Thumbnail Sketches of the Eight Films I Saw at Full Frame 2015

Having recently returned from the 2015 edition of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, in Durham, NC, it seems like a good time to share some brief thoughts about the eight films I saw at the festival this year. The eight films are not listed in any particular order:

  • Peace Officer
  • Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation
  • 3 1/2 Minutes
  • Tell Spring Not to Come This Year
  • Kingdom of Shadows
  • TERRO(R)
  • The Term
  • DRUNK. STONED. BRILLIANT. DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon

Peace Officer. This film is one of the award winners from this year’s festival. Few films that I have seen have been on par with this one in terms of the level of engagement of the audience (as measured by enthusiasm of the audience reaction at the end). The film begins with the heart-breaking case of a former Sherriff, where in the very town where he founded the SWAT team, many years after he had moved on to doing other types of work, that very same team was one of the major players in a domestic stand-off that resulted in the death of his son-in-law. The scope of the film broadens to consider other cases where police were involved in incidents resulting in deaths (where deadly force could and should have been avoided), and also looks at the militarization of police forces in general. The man at the center of the story, “Dub” Lawrence, is truly a mensch.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation. For anyone who has ever read The Nation, either the digital or the print edition, this is a loving look at the news magazine’s origins, how it has evolved, and how it struggles to adapt to remain relevant and reach additional readers, which includes continuing to evaluate its digital strategy. It also includes a close look at how The Nation employs interns in the day-to-day workings of the magazine (many of whom become employees).

3 ½ Minutes. This film is a powerful indictment of Stand Your Ground laws. It focuses on the case of Jordan Davis, who was shot over an argument about loud music in the parking lot of a gas station in St. Petersburg, Florida. The film focuses primarily on the first of two trials that took place (the film crew was allowed to film the entire proceeding), along with extensive interviews of Jordan’s parents. His father, Ron Davis, who was present for the screening of the film at the festival and for Q&A afterward, has since started a foundation and has been touring the country, speaking about his son’s death and what lessons we can all learn from it. Not only do I strongly recommend seeing the film, if you ever have an opportunity to hear Ron Davis speak, embrace that opportunity as well.

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year. This is the only film that I am aware of that focuses on how things are going for the military forces in Afghanistan as they seek to take on responsibility for security (I’m talking about Afghan nationals, not US forces or others from outside the country; specifically, the Afghan National Army). In what is now sadly familiar, the tactics being followed by the ANA bear some resemblance to the tactics they have learned from the US and others, i.e., tactics that are not well-suited to the situation on the ground, which is an insurgency, spearheaded by the Taliban. There are several members of this particular unit of the ANA that are the focus of the narrative, which centers on skirmishes in the Helmand Province where this unit is located.

Kingdom of Shadows. It is reasonably well known that the activities of drug cartels have proved both destabilizing and dangerous for many in Mexico. What is less understood is how extensive the problem is, as measured by the number of people who have been “disappeared,” never to be seen again. To tell this story, there are three main characters: 1) a man who emigrated from Mexico as a child and now works as a DEA agent; 2) an activist nun from Monterrey, who seeks to comfort the families and others impacted by the violence, and; 3) a Texan who got involved with drug smuggling at an early age. By alternating between these narratives, the film provides a broad perspective on the many issues involved.

TERRO(R). This film too was recognized with an award at this year’s festival. The title of the film is a clever play on words, in that it delves into the very questionable practices and activities of a particular individual who is one of the many 100s of people who work for the FBI as informants. Specifically, these informants are closely monitoring people whom they view as suspicious within the context of the War on Terror. To put it charitably, the FBI informant who is the primary subject of this film lives a morally ambiguous life, and it is how he gets to know one of the Persons Of Interest (POIs) he is following, and the specific outcome from the relationship he cultivates with that individual, which gets particularly close scrutiny in this film.

The Term. It is quite rare to get a glimpse into what is happening on the ground in Russia. In particular, the camera is pointed mostly at the activists who seek to replace Putin. Clips of the “cult of Putin,” e.g., scenes of him hang gliding, fishing, etc. are juxtaposed with footage of multiple protests, orchestrated by a coalition of activists. One is left feeling not entirely surprised that these types of protests have not achieved much in terms of tangible outcomes, both because the activists themselves struggle to rally around a single person or cause, and also because the government itself can and does make it quite difficult for them to organize.

DRUNK. STONED. BRILLIANT. DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon. Whatever you know or think you know about the Lampoon, if you watch this film, you will have a much better understanding about not only the flagship publication (the magazine), but also about the many people who were involved with the broader spectrum of its activities (including radio, theater, and film). For instance, the cast that was assembled to launch Saturday Night Live in the mid-1970s (including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase) was almost identical to the cast who had been performing on stage under the National Lampoon banner.