At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year, the thematic program was “Crime + Punishment.” Curated by guest programmer and documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy, Brother’s Keeper), this organising motif is all too topical – and not just because true crime non-fiction is having a moment. Nearly all documentaries – in one way or another – put their subjects on trial, fixing a penetrating gaze on a particular figure or a phenomenon. Even those documentaries that honour or venerate the matter at hand leave open the possibility of new discoveries and critiques. But is it possible that the documentary form itself is on trial, struggling to communicate its own relevance and credibility? The days of calling Michael Moore “biased” now seem long ago; what was once deemed partisan is now fake news. The idea that every media source has a certain perspective has become the criterion by which Americans dismiss that which they disagree with.
Only last year, threats that a Republican congress and White House would use the federal budget to slash funding for the NEA and NEH had people protesting in the streets. Now, it would seem that federal support for these associations will only increase in 2019 – so what was all that talk about? Was the danger of a world without a national humanities program ever real, or was it simply a piece of anti-intellectual performance art, courtesy of the culture wars? And what does it mean to sentence documentary to death, only to keep granting it stays of execution?
This is not to say that documentary has ever really been in danger of extinction: this year, for Full Frame’s 21st anniversary, Festival Director Deirdre Hajj spoke to an opening night crowd about the festival’s journey toward adulthood. As this documentary festival grows and matures, so documentaries have taken on an increasingly broad place in the popular mediascape; they aren’t just for Ken Burns’ fans anymore. Non-fiction programming has both intellectual and commercial value, evidenced by Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth, a culmination of her years of film and photography work on conspicuous (and compulsive) consumption, which has a US summer theatrical release courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Directed by Nathaniel Kahn, The Price of Everything – shown during a Sunday morning slot and premiering this summer on HBO – provides a compelling meta-narrative for inquiring into the value of any work of art, including documentary film. The specific subject of this documentary is modern art, as it follows a collection of art dealers, makers, scholars and consumers, but it might as well be about the economy and assessment of the films at Full Frame. Some of the films at the festival have distributors, but others do not, and The Price of Everything reminds the viewer that good art must be expensive to receive reverence or protection. The film presents the pop art world as an industry to be met with ambivalence or ridicule – or, as interviewee Alexander Nemerov explains, “a glittering compromise with commerce.” Again, such is the case for documentary and the eternal struggle to package reality for a paying audience.
This is all to say that documentary is both bigger, popular and, in many ways, more incendiary than ever before. Now is as good at time as any to put the form on the hot seat. How does Full Frame 2018’s curated program make the case for documentary? To examine this, I will look across this year’s thematic program, the invited films, and new documentaries and address how the festival asserts documentary’s value as a tool for social justice and as an ever-evolving art form.
Exhibit A: Inspiring Biopics
Possibly the easiest argument for the importance of documentary is the significance of its subjects, and it would seem that the nation is hungry for an inspiring public figure. (I can’t imagine why.) Two of the best-attended films this year focused on extraordinary individuals whose contributions lend these films a mass appeal – at least, among the kinds of people who go to documentary film festivals. Full Frame’s opening film, RBG, centres on the “notorious” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, beginning with her childhood and early career as a mild-mannered law student up to her present status as a cultural icon and perpetual dissenter. Full of campy, catchy tunes and playful editing, the film is a feel-good journey through Ginsburg’s failures and successes, her long and happy marriage clearly falling in the latter column. And while this love letter to Ginsburg is written from and for the left, Ginsburg’s close friendship with Antonin Scalia and her love of “law as reason free from passion” – to cite Legally Blonde – is paramount.
Similarly, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? examines the figure of “Mister” Fred Rogers as a man whose heart was as filled with frustration as it was with love and whose appreciation for, say, a bawdy joke never detracted from his complete devotion to children. His son dryly remarks that it was challenging to grow up as the son of the second coming of Christ, and, indeed, Rogers never comes across as anything other than completely dedicated to his mission. A clergyman and a registered Republican, many of Rogers’ political beliefs would now fall squarely in the contemporary center-left, as evidenced by a Fox News commentator’s complaints that Rogers produced a generation of narcissists, kids who dare to think they are “special”. Crowd-pleasers both, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elicited laughter, tears, and grateful applause from the packed crowds.
The Rape of Recy Taylor, by contrast, is a tough but rewarding watch that leaves the viewer shaken. Taylor was the victim of a brutal gang rape in Alabama in 1944; while the justice system never punished the perpetrators, hers became a story that rallied civil rights activists all over the country. Unlike RBG or Neighbor, Taylor is simultaneously presented as an extraordinary individual and as the site of many contradictory and painful cultural meanings. It is perhaps for that reason that the ending, in which we finally meet an old and frail Recy Taylor, is so poignant; the film is about both her and everything she represents. The mood of the film is gray and heavy, its images of bare trees with their spidery branches reminiscent of the tree in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. By cutting together vintage footage from race films and home movies (including those of Zora Neale Hurston), a feeling of death and intergenerational trauma lingers, a sense that spaces can be haunted in the same way people are. Crystal Feimster, one of the film’s experts, says that Recy’s rapists “didn’t really see her,” but this is an impossible feat for anyone who watches her film.
Exhibit B: Homeward Bound
An old axiom tells us that “you can’t go home again”, but goodness knows human beings aren’t going to stop trying. The term “documentary” suggests that, even as the world changes, film can document or testify to what once was. Although home is of course not always a literal place, a number of the documentaries this year ask what a home is and how it relates to the idea of closure, the latter being as much a narrative concern as a personal one.
These issues motivate Barbara Kopple’s latest film, A Murder in Mansfield, as well as This is Home, 306 Hollywood, and Owned: A Tale of Two Americas. Mansfield is a personal true-crime documentary seemingly about the inability of a man to resolve the trauma of his childhood and his relationship with his father, while This is Home follows a family of Syrian immigrants struggling to settle in a Baltimore suburb. While these films in many ways could not be more different, they both highlight the problems of connection and communication: the central father-son relationship in Mansfield remains broken at the film’s end, while the fate of the families in Home remains indeterminate. Home’s director, Alexandra Shiva, captures many warm and funny moments for her subjects, the humour often stemming from mistranslation and cultural miscommunication. Early in the film, a guide takes the patriarch of one family to the grocery store and proudly articulates the difference between whole and skim milk… until the translator explains that the family asked for yogurt. Later, at a party, a Syrian mother tells her son to go play with one of the “foreigners”, gesturing toward an American, which garnered a hearty chuckle from the festival audience. Even so, the dangers and threats under which these families live are never downplayed, as past violence and present uncertainty loom large, and the 2017 travel ban features prominently in the film’s third act.
A very different portrait of family and home comes into focus with 306 Hollywood, a film directed by newcomer brother-sister team Elan and Jonathan Bogarin. The ostensible subject of the film is its title: the street address of their deceased grandmother’s house in Newark, New Jersey. As they empty out the house and inventory its contents – a process they frame as an excavation – Jonathan and Elan gain further access to the woman they have lost. The careful laying-out of kitschy home goods in elaborate, loving patterns will strike some as retro-chic, others as twee, but the filmmakers’ re-enactments and dream-like dance numbers in tribute to their seamstress grandmother achieve what Elan Bogarin calls documentary “magical realism”.
But it is the least “magical” sequence that remains the freshest in my memory. Elan and Jonathan spent many years filming and interviewing their funny and candid grandmother, and in one lengthy scene, the filmmakers’ mother helps the grandmother into some of her old dresses. “Don’t get nervous,” the mother repeats, while laughing; the grandmother looks into the camera with a mixture of embarrassment and delight, as she is stripped to her underwear and poured into a silk brocade shift. The screen practically swells with love, capturing a moment that, while staged, conveys real emotion and intimacy between family members. The house on 306 Hollywood Ave. is a character in the film – not a precise analogy for the filmmakers’ grandmother, exactly, but an extension of her, their grandfather, their family, and their past.
Sometimes a home is much more than a house, but that is not always a good thing. In Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, Giorgio Angelini presents an ambitious – yet never over-stuffed – portrait of houses and homes in America. The documentary is, at times, sprawling (sorry) but nevertheless successful in connecting the social pressures of home ownership and the real estate bubble to redlining policies and the vilification of black neighborhoods by the mass media. These are the “two Americas” that Angelini presents – white and black, rich and poor – but what these Americas share is common cultural programming. In its use of humorous montages of campy stock footage, primarily television programs and advertising campaigns, Owned executes its educational-activist purpose with a sense of cleverness and play. The title of the film, then, speaks as much to being “owned” by cultural representations and media indoctrination as it does to the buying and selling of properties, which leads us to Exhibit C.
Exhibit C: Documentary as Tool for Media Literacy
What better tool to display all of media’s terrifying powers than the moving image itself? The pairing of Personal Truth/Our New President produces a chilling double bill in which the psychology of conspiracies is put in conversation with the gleeful dissemination of misinformation on Russian state television. In Personal Truth, director Charlie Lyne meditates on his own experiences with conspiracy theories, connecting them to the recent Pizzagate scandal and asking about what people choose to believe and why. A funny and, as the title suggests, personal film, it packs a one-two punch when positioned as a filmic prologue to Our New President, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin. This fever dream of broadcast news, pop music videos, and stock footage constitutes the film’s frantic, even breathless, montage, free from any voiceover, calm or logic. So much the better! As you sit there taking in the loud, splashy spectacle of anti-Hillary vitriol and Vladimir Putin’s hockey “prowess”, you ask yourself, “Am I laughing? Am I screaming? Oh, I’m just quietly frozen in horror?!” If anyone was questioning whether right-wing authoritarianism has a beat you can dance to, the answer is: you bet.
Our New President is a trove of horrific sound bytes, just one of them being Putin’s assertion that “hackers are artistic free spirits”. While patently absurd, this statement speaks to broader discourses around the internet, social media and self-expression. But while our Instagram feed might express the version of ourselves we want to project, the Internet (capital I) speaks larger truths about humanity’s depravities: enter The Cleaners. I can only echo Tara Judah’s report on the film, a portrait of the men and women in the Philippines who are paid to watch and delete all the internet’s most obscene and disturbing elements; with its Citizenfour-esque, stripped-down dystopian aesthetic, it is, to quote Judah, “sure to be a documentary touchstone.” As a frequent social media user, the human cost of keeping Facebook, Twitter and Google free(ish) from the worst aspects of internet culture and human nature was more distressing to me than anything I read about Cambridge Analytica. Watch The Cleaners – I dare you to delete it from your memory afterwards.
The final day of Full Frame always falls on a Sunday, and by Sunday, I am typically itching to get home and prepare for a week of teaching. It is for this reason that I missed the festival screening of Errol Morris’ 1989 The Thin Blue Line, which I happened to be teaching on campus the very next day. TBL was also the documentary I showed in my Introduction to Film course on 9th November, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president. I went into class that day having been awake nearly the whole night, and my brain was addled and overtired as I composed my opening remarks for the class screening.
I wanted to communicate that truth is not always relative, and what better example of that than an innocent man on death row? What I wanted students to understand was that films can both capture and communicate reality, just as Eadweard Muybridge discovered with his famous cinematographic experiment. What I was trying to say, I suppose, is that documentary does matter. The documentary may need and will always have its advocates and defenders. But at its best – and Thin Blue Line is documentary at its best – the film can be its own justification, its own best defense. While reiterating documentary’s power and significance to a crowd of Full Frame festivalgoers might be preaching to the proverbial choir, all good lessons bear repeating, just as all good documentaries warrant re-watching.
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
5-8 April 2018
Festival website: https://www.fullframefest.org