Jyllian Gunther

Of War and Metaphor: Documentaries and Interviews from the 2015 Full Frame Film Festival

We live in a time of war, both real and metaphorical. The 20th century has saddled us with a linguistic trope that can trap our perceptions of the problems and questions we face, and that has a way of turning metaphorical conflict into literal conflict. Some metaphorical wars seem to have disappeared (the war on poverty has seemingly morphed into a war of takers against makers). Others, like the war on drugs, the war on terror and the culture wars have been hard to shake.

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Full Force Filmmaking

This past weekend marked the ninth annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. A whopping 72 films competed in the event, ranging in subject matter from the war on Iraq to air guitar. There were an impressive 13 films in a category called Class in America, curated by St. Clair Bourne, aiming to "paint a more accurate picture that can be useful to politically active citizens who are trying to make the U.S. government more democratic (that is, small "d") in practice." (What that means, exactly, we're not entirely sure.)

The festival also highlighted Katrina-centered docs (a subject the networks, if not the American people, seem to have tired of) in its Southern Sidebar feature. Of course, we also enjoyed lots of panels, parties, ceremonies, free man-purses and free food. The most resonant panel was the New York Times-led Class Symposium, moderated by Tom Kuntz, editor of the newspaper's "Class Matters" series from a few years back. The panel included a host of filmmakers, academics and journalists who offered a rich discussion on the tangled intersections of race, class and gender, with director Linda Goode Bryant ("Flag Wars") raising the most evocative questions about who defines "self-interest," and according to whose moral or economic criteria.

The missionary impulses behind much documentary-making -- relatively privileged filmmakers representing the lives of those less fortunate -- also got interesting play. Still, we didn't fail to notice the general homogeneity of the audience at Full Frame, many of whom had plenty to say during Q&A sessions, but surprisingly little to ask. Instead, many folks seemed intent on flashing their progressive credentials with disclosures about the "importance" of their own work.

Still, the urge to show one's liberal colors is understandable -- if not imperative -- in these ominously conservative times. But the challenge remains: How can we reach beyond the hermetic havens of festivals like Full Frame, and into the mainstream?

Linda Goode Bryant argued that we should start by aiming to resist labels like "haves" and "have-nots," because different communities frame those words differently -- as beautifully illustrated in her film "Flag Wars" (a Full Frame award-winner in 2003, and rescreened at this year's festival). So was "Flag Wars," as provocative and compelling as Bryant herself? Yep; the doc held an insightful lens to a relatively privileged -- but marginalized -- gay community in Columbus, Ohio, as it gentrified an old African-American neighborhood.

Cinematic Highlights

Next time you find yourself mindlessly mumbling along with 50 Cent, consider checking out Byron Hurt's "Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs In On Manhood In Hip-Hop Culture." It's an insider's exploration of the forces conspiring to produce legions of gun-toting wannabe pimps and gangstas. An ex-college quarterback, Hurt interviews rappers from Chuck D to Busta Rhymes to Jadakiss to Fat Joe.

Micah X. Peled's moving "China Blue" was inspiring in a different way. We headed to the American Tobacco Campus to watch the story of Jasmine, a 16-year-old from China's Sichuan province migrating to the manufacturing city of Shaxi, where she finds a cushy entry-level sweatshop job cutting loose threads from Westerners' jeans for 6 cents an hour. It's everything we already know about sweatshop labor but prefer not to think about: slave-like working conditions, interminable hours without overtime, cut-throat global competition But the sweetness of Jasmine's friendships, her basic human longings for family and a better life -- not to mention her diary musings about attaining kung fu powers and turning abusive factory managers into stone -- made the film surprisingly intimate. Toward the end of the film, Jasmine ponders why the people she's making the jeans for are so fat, and she smuggles a letter to them into a pair of jeans. So check your pockets and check your heads.

The truth is that after all that, we were a bit unenthused about taking in a film about the ails of a privileged middle-class family; namely, "So Much So Fast" (directed by Jeanne Jordan and Tom Ascher), which chronicles a man's fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and the unflagging dedication of his family. Within five minutes, though, our enthusiasm was code red. We highly recommend this powerful doc, which offers a much-needed reminder that the human spirit is capable of transcending race, class and gender, that everybody suffers, and that we can learn from the hardships and victories of others.

We imagine it's tough to be a rich man (Sydney Pollack) who made a documentary ("Sketches Of Frank Gehry") about a rich man who makes things for rich men -- and still have the gall to lament at his press panel not to have had "even one dollar" of funding for the soundtrack. (He hired his son-in-law.) Pollack admitted that he approached the subject as a layman, both to architecture and documentary filmmaking. When festival director Nancy Biurski introduced the film, she joked that Pollack had considered calling it "Two Jews Sitting Around Talking," an apt description for these two men in their '70s who know business, but are secure enough to admit their failures.

The film is mostly void of academic architectural discourse, with refreshing tidbits from Gehry, such as: "Postmodernism; when was that? Like, 20 years ago?" But the best line is when he confesses that he often looks at his work and thinks, "That's so stupid-looking, I think it's great."

We would have appreciated more focus on the conflict between art and commerce -- indeed, the film lacks any mention of social class whatsoever -- but you can't have it all.

We only caught some of Anne Makepeace's "Rain In A Dry Land," but it was still enough for us to agree that it deserved its win for the Full Frame Working Films award. This prize is given to the film "that has the greatest potential for supporting serious grassroots organizing and social change."

"Rain " chronicles the life of two Bantu families, brought to the United States from the Kakhuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, as they struggle to reconcile their fantasies of American life with its harsh realities, while trying to hold on to their own identities. It's a sensitive, moving portrait, shedding light on the conflicting notions of what it means to be (or become) an American.

Also on being American: Julie Anderson's "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater," (co-produced by CC Goldwater, Barry's granddaughter), is a fascinating portrait of the man: a gifted photographer, friend of the Hopi Indians, loving but aloof family man and patriotic Arizonan cowboy. Oh, and he thought it a good idea to deforest (and depopulate?) South Vietnam with a low-grade nuclear bomb. While we got a sense of how Goldwater's Libertarian beliefs could be an outgrowth of his love for the Arizona desert, from a political standpoint the film merely skims the surface. The result is a light look at the roots of conservatism. There are very few, if any, subjects interviewed who seriously challenge his ideology or critically assess his political legacy, which is odd, considering just how much vitriol he managed to inspire when he was alive.

For a portrait from the other side, look no further than "Al Franken: God Spoke," (directed by Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob) which serves up a good, old-time roasting of the Republican Party and its systematic, bald-faced (albeit frighteningly successful) campaign of lies. Unfortunately, the doc isn't funny all the way, through. As the 2004 elections approached, Franken and his cohorts contemplated ways of gloating in victory … well, we all know how the story ends. But don't lose heart, compatriots; the film ends with Mr. Franken weighing a bid for Minnesota senator.

What about waking up one morning to be faced with the fact that you may never again be able to hang with your homies, blow your trombone, or sing and dance down Bourbon Street? The last doc we caught was "To Be Continued: The Story of the TBC Brass Band," and what a way to go. The production value was pretty low, and it wasn't beautifully shot, but the subject matter (and subjects) were exhilarating: a rag-tag group of teenage street musicians on the verge of the big time, who'd been dispersed across the country by Katrina, to Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Sacramento. The film picks up where they were dropped off, and we witness their eventual reunion. The group's love for music, one another and their home city of New Orleans is as infectious and inspiring as the music they play -- a rollicking gumbo of hip-hop, soul, New Orleans brass and back again.

It seemed the whole weekend left everyone with the feeling that healing was possible, or at least a goal worth pursuing. But then you watch Ricki Stern's and Annie Sundberg's "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," (which won this year's Full Frame Audience Award), the saga of the legal lynching of an innocent young black man accused of raping a white woman in Winston-Salem, N.C., and you realize that there's no liberal oasis anywhere. One thing made abundantly clear by Hunt's many trials, over a 20-year period, is that even with the most conclusive genetic evidence (to say nothing of the flimsiest of evidence against him), the truth would not set him free.

A few films we're sorry we didn't see, and recommend on heresay from people we trust:

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How much reality can you handle?

This post was written with Kevin Greer, co-founder of the Brooklyn Community High School of Communications, Arts and Media.

This weekend begins the 9th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC. This is our second time attending; we really enjoy this festival because we have the chance to come away feeling smarter rather than saturated with fat. We are not here so much as critics but as plebes hungry to take in information not often seen in the mainstream media -- something the festival prides itself in offering. That being said, we are New Yorkers, so we can't help but be somewhat, er, critical.

There are 3 components of the festival:
72 films in competition which range in subject matter from The War on Iraq to . . . air guitar.

13 films in a category called Class in America, curated by St. Clair Bourne which "represents an inquiry into class as American filmmakers have envisioned it" and aims to "paint a more accurate picture that can be useful to politically active citizens who are trying to make the U.S. government more democratic (that is, small "d") in practice."

There's the regular feature of the festival called Southern Sidebar, which will focus on Katrina this year, a subject the networks (and the American people?) seem to have tired of.

Also, panels, parties, awards ceremonies, free man-purses, and free food.

Just about every film in the catalogue seems unmissable from their descriptions, though we stepped into (and out of) our very first film, about New Orleans musicians in the wake of the big hurricane. From the half hour we did see, it seemed that a potentially sympathetic topic was made tedious by an emphasis on the banal. While it's awful that the "Queen of New Orleans Soul", Irma Thomas, lost her nightclub, we were underwhelmed by the ten minutes of screen time devoted to her laments about moldy ceilings, sheet rock damage, and sign wreckage. Perhaps we were a bit impatient, having scooted out before halftime, but we hoped to be more sucked in for our first screening. A girl we spoke to later said the film redeemed itself in the end with inspiring musical performances. That's what we get for giving up too quickly.

Still, we have high hopes for another New Orleans musical saga, "To Be Continued: The Story of the TBC Brass Band," about the re-uniting of a teenage street band who played borrowed and taped-together instruments but were wiped out by Katrina just as they were about to make it big.

Other films we're especially looking forward to: "Songbirds," a doc musical featuring singing and dancing British female inmates and their guards; "Maid In America," about domestic workers redefining their role in society through the Worker's Rights movement; "The Drug Years," (ah, those were the days) about the cultural impact of illicit drug use in the U.S.; Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which uncovers the biased censorship of the MPAA rating system; "Flag Wars," about African American working class homeowners confronted by an influx of white gay homebuyers; Al Franken's "And God Spoke"; "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater"; and "Irag In Fragments" (you get the picture). Also, the Career Award to Richard Leacock, presented by Direct Cinema cohorts Albert Maysles, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and Ross McElwee.
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