Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2016
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith ***
Forever, Chinatown **1/2
The 100 Years Show ****
The Many Sad Faces of Mr. Toledano ****
By Sydney Lumet ***1/2
The Black Belt ***
Dancing for You *****
Two Trains Runnin’ ****
Following Seas *****
Life, Animated ****
Raising Bertie **
Hours spent standing in line, sometimes in the wind and rain and cold, just to get a decent seat (when all the seats are decent); mad dashes out of the theater to get food, only to be greeted by mammoth food lines; a maximum of 40 minutes exercise per day, hurried walks snatched between shows; cramped muscles, bleary eyes, a compromised digestive system; six plus hours every day sitting in the dark staring at a screen: it’s the world of the film festival, the only one I ever attend, the Full Frame Documentary Festival in my home town of Durham. I’ve been attending for the nineteen years it’s been in existence, and for the past eighteen have bought a pass. I run into people I haven’t seen for months.
Every year after the festival I ask myself why I put myself through this (it’s a difficult physical experience, with repercussions for days), and every year I buy a pass as soon as they’re available and sign up for movies at the first possible minute. I always (these days) get the movies I want, rarely seem to sign up for the award winners, though this year I saw the winner of the Audience Award. (I would have given it to something else.)
I have a feeling that the awards—like all awards—are more political than aesthetic. The people who run the festival have an axe to grind, a political agenda or a group of people they favor. The man who won the Audience Award was introduced as an Academy Award winner. And he’s a wonderful filmmaker; I’m not questioning that. I just don’t think he made the best movie.
The group who runs the festival is annoyingly self-congratulatory and sometimes runs on too long in its introductions. I’m of the opinion that no film should be introduced in any way. The introducer should say whether the filmmaker is there for a Q&A (a surprising number are, though I’m always hurrying to the next film), remind people to turn off their cell phones, and announce that texting will be punishable by death. There’s no need to say anything about the movie.
Especially annoying are the idiotic, hectoring, lectures on the evening of the opening night film, which this year was Weiner (pronounced like the thing you eat in a bun. Also the image he kept texting to young women). In past years the audience reacted well to such tiresome speeches, apparently grateful for the festival itself, but this year they fell with a thud. That should tell the speakers something, but I doubt it will.
I began with my scorecard. Three stars indicate a movie worth seeing. Fewer indicate disappointment, more elation. I won’t talk about every movie, but want to talk about some.
Eugene Smith was an accomplished photographer, and it was interesting to hear about the period when he lived in a loft in lower Manhattan, in what was known as the flower district, right below a loft where there were constant jam sessions by local musicians. Smith photographed the luminaries who showed up, including musicians like Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims, listeners like Norman Mailer and Salvador Dali. Smith also obsessively recorded the proceedings and much of his life, so he captured a lot of good music on tape, also radio broadcasts, television shows, casual conversations. It’s hard to know what he mean to do with all that. He was an obsessive human being.
He was dedicated to photography to the point of mania, often worked around the clock, keeping himself going with uppers and downers. To do all that he lived in utter squalor (various people remarked on how bad the building smelled) and abandoned a beautiful family with whom he’d had a comfortable home in another part of the state. His son was one of the commentators in the film. He barely knew his father once the man moved to the loft.
The next cluster of short films concerned a trio of weird artists (I’m a sucker for such things), but the most interesting by far was The 100 Years Show, about a graphic artist named Carmen Herrera, born in Cuba in 1915. She is an abstract expressionist, creating an art of geometric shapes and bright colors, and pursued her art in the male-dominated art world of the 1950’s and long beyond, continuing to create paintings though she was seldom exhibited. She wasn’t “discovered” by the larger art world until the early twenty-first century, though her work throughout her career seems equally interesting, and she continued to work at the time of the filming though she was 99 years old and confined to a second story apartment in New York.
In a way she was discovered by accident; a gallery was planning a show of three other artists, and one of them dropped out at the last minute. They were scrambling around looking for a substitute and an advisor happened to have seen the work of Herrera, who at that point was past the age of 85. “If you wait long enough for a bus, eventually the bus will arrive,” she says at one point, but one wonders of that’s true. How many substantial artists never got such a break, so we’ve never heard of them?
She had perhaps the best line in the festival, when she was asked about the meaning of her paintings. “If I could put those things into words, I wouldn’t do the paintings; I would tell you. You cannot talk about art. You have to art about art.”
By Sydney Lumet involved an immensely long conversation just before his death with the famous film director, who directed 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict. The man could direct, and he sure as hell could talk. Nancy Buirski—who, to her eternal credit, founded this film festival—edited the conversation and spliced it with scenes from his movies, showing how they embodied his vision. He was a champion of the underdog, obsessed with the idea of a single person who stood up to a mob (all of the films I’ve named concern that situation in their own way). He traced them all back to a television show he once directed, where Lloyd Bridges confronted a lynch mob and got so into the role that he yelled, “You sons of bitches,” even though it was broadcast live in the fifties.
Lumet had a fascinating career, which went all the way back to his father’s work in the Yiddish theater of New York. Lumet acted with his father as a child and eventually directed him as an adult. He admitted that his real love was working, and he would have been as happy continuing television work as he was directing in Hollywood, but he got his break when a television writer expanded 12 Angry Men into a feature length film. I began to find all the talk tiresome, but I loved the clips from the old movies. We saw the Paul Newman summation from The Verdict, one of my favorite movies of all time. For that film alone I’m eternally grateful to Lumet, and should be willing to listen to any amount of yakking.
I found Weiner frustrating because it was face to face with a fascinating question: why does a man who is passionate about his ideals, talented and intelligent and tireless in working for the good of the people, nevertheless self-destruct over something that seems so strange and trivial and, in this case, seriously weird. The names Gary Hart and William Clinton come immediately to mind. I could come up with more with a few minutes of thought.
The film concerns Weiner’s campaign for mayor of New York, during which he was running from his past reputation of sexting then got caught up in the behavior again, with another episode. I’m not surprised that men have sexual compulsions; I’ve struggled with them myself. There’s a brief suggestion at one point that the thing that makes a man act out such compulsions—a need for attention, or affection—might be related to what’s making him run for office. That at least was an interesting idea.
But what was frustrating about this well-made movie—to the point that it made you want to scream—was that it never asked Weiner why he had done what he had. One newscaster, Chris O’Donnell, asked the question, more or less, but Weiner made light of it and mocked the man for asking it. He acted as if it were a stupid, when it was the huge smelly flea-bitten elephant in the room.
Weiner blithely pretends to be a movie about a modern political campaign, when that was the least interesting part (and the campaign was utterly hopeless). It could have been much more. But it didn’t seem to try.
The Black Belt was a brief film about the way certain Southern states are systematically disenfranchising black voters. It could only have been improved by being longer. Trapped is a similar film about abortion rights. For me it was one of the surprise films of the festival.
I’m not in favor of abortion. I can’t get over the fact that it involves taking a life, and don’t think it should be done lightly. I certainly don’t think it’s a method of birth control. Yet I am not a person who can get pregnant when he has sex—for that reason I’ve always supported a woman’s choice—and I certainly don’t think (as was the case at one point in this film) that a 13 year old girl who has been gang raped by three people should be forced to have her baby.
I understand that people who oppose abortion do so sincerely, often for religious reasons. It is also true that a number of them—particularly those who demonstrate at abortion clinics—come across as narrow, bigoted, and just plain nuts. The people making the obviously unfair laws that are intended to shut down abortion centers are the usual crowd of old white men who are opposed to sex (except for themselves), contemptuous of women, and racist. I’m not saying that everyone who voted for such bills is all three of those things. But that’s the impression you get when you see the legislators (in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern states).
What this film makes obvious is that the issue is more about economics, race, and gender than it is about abortion. Wealthy white women don’t worry about abortion centers; they pay their wealthy white doctors and have them done. It’s the lower class often African American women who are forced to drive hours to find an abortion center, then hours to make a second visit, then hours to make a third, all the while missing work, who are the victims of these laws. And the people who run abortion centers, and stand up for them, and perform the abortions, are heroes. They’re doing something I don’t quite believe in, but they’re people of real conscience. A lot of the other people in the movie—legislators in particular—should be ashamed of themselves.
Dancing for You was one of the true gems of my festival, one of three films I gave five stars. It is set in Norway and concerns a folk dance called Halling, which I had never heard of. People sometimes do it in ensembles, but it is also danced individually as a competition, usually only by boys, because the intent is to show their fierceness. In this movie it is danced by a 12 year old girl named Vilde, and she dedicated her efforts to her grandfather, who is dying of cancer. He was a champion athlete in the past, perhaps a champion dancer. At one point Vilde puts on one of his gold medals to see how it looks.
What was striking about the film was the way Vilde and her grandfather, also Vilde and her mother, spoke openly both about death and about their love for each other. Some of the scenes were so intimate that I found the presence of the filmmakers intrusive. They were nevertheless deeply touching. The emotional connections made the movie.
We also see Vilde training with the young men who taught her (one of whom is far superior to anyone else we see). Vilde herself is a beautiful talented girl, and a remarkable dancer. If this had been a Hollywood film she would have won the competition, and her grandfather would have found a miracle cure. Those things don’t happen, but we’re aware all along that they’re not what’s important. If she had failed utterly the story would have been no less impressive.
Another gem appeared that afternoon, though it lasted only seventeen minutes. Tarikat concerns a Sufi ritual, filmed by a group from the Netherlands, I’m not sure where. It is told from the viewpoint of a particular woman, and focuses on her, but also shows the entire group as they enact the ritual, which involves chanting, body movements, and eventually a kind of simple dance. One man does the spinning that I associate with Sufis (the “whirling dervishes” that people use to talk about); I saw an elaborate ritual of that in Cambridge when my wife was in Divinity School. This was not so elaborate, or highly skilled. For that reason, the whole community could participate.
I’m fascinated by the way people raise energy, or prana, or chi, or the spirit—whatever they call it—in religious rituals. If you’ve seen scenes of a Gospel church in the deep South, with people standing, dancing, shouting, and singing, you wouldn’t be surprised by Tarikat, though the Sufi ritual is much more synchronized, so people are moving together. In my own tradition, we raise energy by sitting still and in silence, a most effective method, though we also chant and do floor bows. The Sufi ritual is so primal that you’re made part of it by just watching. This was a fascinating short, one of the most entrancing things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.
It was also responsible for the all-time dumbest comment we’ve ever heard at the festival. The guy next to my wife, at the end of seventeen fascinating minutes, turned to the guy next to him and said, “I hate that Hare Krishna shit.”
He should be banned from the festival for life.
Two Trains Runnin’ is one of many festival movies I’ve seen through the years about the world of music, but this one was a winner. It concerned a group of guys in the sixties who had heard the old acoustic blues records and were intent on finding the original artists, including Son House and Skip James, both of whom had disappeared into obscurity. The guys seeking them out were not performers but record nerds, the kind of guys who lived in Cambridge and stayed up all night listening to alternative radio. They somehow got the harebrained idea of heading to Mississippi to find these men.
The problem was that this was a time of huge racial unrest; they were heading into Mississippi the same summer that three civil rights workers were murdered. There they were in a VW bug with Massachusetts license plates, driving around Mississippi trying to find a couple of black men.
Weirdly enough, they did, leading to a whole new late career for both men. Son House and Skip James seemed able to pick up the guitar and play and sing as well as they ever had, though they hadn’t done either thing for years. They wowed the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-Sixties and never looked back. Two Trains Runnin’ does a beautiful job of portraying not just the search for these singers, but the struggle for civil rights occurring all around it.
The final gem of our weekend was Following Seas, which I can’t praise enough. Like the Sydney Lumet movie, it featured a single long interview with one person, a woman named Nancy Griffiths, who in the most matter of fact way told how a sailboat came in to dock one day near her home in Hawaii and she—a 25 year old single mother with a five year old—went to offer the sailors some breakfast. She got to know the man who owned the boat, a former veterinarian named Bob Griffiths who had had an early heart attack, probably because of pressures from work, and decided to take to sea. It was the summer, and she had nothing better to do, so she and her son set out to go sailing with this man. That began two decades of sailing together, thirteen major ocean voyages including three times around the globe, a marriage, and the birth of two more children. Through it all, they took films of their adventures. The filmmakers edited those films and interviewed Nancy to make this one.
This is a movie about sailing the way Walden is a book about living beside a pond. At the beginning Nancy says something to the effect that the sea is not malevolent; it’s just is the way it is on a particular day and you have to deal with it. That’s true of the world in general, and of life, though seldom does someone see and live it that way. These weren’t perfect human beings, but if they wanted to live on the sea they had to improvise and make do. Their story shows us all how to live. We don’t have a choice either.
I’ve never been a sailor or a seafarer, and for me the idea of being in the middle of the water with no land in sight, seas rolling and heaving, is terrifying. Nancy Griffiths spent much of her life that way. She proved to be an expert navigator, taking them straight to a small island on their first voyage, and she was the navigator and filmmaker from then on. Really, though, everyone did everything, including her son, who was homeschooled the whole time with correspondence courses. He did schoolwork, but his real teacher was the sea.
Early on they shipwrecked on some coral and were actually stranded for quite some time on the proverbial desert island. They lived like Robinson Crusoe, building shelter, scavenging things, living on fish and cocoanuts. When they were eventually rescued, they rebuilt their boat by themselves, making it this time not of wood, but of cement (a surprising choice, but we hear the reasoning behind it, and see them do it). On that new boat they sailed for many years, including a voyage around Antarctica from New Zealand, something no one had ever done in so small a craft. Nancy also tells of an occasion on another voyage when the sail billowed and she was knocked overboard, and the ship, heading downwind, disappeared almost immediately. She said she treaded water and was not afraid, never doubting Bob would come back to get her. He nevertheless had come back into sight and then turned around, thinking he’d missed her, before she rose on a swell and yelled “Over here,” finally getting his attention.
The life story of these people was not without its sadness and its outright tragedy. Some moments in the movie are as hard to get through as they were for Nancy Griffiths to talk about. Nevertheless, these people lived their lives—as Thoreau said—deliberately. One wonders at the everyday courage of people who live exactly as they choose to.
Life, Animated tells of another courageous life, one spent living in a supervised home and working at a movie theater. It is the story of a young autistic man named Owen Susskind—son of a famous Wall Street Journal reporter—who developed autism as a young child and eventually emerged into a happy and satisfying life. Since we deal with a mild case of autism in our family, my wife and I are always interested in such films. This one was beautifully and professionally done, and won the audience award for the best feature. I would have given it to Following Seas, but I have no real objection. This is an excellent film.
I was not aware that autism comes on suddenly in childhood. I thought people were born with it. That gives me some sympathy for those who think it is caused by vaccinations, though doctors insist that isn’t true. In any case, Owen had been a perfectly normal child until the age of three, when all of a sudden he started talking gibberish. His parents sought help and received the diagnosis of autism. That led to a long period of treatment and recovery.
Owen couldn’t have had more caring or understanding parents. They noticed that their son continued to be entranced by animation, also that he had a habit of muttering things under his breath. Eventually they realized he had not only learned the dialogue from many of the Disney films (autistic people are known for the extraordinary memories), but brought up dialogue in life situations in which movie scenes offered some help. Autistic people don’t read social cues well, or appropriately express emotion. The cartoons, by exaggerating emotion, gave Owen a chance to see things he wasn’t picking up on in everyday life, and to express feelings in helpful ways. Using dialogue from movies, his parents were able to penetrate the communication barrier with their son, and gradually bring him back to human language, and into the world.
We hear stories from Owen’s entire life, but focus on the moment when he has decided to leave home and live in a group home. This was no less perilous a voyage for him than the Griffiths trips around Antarctica. He weathers various emotional storms, and emerges as a reasonably happy and well-adjusted young man, working in one of his favorite places, a multiplex theater. We actually see him give a speech at a conference on autism in Paris. The opening is a cliffhanger for a while, as he stands silently for an inordinate length of time, but he begins with a brilliant first line that brought the house down. “Bonjour, Monsieurs et Madames.”
I shudder to think of what would have happened to Owen if his parents hadn’t been so understanding and well off. His brother is also extraordinarily caring, and has taken on the responsibility of being the next guardian for his brother. Life, Animated is a touching story of a family who would not give up on their child.
I had high hopes for Raising Bertie, which featured three young men who came of age in the rural Eastern part of my own state. Originally the film was to have been about a special school the boys attended, but it closed after a year, so the filmmaker continued to film the lives of the young men she had focused on. They were African American in a poor part of the state, and the intent was to give us some idea of the barriers they face.
It certainly did that. I’ve been in education all my life, have heard about the problems of education in disadvantaged parts of the state (the tax base isn’t large enough to raise much money, and competent teachers don’t want to live in the place), but I never realized how difficult it was until I saw these young men, way overage, trying to navigate the system. They emerged eventually, but I had no feeling they’d picked up the necessary life skills, or that they were really ready to work.
Early on, a woman talks about the fact that, in the original sharecropping system, men were treated like children by the owners, and the only way they were able to show their true manhood was through violence. That remark showed a lot of insight, but it didn’t make the one scene of violence, a gang-type fistfight about money, any easier to take. And I couldn’t escape the feeling that, in every case, the women had it more together than the men. They seemed more mature and managed their lives better. It was a discouraging picture.
It was also a confused and confusing film. The scenes were affecting but didn’t take us anywhere. And the upbeat ending on which the film seemed to land, for each young man, didn’t ring true. They were still down in Bertie with not much going for them.
We had one more movie on our list (the festival continued through the evening, and on into the next day), but at that point we’d had enough, physically and emotionally. We reach that point every year. We went out for dinner, drank a beer and blinked our bleary eyes, wondering why we put ourselves through this every year.
We’ll be the first to sign up again next year.
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