My first time at Durham, North Carolina’s Full Frame Film Festival, a program dedicated to documentary media, I got lucky. “Ms. Berke, you are a lucky winner,” the note read, explaining that during my stay, I got free internet and access to the exclusive M Club lounge room, where employees would know me by name, pour my coffee, and send me on my way with gummy bears in tow. Academia affords little in the way of luxury, so I settled into my booth with my scrambled eggs and my festival program. Glancing over at the muted cable news, I noticed the breaking news: Trump had launched strikes on Syria. I struggled with my options – do I tuck into my bacon and eggs and give my festival program a leisurely read, or do I move my seat to follow the news? How much do I want to know, and when?
A documentary film festival like Full Frame necessarily struggles with that split personality: the festival is both a cinephile’s utopia – a retreat from work, daily life – and a sustained gaze at the world, all its political, cultural, and aesthetic fractures exposed to the light and the lens. Full Frame’s director, Deirdre Haj, recounted in her opening remarks that she has been repeatedly asked what Full Frame has to say about the current sociopolitical moment? Her answer was that it is the festival’s job not to speak but, rather, to “amplify the voices” of the filmmakers. While this statement might downplay the creative intervention of curatorship, Haj’s comments put our attention where it belongs: on the filmmakers and their wide range of work, which by and large comments on documentary’s responsibilities to the overlapping realms of art and politics.
While the program of this year’s festival was impressively diverse, two questions seemed to arise, time and again, across shorts and features, domestic and international films. First, is it documentary’s responsibility to look outward or inward, at global and local struggles or the personal travails of making art? Second, how can documentary eliminate such a distinction through finding the political in the personal and the personal in the political? The festival’s opening film, Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, is a more personal story than its forcefully argumentative title would suggest. Abacus focuses on the travails of the Sung family, owners of the Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown in New York City and the only bank indicted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. James’ presentation of the Fung family – father, mother, and four professional daughters – is rife with compassion, sympathy and humour. In particular, the aging patriarch Fung, a successful legal professional who opens a bank in Chinatown, is a tragic figure – a man with a keen desire to serve his community whose reputation is shattered by the allegations. Footage of bank employees being lead through city hall in handcuffs is played on loop, serving as a brutal rebuff to the justice system and its scapegoating of a vulnerable institution run and frequented by people of colour; the state is unapologetic to the last, garnering angry laughter from the audience as hearty as the sympathetic chuckles in response to the Fung family’s relaxed bickering.
Numerous other films focused on the experiences of people of colour in America, notably QUEST and Strong Island, the debut feature from director Yance Ford. (The former won the festival’s Grand Jury Award, while the latter took home the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.) Strong Island centres on the murder of Yance’s brother and the grand jury’s failure to indict his (white) killer. Ford’s filmmaking is at times confrontational, meditative and melancholic, using upside-down camera shots to convey feelings of disorientation and loss, as well as utilising a series of haunting re-enactments. Unlike how Errol Morris uses the technique in The Thin Blue Line (1988), Ford revisits important locations or settings – the family home, the garage where her brother was shot – without including any actors or action. These spaces are empty, desolate, the lighting and colours stark and bleak. The camera pans these spaces that paradoxically feel both lonely and brimming with life, and this aesthetic resonates with Ford’s own recollections of grief: “All the people were in the way… to see where the next threat was coming from.” The sequence in which Yance’s mother details how the apathetic grand jury chatted and read magazines while the details of her son’s murder were being recounted is at once unforgettable and all too believable. She tells this story in her home, surrounded by the trappings of domestic life – a red kettle, green window curtains the objects around her that themselves appear to be grieving. “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Ford asks, in asking how a man’s fear could be deemed by the justice system to be more significant, ultimately more in need of protecting, than her brother’s life. Ford gives us little distance from their own fear, anger and regret, and the film is all the stronger for it.
Peter Nicks’ The Force amounts to a provocative companion piece to Strong Island; both look at the justice system in the United States, but while Strong looks at its victims, The Force examines its officers. A portrait of the Oakland Police Department between the years of 2014 and 2016, The Force at first calls to mind Frederick Wiseman’s portraits of institutions, most directly his 1968 film Law and Order. In The Force, however, the filmmakers look at Oakland’s efforts to minimise police brutality and rebuild trust between the police and the community of Oakland. The first half of the film is full of training sessions and town hall meetings, with ironic and humorous moments caught on tape that exemplify the pleasures of direct cinema or, perhaps in this case, direct cinema lite (as the film does have title cards and expository transitions). The title cards necessarily increase since, midway through the film, The Force takes a sharp turn toward the scandalous, when widespread allegations of officers’ misconduct with sex workers rock the department and the city. It is a keen reminder of how direct, “fly on the wall” cinema produces the mere illusion of insider knowledge and can hold a lot of secrets, the film shifting from a detailed examination of successful police reform to a sickening satire of bureaucracy and power run amok.
If documentary is poised to deal with the contemporary and the political, at the other extreme we might look at how film can retreat from the world and focus instead on something more interior, more personal, specifically the status and making of art. The winner for audience choice this year was Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, while two short films – The Original Richard McMahan and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 – focused on artists, their works and their processes. The title character of Richard McMahan is a miniaturist who skillfully constructs miniature copies of art from Van Gogh to King Tut’s Tomb. His lovingly crafted and stunningly detailed work has attracted collectors and lovers of folk art. But for McMahan himself, life is decidedly less glamorous – living at home with his mother and siblings, where relations are decidedly tense and his studio is a cluttered kitchen counter. McMahan has not always seen the original art works he imitates, but he brings love to their invention, speaking to the filmmaker about his yearning to be closer to the past. Personal pain as engine for art-making becomes an even more explicit theme in Heaven is a Traffic Jam, which focuses on the art and life of mentally ill artist Mindy Alper. Alper takes the viewer through her battery of pills and medications, as well as her memories of a disapproving father, a distant mother, and a desire to express herself through her art. Director Frank Stiefel brings her line drawings – wiry, uneven, trembling with emotion – to life, turning them into animated sequences that feel like insights into Alper’s beautiful, tormented soul. Her devotion to her loved ones and her drive to connect with others are both evident in her work, most memorably a sculptural bust of her therapist, with whom she has made so much progress. It is Alper’s humour and candour – together with the tenderness with which she is presented – that garnered the film the Full Frame Audience Award (short) and the Full Frame Jury Award (short).
How much can any of us take into our mental frames, and how can – or must – the documentarian make pain into art? Two films about the refugee crisis – Matthew Heinemann’s City of Ghosts and Tonislav Hristov’s The Good Postman – address these questions. City of Ghosts has rightfully received a great deal of critical attention for its portrayal of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of Syrians who expose ISIS’s violence and inhumanity on social media and through journalistic outlets. The work puts these men and their families in danger, and the film does not spare the viewer visions of gruesome suffering in Raqqa and ISIS’s bloody acts of retribution against RBSS. The strength and courage of these men is overwhelming; during the film’s Q&A, one audience member asked, not a little plaintively, “But what can we do?”
Such an impassioned, paralysed feeling is dramatised to great effect in The Good Postman, a Bulgarian documentary about Ivan, a postman who decides to run for mayor of his small village on the platform of accepting refugees. The Good Postman is beautifully shot, so much that, at times, it feels as though you are watching a fiction film, our lonely protagonist’s craggy face perfectly lit and set against a peeling, painted wall. Throughout the film, you will worry that he will lose to his unqualified, refugee-hating opponent whose sparsely attended political “rally” may or may not remind you of a political candidate on a descending escalator. This opponent provides both a threat and comic relief, due to his extreme laziness and lack of basic understanding. But perhaps the most compelling part of this poignant drama is seeing how Ivan watches television coverage of refugees, the cold glow of the television bouncing against his thin frame. His helplessness is wrenching, as is a scene toward the middle of the film, where Border Patrol agents escort a refugee family out of the abandoned shack in which they have been hiding. In this moment, the audience gasped as loudly as I heard at any film at the festival, and we – together with Ivan – can only watch as they are marched off-screen, out of sight.
Without revealing too much of this remarkable film’s plot, The Good Postman movingly explores questions of looking, engaging and intervening that lie at the heart of Full Frame and its mission as a showcase for global documentary. Our Good Postman does not merely watch the suffering he sees around him or on the news – he bears witness, and he does so alone. At Full Frame, viewers have the gift of bearing witness together and sharing in these works of art; indeed, our need for such a platform and community of practitioners, scholars, and activists is as vital now as it has ever been.
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
6-9 April 2017
Festival website: https://www.fullframefest.org