Our documentary film marathon
by Rob Tiller
Last week we spent four days in Durham at the Full Frame Film Festival, where we saw a lot of documentaries. We spent some quality time getting to know black working class families, surfers, Syrian refugees, pig farmers, ballet dancers, Guatemalan revolutionaries, emergency room doctors, and others. It was mind-expanding!
Documentary filmmaking seems to be thriving as an art form. This was Full Frame’s 20th anniversary, and all of its ticket packages sold out in advance, with large and appreciative audiences for everything we saw. The Festival selection committee considered 1750 films, and ultimately showed about 100. At many screenings, the directors showed up and answered questions, and added to our understanding of the films.
We stayed at the downtown Marriott, which is connected to the Festival screening rooms in the Durham Convention Center and the Carolina Theater. The hotel staff folks were remarkably friendly, and they had a good breakfast buffet. We got our lunches from the fine Greek folks who set up a tent on site (the eggplant stew and baklava were outstanding), and for dinners found nice places (Indian, tapas) to eat close by. We saw 16 films, and liked almost all of them. Here are quick notes on some favorites.
Whose Streets? This was a street level view of protests in Ferguson, Mo. after the death of Michael Brown, including rioting and police brutality. You could feel the anger and better understand the frustration of the black community there.
Zaatari Djinn. A film about the daily lives of Syrian refugee children in a camp in Jordan. It sounds depressing, but in fact it was quietly beautiful, humorous, and touching.
500 Years. An account of what just happened in Guatemala: a revolution led by indigenous Mayan people who ousted the corrupt president. It covered a lot of ground — 500 years of oppression of the Mayans, including genocide. It was inspiring to see the young leaders and protesters.
Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. I didn’t know anything about big wave surfing or the most famous big wave surfer in the world, but I sure do now. Amazing, exhilarating footage of the biggest waves and biggest rides you’ve ever seen, and a portrait of a flawed but remarkable person.
The Last Pig. Bob Comis, who devoted years of his life to making the most humane imaginable pig farm, comes to the view that he can no longer make peace with the killing. As he says, and you can see, the pigs are sentient beings — lively and curious. Comis ultimately can’t see how we can decide not to eat our dogs, and still eat our pigs.
Quest. A working class black family in North Philadelphia, with a music studio, a strong community, and random violence. We get a view of both the stresses and the richness of their lives, with some sweet and intimate moments, like braiding hair. It took about 10 years to make this film, and it was worth it.
Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer. This features Marcelo Gomes, a dancer with American Ballet Theater in New York for the last 20 years. Now a senior in dance terms, he still looks great and dances wonderfully, and seems like a nice person to boot.
Tell Them We Are Rising: the Story of Black Colleges and Universities. Starting with the slavery era, we learn about how blacks were educated (or not) in America. For much of the 20th century, historically black colleges were an oasis in a segregated world. An important part of the film is about the civil rights struggle and the leadership role played by students.