from the new Full Frame trailer produced by Adam Pyburn Motion Design

In an alternate universe where the COVID-19 pandemic never happened, thousands flooded to the Carolina Theatre, and the Durham Convention Center over the last weekend to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The globally-celebrated milestone, which was commemorated with massive parades, street parties, nightly fireworks, and a special live telecast appearance by President Hillary Clinton, boasted over 200 new documentaries, with the just launched Full Frame streaming platform hosting hundreds more.

But in our sad reality, because of the cautious conditions of the last two years, the quarter of the century celebration of Full Frame is an online-only virtual event, with a roster of under half of the titles than the last fest in the Before Times. So there are 37 titles from 18 countries - 22 feature films and 15 short films, all of which were available from April 7 at 12pm-April 10 at 11:59pm, and I watched what I could in this window.

In previous years (I’ve been attending all four days of the event since 2009), I would cover Full Frame day-by-day, but here I’m simply going to run down, and sum up the docs I viewed over two posts.

The first doc I watched was Dan Chen’s ACCEPTED, which tells the story of T.M. Landry Preparatory, an unconventional K-12 school in rural Louisiana, that went viral in 2016-17 with videos of black students from working-class families opening acceptance letters from Ivy league colleges. This highlighted T.M. Landry’s 100% acceptance rate into the top universities, but a New York Times investigation brought forth allegations of academic fraud, and abuse of many students. 

Chen’s camera focuses on four juniors - Alicia, Adia, Isaac and Cathy - who withstand the harsh, harassing treatment doled out by the school’s aggressive co-founder, Michael Landry, in order to get to the higher education of their dreams. In glossily shot interviews, we learn about these students’ drive, but more their defensiveness over their their situation. ACCEPTED is a polished, and very watchable doc, but while it provocatively bandies headlines, sound-bites, and charges like the school being a “glorified daycare” around, it doesn’t go deep enough into the details for it to be a really insightful examination. Perhaps some outside commentary would’ve helped it nail its subject more definitely.

Next up, I dove into Joe Hunter’s WE MET IN VIRTUAL REALITY, which is completely set in the online virtual world platform VRChat, in which users are anime-styled avatars with flashy backgrounds of exploding colors. The film follows the paths of a group of VR community members including a sign language teacher named Jenny, and two long-distance couples, DustBunny and Toaster, DragonHeart and IsYourBoi, as they digitally connect in the metaverse (or maybe “Meet-averse”) that serves as a shelter from the pandemic in the real world.

Via disembodied voices, these characters touchingly share their vulnerable emotions through their evolving avatars, but too much of the film is without their vocals as it displays dance sequences, and other visual distractions instead of getting us further into these peoples’ headspaces. It’s just all too easy to dismiss the film’s thoughtful themes or attempts to explore love under a lockdown as asides, and just see Hunting’s film as eye candy that’s questionable in its qualification to be a true documentary. This is not to say that WMIVR isn’t an authentic doc, because what Hunting captures with the virtual camera app VRCLens is as much a reflection of reality as any other film at Full Frame, but it’s going to take a leap for many viewers, including me initially, to see it as something more than just a big cartoon.

William David Caballero’s 10-minute short, CHILLY AND MILLY, is another doc dealing with animation, but in a simpler style that has no resemblance to the previous film. Caballero utilizes 3D modeled composite characters to bring to life his father’s battles with chronic health problems as a diabetic with kidney failure, and his mother’s role as his eternal care-taker in poignantly measured stop-motion.

The filmmaker mixes these animated scenes of their current medical struggle, with video from 13 years earlier of his Puerto Rican parents at their trailer-home in Fayetteville, N.C., and the result is a loving portrait of the perseverance of Caballero’s family. 

Shortly after I watched the next doc, CHERNOBYL: THE LOST TAPES, it was announced that it garnered a Grand Jury Honorable Mention at this year’s festival. It’s well deserved too, as director James Jones’ assemblage of never-before seen archive footage with new interview embellishments brings new light to the 1986 disaster that led to thousands of deaths, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The event has been thoroughly well documented as the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident before, but here we get to go through the narrative through the eyes of the workers, the firefighters, soldiers, janitors, miners, etc. who had to suffer through both the excruciatingly dangerous clean-up, and being blamed for what happened by the Russian government in full cover-up mode.

Of course, unsurprisingly, there are many moments of disturbing imagery and activity in this doc that can never be unseen. For me, what really got burned into my brain was grainy footage of a rescue helicopter there to drop sand on a fire hitting a crane, crashing to earth incinerating its crew. The accounts of the far-reaching effects of the radiation on millions are also painful to process, as is the reveal that the official Soviet death toll still remains at only 31 ignoring scores of evidence to the contrary. As the Chernobyl plant, still the most nuclear contaminated area on the planet, has been in the news recently for being occupied by Russian troops as part of the invasion of Ukraine, CHERNOBYL: THE LOST TAPES provides a timely back story. But while it’s a vital addition to the many docs previously produced on the disaster, as well as the excellent HBO mini-series on the subject, it for sure won’t be the last word. 

Alright, so that’s my first batch of docs watched at this year’s Full Frame. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon to this blog in front of you.

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Thursday, April 07, 2022

5 Things I Miss About Attending The Full Frame Documentary Film Fest In Person

The Carolina Theatre marquee for Full Frame

The 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is now underway (April 7-10), and like last year, the event is entirely virtual. This is the second year of the fest being an only online affair – 2020 was cancelled all together is it fell right when COVID-19 was beginning to hit big.

Obviously, the fest, hosted in the Before Times at the Carolina Theater in Durham, and the Marriott Convention Center, is being held this way because we’re still in a pandemic, and I get that and all, but damn, do I miss driving to Durham, N.C., and doing up four days of premium infotainment! So, while I have a bunch of streamable docs locked and loaded, I thought I’d wax nostalgic about some of the things I really miss that have decorated Full Frame over the years.

Of course, the documentaries are a given. Sure, it’s not the same without seeing them on the big screen, and there are a lot fewer films available than in the Before Times, but there’s still a rich roster of feature and short form docs to choose from. What I’m talking about is the packaging around all the special screenings that I’ve enjoyed covering the sacred event as a very thankful member of the press such as:

1. The marquee (at the top of this post), all the spiffy signage, and, of course, the wonderful staff

It’s such a nice feeling to walk through the entryway into this doc lover’s heaven each morning of the fest, and be welcomed by the Full Frame brand in full effect, as well as the fine staff, who are always friendly people who clearly really enjoy working the event.

2. The lanyards

When I got my first press pass lanyard, it felt like the film festival equivalent to having my name up in lights! Well, not really. People rarely looked at mine, so my dreams of spreading the word of Film Babble Blog to the masses never materialized. Still, the lanyards are a nice keepsake for me to hang from doorknobs around my home.

3. The panels

Look at this panel for SAINT MISBEHAVIN’: THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE from 2009. There’s cinematographer Daniel B. Gold, documentarian God D.A. Pennebaker, Director Michelle Esrick, Wavy Gravy, his wife (Jahanara Romney), and composer Daniel B. Gold onstage at Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theater. I’ve seen many great panels throughout my adventures at Full Frame, but this one really stands out in my mind. They gave out red clown noses to the audience too. I still have mine.

4. The bustling crowds buzzing about the docs they are about to see or just have seen

Many a time I have sat people-watching on the outside stairs to the second level of the Carolina Theater eating a meal from George Bakatsias’ great Greek grill in the fancy tent in the venue’s courtyard. The high level of doc excitement contained in the plaza was always powerfully palpable.

5. The programs

Ah, the programs. They are usually 100-130 pages thick with lotsa pretty pics decorating each doc entry, and handy schedules, filmmaker interviews, and other informative features. I implore festival planners or whoever deals with these things, I know they’re expensive to produce, but please don’t let this be a casualty of the pandemic! When Full Frame comes back next year (I’m not saying “if”), I want to see a brand new 2023 program for festival #26 or, uh, I’ll be sad. 

And one more bonus thing I’m a-gonna miss:

6. The Saturday night rock doc

Many of the years that I’ve attended and covered have had one of the offerings on a late Saturday evening to be rockumentaries about such luminaries as Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, Nick Cave, The National, the Avett Brothers, and even Pussy Riot. These tuneful treatments always hit the sweet weekend spot, and I wish I could replicate that feeling at home this go round, but, unless I missed it, there aren’t any music-themed doc options in this year’s line-up. 

Okay, enough of my lamenting about the past. It’s time to dive deep into the docs of Full Frame 2022. I’ll be posting as I go so stay tuned to this space, and follow @filmbabble on Twitter.

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