Doc, Ya Gotta Level Wit Me

 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2017

My Lineup: Whose Streets? / Still Tomorrow / The Good Postman / Abacus / Zaatari Djinn / Tribal Justice / Strong Island / Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities / Quest / The Force / May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers

At the end of the second evening of the twentieth Full Frame Festival—which we have attended for all twenty years—my wife and I were so disappointed that we skipped our Friday evening movie and went to a bar for a couple of beers and a good dinner (instead of wolfing down yet another Greek salad with grilled meat and hurrying to a final movie).  We were disgusted by the movie we had just seen and discouraged by our first two days.  Part of that may just have been bad luck, or poor movie choice—it comes to the same thing—but we were also disturbed by some trends which weren’t exactly new, but were all over the place in movies we’d seen.  I’ll skip the movies I didn’t like and characterize the trends.

The Proliferation of the Cheerleader Movie.  A Cheerleader is a movie on a hot progressive topic where like-minded people go to cheer their side, boo the other, drink beer, eat hot-buttered popcorn, and feel good about themselves.  In the meantime, we got slaughtered in the last election.  I’m as much of a liberal progressive Democrat as anyone, voted for Hillary and worked for her, but I don’t need to see still more movies on the same old topics.  It’s time for filmmakers to try to understand the other side.  Go make a movie in Ohio.

The Facebookification of the Documentary Movie.  These films share traits of my first category, taking up safe topics that everyone is going to cheer, but make the filmmaker not only into a character, but more or less the protagonist.  It’s weird to see a huge shot of the filmmaker’s face staring into the camera, talking about her personal pain, breaking down into a fit of crying.  (What happened to privacy?)  I’m sorry she feels bad, I really am.  But the whole thing seems like a setup; she gets the camera ready, makes the phone call, gets ready to cry.  And again, if she really wanted to understand the situation that produced her sorrow, she might want to talk, at least once, to the people on the other side.

The Reality TVification of the Documentary Movie.  I wanted to see a movie about a Chinese poet with cerebral palsy.  I’m fascinated by writers and their work, and love to see someone overcoming odds.  But I don’t want to spend two-thirds of the movie hearing about her divorce.  Her divorce is just like everybody else’s.  If anything, it’s worse.  Talk about what makes her unique, not what makes her like half the people in the world.

The Let’s Talk About Important Issues Movie Which Ignores Another That’s Right In Our Face.  Drug use and crime and alcoholism and poor education are definitely issues on the Native American reservations.  I admire people who look into them.  But nobody’s saying a word about gross obesity, which was so obvious in this movie that it seemed to dominate.  Start an AA Meeting and an NA meeting, by all means.  But also open a chapter of Weight Watchers (of which I am a proud member), and have a look at whatever it is about the diet that is producing these bodies.  Such eating is another form of addiction.


Saturday saved us.  Every single movie we saw on Saturday was a gem, worth the whole festival.  They weren’t the only movies I liked.  But they stood out in an otherwise bleak three days.

I’ll say a few words about all the movies I liked.

Abacus, on the first night, was a beautifully made and heartening movie about the only bank that was accused of mortgage fraud in the financial crisis of 2008, a small family-owned bank in Chinatown.  Small Enough to Fail seemed to be the attitude of the prosecutors, who ignored far worse crimes by larger banks.  Abacus—the name of the bank—had its problems to be sure; a couple of its employees were crooked, and the oversight system didn’t find them.  But there was certainly nothing intentional going on in the institution as a whole, and the family who owned the bank was nothing if not admirable.  Really the movie is about that family, the attorney father who started the bank to help the people of Chinatown, the attorney daughters who defended it during the five years that it disputed these charges, the wonderful mother who sat at home all that time and worried.  Abacus was the opening night movie, and it is a must-see.

Zataari Djinn, the first movie we saw the next morning, was another gem.  It looked at the Syrian refugee crisis, apparently at one of the nicest camps (my wife heard a woman familiar with the issue say that in the bathroom afterwards), but from the standpoint only of children, who of course were like children everywhere, making the best of what they had.  We see a hijab-wearing girl who also loves to put on makeup, a boy who sells sweets for his father but isn’t terribly fond of his stepmother, a girl who wants to act (in an adaption of King Lear!) but is forbidden to do so because her father doesn’t believe it is proper.  There is a lot the film leaves unexplained (the director mentioned that as she introduced the film, but it still bothered my wife); it stays resolutely focused on the world of children.

Tell Them We Are Rising is an unabashed work of hagiography, telling the history of black colleges and universities in this country, but it showed me a lot of things that I didn’t know and made a great case for these institutions as places—in the past—that were the only recourse for education-starved African Americans and as places—in the present—where African Americans can fully be themselves.  I can see the argument for and against such institutions, and some of the most famous ones are falling on hard times these days, but this movie was beautifully made, by the great Stanley Nelson, and was a great favorite with the Durham audience.

Quest is s story that hasn’t much been told, at least on film, of a good man and woman who live in a crime-plagued Philadelphia neighborhood trying to make a life for themselves.  Quest himself—a deejay named Christopher Rainey—promotes the local music and champions its musicians, but he also has a side job delivering advertisers around the neighborhood (and a most entertaining way of throwing them at stoops).  His wife works at a shelter for battered women and children.  Both of them have checkered pasts—they seem barely middle aged, but photographs of their extended families include children who are well into adulthood—but they have decided to devote themselves to each other and to the one adorable daughter they have.  The filmmaker checked in with these folks over a period of ten years, and not all the news was good by any means, but they kept trying to make a life for themselves.  I was humbled by all they overcame.

The Force told one of the stories I’ve been looking for, that of the Oakland Police force over a two-year period when it was trying to recover from a corrupt past.  We’ve had endless coverage of Black Lives Matter and instances of police malfeasance—I agree that Black Lives Matter and that police are sometimes corrupt and make mistakes—no coverage at all of how difficult, even impossible, this job actually is, how people seem to want the police to protect them when they’re in trouble and be invisible the rest of the time.  There’s not enough appreciation for how difficult it is to show up at a domestic situation when somebody has a weapon, or even the scene of an accident where some crazy guy is angry at what his happened to his relative and wants to get even.

Much of the movie is devoted to a Police Chief who was trying to clean the force up, and it is heart-breaking in the middle of the movie when he’s dismissed, though things weren’t going entirely well.  I believe that dismissal was a mistake.  In the meantime, Oakland citizens were blocking traffic on the streets in sympathy for things that happened elsewhere, still wanting police to take care of things back home, while the force itself was seriously understaffed.  We see cops having to take abuse from ordinary people who could never do what they do, supposedly intelligent citizens making all kinds of unfair allegations, culminating in the utterly idiotic statement “There’s no such thing as a good cop.”  Oakland’s mayor—a woman with a sense of style and a little gleam in her eye—is doing her best with a dreadful situation.  This was another wonderfully made movie.

The festival ended with a true feel-good movie—at least we got one—May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers.  I’m ashamed as a North Carolinian to admit that I hadn’t heard of these men; they live in Concord and have a following all over the country.  They are part of a longstanding tradition of music based in acoustic instruments with a kind of country sound, but they’ve made it contemporary and somehow unique.

The brothers are also unique, as a brother act, because they really like each other, seem to love each other (I wasn’t aware of something that a talking head in this movie speaks of as fact, that every other sibling act—including the Everly Brothers—basically couldn’t stand each other).  They’re also unique because they write their songs together—one coming up with a verse or two and getting stuck, the other pitching in—and because their songs are so deeply personal, and getting more so.  Again, in a way, this is a portrait of an ordinary North Carolina family—the brothers still live in Concord, where they grew up—with a pair of extraordinarily talented brothers.  I’m a sixties rhythm and blues man from way back, ignorant of most other traditions, but I loved the Avett brothers music and intend to listen to more of it.