My Impressions of the Nine Films I Saw at Full Frame 2016
As they have done so many times before, the team that put together the program for the 2016 edition of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival made it a very difficult decision to decide which films to see from among the many fine selections. Below is a summary of the films I watched at this year’s festival, during the roughly 36 hours-window I had available.
Two Trains Runnin’
Let me just say that I was completely taken by this film from the very start. On the surface, the two trains metaphor applies to two groups of white students who decide, completely independently from one another, to travel to the Southeastern United States in the summer of 1964. One group departs from California, the other from New York City. They have a similar goal — they are in search of Delta Blues musicians, whose whereabouts have fallen into obscurity, leaving the students with not much to go on other than a reported sighting of a musician in a particular town. And so they set off by car, one group initially looking for one musician, and the other looking for a different musician, with only a vague notion of where they will start to look, and who might be able to help them when they get there.
At the same time that the students in search of Delta Blues musicians were setting off on their adventures, the Deep South was about to be flooded with activists who were coming to take part in Freedom Summer. The white population in the area was less than enthused to receive outside visitors, whom they saw as meddling in their affairs. And, they made their hostility abundantly clear when they slaughtered three student activists in Mississippi. Incredibly, on the same day that the student activists were murdered, their location was within miles of where the other two groups of students were on the same day in June of 1964.
Rather than play the spoiler, let it be enough to say that the rest of the film invites us along for the rest of the ride, which has quite a satisfying final destination. The film is profoundly successful because it interweaves these fascinating story elements via an eclectic cast of characters that find themselves at the crossroads of history, a fact that those who are still alive continue to marvel at today. And sitting in the audience, it easy to get swept away by the wonder of seeing these cultural cross-currents intersect in the most unpredictable of ways — not mention getting to hear some great music along the way.
The Fear of Thirteen
It is a rare thing for a film to manage to captivate its audience when the plot centers on the story of a single person, who is telling his story directly to us, looking right into the camera. Yet this is precisely what the The Fear of Thirteen does — the story of Nick Yaris alone is enough to grab our attention and not let go.
One of the few things the audience is likely to know about this film before watching it is that the main character, who is on death row, petitions the state government to halt all appeals and carry out his death sentence. The fact that a person in fact made such an appeal is fascinating enough — but the events that led up to that moment are more fascinating still. Another important aspect of the story is the not very flattering light that it casts on the criminal justice system in America. The fact that our means of meting out punishment has flaws is well known, but the how deep those flaws go and how profoundly they can affect lives in the most tragic ways is brought to the surface in a way that has been done in quite the same way by any other film.
Even more profound is the extent to which we are introduced to the most intimate details of Nick’s life. The story does not unfold in a strictly linear fashion. What we witness is the transformation of a person before our eyes, as if time has been sped up. How profoundly different his life is from most, and how fundamental is his transformation, is something that is revealed to us, and even if we might wish to look away for a moment, we cannot.
Much like in The Fear of Thirteen, crime and punishment is a central theme in the film Deadline. And once again, capital punishment figures prominently in the story. In this instance, the film zooms out, putting capital punishment in its broad historical context, while also telling the story of what transpired in Illinois in 2002, when Governor George Ryan is on the verge of making a momentous decision regarding the fate of the more than 150 inmates who were then on death row in Illinois.
So what was it that that caused Governor Ryan, who was a conservative, and who had been in favor of the death penalty, to reach a point where he had reason to doubt the very foundation of the legal system? It was that fact that DNA evidence, along with other evidence, had surfaced which proved that many inmates on death row were in fact innocent of the crimes of which they had been accused. In some cases, their “confessions” had been coerced, and there were other signs of malfeasance.
Along the way, the film resurfaces many of the same questions that are profoundly troubling to a great many people. For one, why is it that the United States is the only Western democracy where capital punishment is legal? Why is it that we incarcerate a far higher percentage of our population than any other nation? And most obviously, given a system that has been proven time and again to be fallible, how is it morally acceptable to execute even one person who is innocent of the crime that they were accused of committing?
Maya Angelou and Still I Rise
What a thundering, majestic voice Dr. Maya Angelou had. What a lasting influence she continues to have. Given what a larger-than-life character Dr. Maya Angelou was, it is a lot to ask of any film to be up to the task of telling her story. This film does a creditable job of helping us understand how many unique areas of human endeavor she was active in, along with some of the most important events and people who helped shape her into the person she ultimately became, and most importantly of all, gives us a glimpse into how many lives she touched.
Let’s get back to her voice for a moment. I did not realize, and most likely few people do realize, that she began her career as a dancer and singer. For instance, at one time she was known as “Miss Calypso,” because she appeared in a film titled Calypso Heat Wave and also released an album titled Miss Calypso. It was not until considerably later in her career that she started writing, and success soon followed, with a string of successful works of prose and poetry, culminating with even wider recognition upon reading her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inaugural in 1993.
Providing even a partial list of the people who are shown in the film, who knew and/or worked with her, truly speaks for itself. Those people include Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Alfre Woodard, Dave Chappelle, Alice Walker, Cicely Tyson, and Toni Morrison.
Audrey and Daisy
(Release Date: January 25, 2016)
(Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk)
(Note: Netflix bought the rights to Audrey & Daisy soon after its premiere at Sundance)
It is both startling and troubling how few in number are the cases of rape that are reported, particularly when the victims are younger than eighteen. The film Audrey and Daisy shines a very bright light on not only how wide-spread is the problem of sex crimes against the very young, but also on the fact that it is quite rare for the perpetrators to suffer any real consequences as the result of their actions.
The victims of the crimes suffer tremendously, and if that was not already evident, it will be after viewing this film. Audrey & Daisy frames the conversation based on two sets of events, one that takes place in Saratoga, California, and the other in a small town in Missouri. Both cases got a substantial amount of publicity, particularly the one in Missouri.
Over the course of the film, we come to understand how profound was the extent of the emotional trauma for both of the young women, and also the impact that it had on other members of their family. We also are reminded of the extent to which the odds are stacked against any woman getting a successful outcome in a court of law.
The good news is that the film helps serve as a rallying cry for other young women who have had similar experiences. As a result, we have the opportunity to bear witness as the women and their support networks find common cause, helping each other with the healing process, and opening the door for others to come forward.
Newtown. The word conjures up images that we would rather not remember. But remember we must. And what this documentary does is tell the story mainly from the point of view of a handful of the families, focusing primarily on their efforts to pick up the pieces in the wake of this most devastating of tragedies.
Thankfully, the film makers go out of their way to make only the slightest mention of the perpetrator of this most cowardly and heinous of acts (and never to use his name). To be sure, the story of how events unfolded on that tragic day is told, however, it is told primarily from the perspective of particular families and what they experienced. For instance, one of the most palpable aspects of the tragedy was the fact that all of the families were told to gather at a nearby volunteer fire department while police officers were securing the scene, and while medical personnel were tending to the many dead and wounded. And it was here, adjacent to the school, where family members learned which of their loved ones were alive, and which were dead. (All told, there were 26 fatalities, 20 of whom were children.)
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that this small town is still severely fractured more than a year removed from the devastating events of December 2014. Worse still, it is not at all clear how long it will take for the town to create enough happier memories to be able to move past a tragedy of this magnitude, not to mention that the families who lost loved ones were forever changed.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
(Release Date: January 23, 2016)
(Director: Werner Herzog)
Leave it to a film maker like Werner Herzog to tackle a topic as broad and deep as the Internet, and to do it in such a fascinating way. He divides the film into ten chapters of varying lengths. Not surprisingly, he begins at the beginning — in a room on the UCLA campus, where the first host-to-host communication took place, between a computer there and one at Stanford. (And using his uniquely dry sense of humor, the title of the film provides a subtle clue that there was a technical malfunction that limited the duration of that initial computer-to-computer communication.)
From there, he takes us on a journey that has many way points, but refrains from leading us to a specific destination. We hear from a scientist at Carnegie Mellon who enthuses about remarkable advances that were achieved in the biological sciences as result as the result of massive collaboration in an online game that encouraged a vast array of people all over the world to participate. And we hear from a family who suffered the loss of one of their own, only to suffer far more greatly when pictures of that family member post-mortem were broadly circulated, making them question the nature of humanity in general, not to mention the perils of the Internet.
And those are only the first few chapters of the narrative. Other areas Herzog explores include a unique community of people who intentionally live near radio telescopes in West Virginia, either because they are researchers, or because it is one of the few places on earth where just about all types of electronic signals are disabled. We also hear from well-known hacker Kevin Mitnick, who has some interesting memories to share. And we hear from Elon Musk, who is intent on making it possible to colonize Mars.
Ultimately, all of this makes for a splendid and wide-ranging narrative, which poses profound questions. Let’s hope the film serves as a vehicle that encourages us all to continue to ask such questions, and to explore the implications of such questions more fully.
A Perfect Candidate
During this, the most political of political seasons, it is not surprising that at this year’s festival, Full Frame chose to have a curated thematic program consisting entirely of political documentaries. The title of the thematic program: Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics. The film A Perfect Candidate recalls Oliver North’s bid to unseat Charles Robb for a Virginia senatorial seat in the 1992 election.
The film makers have virtually unlimited access to Oliver North’s inner circle of advisers (Mark Goodin and Mark Merrit in particular). Washington Post reporter Don Baker also figures prominently in the film. And naturally, we get a very close look at Oliver North himself.
Given how cynical many of us have become about the political process in general, it is difficult to say that this film offers a completely different perspective on how the process works. That being said, what it does do is remind us (even though we really do not want to be reminded) of how candidates with the “right” combination of name recognition and financial backing have a legitimate chance of being elected to high office, even when they have the most significant of character flaws, including lapses in judgement which by any normal standard would be considered criminal behavior (and Oliver North was the person who almost single-handedly orchestrated the deals that we have come to refer to as “Iran-Contra”).
The Illinois Parables
(Release Date: January 21, 2016)
(Director: Deborah Stratman)
IMDB refers to this film as an “experimental documentary,” and the reason why is that the film consists of a series of eleven historical vignettes, which are very loosely coupled. As we might guess from the title, what the vignettes have in common is that each one references a particular location or region in Illinois. For instance, the first vignette portrays the Trail of Tears that took the Cherokee from their ancestral home in the Southeastern United States, through southern Illinois, ending in Oklahoma.
There is extensive use of archival 16 mm footage, which adds to the broad historical sweep of the film. In one of the other vignettes, which is perhaps the best example of how the film ties together so many different incidents via geographic links, we are introduced to the town of Nauvoo, which has a unique history indeed. After its founding by Mormons in 1839, it soon became a colony for a group of utopian socialists called the Icarians, who stayed there less than a decade. And in a later vignette, we visit Chicago in 1969, where police describe their version of events when they raided the apartment of Black Panther Fred Hampton. The comparison between the fate of Hampton and the Mormon Joseph Smith (who also is killed in Illinois) offers a prime example of the interesting historical linkages that this film helps us see.