A thought-provoking documentary film festival in Durham
by Rob Tiller
Having had such a good time last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this year we decided to go all in. We got a room at the downtown Marriott, which connects to the site in the Durham Convention Center, and took some vacation so we could stay all four days. We saw some excellent documentaries, met some interesting people, and had a lot of good conversations and other fun.
In high school I had a music theory teacher who was a practitioner of Eckankar, which teaches that the soul can separate from the body and travel about. I ordinarily think of Eckankar as an example of the useful rule that there’s no idea so bizarre that some subpopulation won’t believe it. Still, this weekend was soul travel of a sort. The documentaries whisked us around the world and also transported us into some remote and unfamiliar interior landscapes.
Another thing I like about documentaries is that in general they try to be truthful. Even when the filmmaker has a strong point of view, she’ll almost inevitably provide evidence for other points of view. We were particularly interested this year in the films that took on complex social issues. For several of those, the filmmakers answered questions afterwards, and the messages they thought they were sending were not always the same as the ones we took away. I viewed that not so much as an indication of the filmmaker’s weakness as of the medium’s strength.
There were more than 100 films screened, of which we saw 17, including several that I expect to be thinking about for quite a while. Here are some quick notes on my favorites.
Weiner. This was about Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign, which ended in ignominy because of his social media sexting. Weiner became a late night TV punchline, and so it was a surprise to see him presented as a complex person with a great deal of intelligence and drive. As Sally noted, it was a great reminder that headlines can be misleading. I sat next to co-director Josh Kriegman at another film, and was happy to learn from him that Weiner is still married.
Sonita. Sonita is a 15-year-old Afghan girl living in Tehran who wants to be a successful rap artist. As crazy as it sounds, she may just do it. From her first informal performance with her girlfriends, you sense a prodigious talent. The odds against her are huge at the beginning, as her poor, traditional family plans to sell her to be married, but she records Brides for Sale, which becomes a minor sensation, and things start to happen. You should check out her gut-punching music video, which is here.
Clinica de Migrantes. A clinic in south Philadelphia provides primary medical care for mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrant workers. The volunteer doctors and other personnel are overworked and overwhelmed, but they somehow soldier on, with empathy and kindness. The patients look a lot like the people we see cleaning our hotel rooms, preparing restaurant food, building our houses, and caring for our yards and our children. The film doesn’t preach about the injustice of leaving these people out of the health care system, but quietly makes you feel it. It also reminds you that there are some really good people in the world.
Unlocking the Cage. The subject is Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which has brought habeas corpus petitions on behalf of caged chimpanzees. Wise has worked for 30 years for animal rights, and has succeeded in raising the profile of the issues. He maintains a remarkable air of humanity and decency even with those who think he must be crazy.
Raising Bertie. This film was made about 100 miles from here as the crow flies in Bertie Co., N.C., a poor, rural, majority African-American area. The filmmakers spent 6 years following 3 young black men trying to get through high school and become adults. They make some of the same mistakes that their parents made, such as starting families when they’re much too young, and struggle to find decent jobs. It’s a subject that we all think we know about, but have never seen this intimately, and it’s powerful. We got to meet with one of the filmmakers and a couple of the film’s subjects in the hotel bar last night.
Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. This film by master documentarian Joe Berlinger follow self-help impressario Robbins through a six-day seminar for which he charges $5,000 per head. It struck me as a mix of evangelical Christian revival and new product sales force meeting, where the attendees were encouraged to get excited and emotional and commit to a better life or more productive next quarter. Robbins struck me as a snake oil salesperson, though more well-meaning than some. I was surprised to learn, when Berlinger spoke afterwards, that he had attended a Robbins seminar and found it life changing in a good way. But as noted above, this disconnect speaks well of the medium, and also of Berlinger, in allowing for different interpretations.
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank. Laura Israel, the director, worked with Frank for years as an editor before making this remarkable film. I just started looking hard at Frank’s intense, quirky photography in the last couple of years, and came to this documentary knowing nothing of his experimental films and other work. I came away with even more respect for Frank, and more curiosity. The film says something fundamental about how artists make art: they never stop experimenting.
I could go on, but, enough. Footnote: I made all these photographs except the tulips on a Samsung Galaxy S7, which I got a week ago. So far, it seems like a very smart smartphone, with a surprisingly credible camera.