To Durham, for an excellent documentary festival, and Duke Gardens
by Rob Tiller
This weekend we did a documentary film marathon at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham. Starting Thursday evening, we watched films, talked, ate, slept, and repeated, until Sunday. Our film days ended about midnight, and we stayed close by in the Hampton Inn. This was our third year at the Festival, and each year we’ve gotten a little more adept at getting tickets, getting good seats, getting well fed, getting shelter, and otherwise taking care of business. This year was the most entertaining and thought-provoking yet.
What are documentaries? They start with something real, and try to say something true. Documentarians, like all of us, have their biases and other limitations, and they sometimes make mistakes. But sometimes they’re remarkably wise and brave. The Full Frame staff screened thousands of proposed films, and from these picked 80 or so. Those we saw were almost all excellent.
We covered a lot of geography, including films set in North Korea, the Indian Himalayas, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mexico, Russia, Finland, Utah, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and the Dark Net. The films that affected me the most were journalistic in orientation, but took on subject matter, or angles on subject matter, that don’t get much coverage in the mainstream press, either because they’re too complicated or too politically risky.
Some told stories that, without the courage and dedication of film makers willing to work for several years, would have never been told. There weren’t a lot of happy endings. But as Sally noted, there were a lot of pockets of inspiration — humans struggling valiantly against difficult natural or political circumstances.
It was also great that for most of the showings, the filmmakers were there to answer questions. Most of the showings we saw were sell outs or close, and there were rousing ovations for the creators. It was a really stimulating weekend. Here are a few of the highlights.
Deep Web. This was the story Ross Ulbricht and Silk Road, the online drug emporium. I thought I was more or less up to speed on the Dark Net, but I learned a lot, and got new perspectives on it and on the War on Drugs. The story of how the Dark Web and cryptography may affect the drug war is potentially huge. Director Alex Winter said he planned to add some material on the indicted FBI agents who worked on the case. Definitely worth seeing.
Meru. The story of the first ascent of an imposing 21 thousand foot peak in the Himalayas, and the three men who did it. I always have mixed feelngs about the sort of adventure, which is at once amazing, inspiring, and just too dangerous. But it was a thrilling cinematic experience.
Overburden. This was about the long sad relationship of Appalachia and coal. I had a particular interest in this, since I come from hearty coal mining stock, and I feel a real affinity for the beauty and pathos of this country. Overburden is the lingo of the mining companies for the plants and soil on the mountaintops that have to be stripped away to get the coal. This film focused on a couple of community activists who raised people’s consciousness on the environmental and social damage of this kind of minng.
The Wolfpack. This concerned a family in New York who kept the kids inside their small apartment for almost their entire childhoods. Something was plainly wrong with the parents, but the kids seemed lively and creative, and probably not permanently impaired. The director, Crystal Moselle, spoke afterward, and gave some added context. She’d worked on the movie for about four years.
Peace Officer. This film was about the militarization of America’s police forces. The prime subject, William “Dub” Lawrence, is a former police officer and sheriff who started SWAT team in Utah that years later murdered his son-in-law. He’s an extraordinary person, who together with the directors spoke after the film. We were particularly happy that this one won an award — for human rights.
(T)error. This was about the FBI’s campaign against Islamic radicals using informants who try to entrap them in made up jihad efforts. It was a sort of a worm’s eye view, told from the perspective of an informant and a target. It would have been comical, had the subject not ultimately been sent to prison for eight years on a trumped up charge to shut him up. This one won a grand jury award.
Tell Spring Not to Come This Year. The subject of this was the Afghan National Army operating without the direct support of the US. They didn’t seem like a very well trained or determined fighting force. The Taliban seemed to be getting the upper hand. The battle scenes were vivid and harrowing. The co-director, Saeed Taji Farouki, spoke afterwards, with intelligence and humility.
On Sunday morning, we took a break to check out the Duke Gardens. It was a lovely, clear day, and lots of things were blooming, including early azaleas and rhododendrons. The tulips were spectacular. Sally noted that this garden, too, was a pocket of beauty that, in spite of everything, gave us hope for humanity.