The Casual Blog

Tag: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

A thought-provoking documentary film festival in Durham

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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To Durham, for an excellent documentary festival, and Duke Gardens

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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.
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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.

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

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.

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

(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.

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

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.

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

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.

Azalea at Duke Gardens

Azalea at Duke Gardens


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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival — some highlights

14 04 05_7994_edited-1Kudos to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which ran from last Thursday through the weekend in Durham, NC. The Festival had five main screens on which it screened more than 100 films. There were lots of helpful volunteers, and things ran on time and from what I saw, mostly glitch free. Many shows were sold out, and the crowds were enthusiastic.

I like documentaries most when the makers are passionate about the subject but also trying to maintain their critical distance and integrity. Documentary filmmakers, like all of us, have their blind spots and biases. Objectivity is a fine ideal, but I don’t think it’s possible to tell a coherent story based on reality in any medium without filtering, editing, and reworking; reality is just too messy to present raw. And no doubt some filmmakers are consciously manipulative. But a lot of documentary people seem to work hard to be truthful.

This was, I think true of all five films we saw, which covered a lot of artistic, social, and political ground. Here’s the list, in the order we saw them.

1. Afternoon of a Faun: Taniquil Le Clerq, by Nancy Buirski, is about the famous ballerina with the NY City Ballet. She married George Ballanchine and at her artistic peak contracted polio and never danced, or walked, again. This will be of most interest to other balletomanes, but I very much enjoyed the archival footage of Le Clerq and other great dancers and the interviews with Ballanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise, and others.

2. Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bulger, by Joe Berlinger, was organized around the criminal trial in Boston last year of Whitey Bulger, the crime boss who controlled South Boston for decades and then eluded capture for 16 years. You may recall from press reports that the trial was somewhat bizarre, in that Bulger didn’t deny many of the criminal acts that the government was trying to prove, but used the trial to deny that he was a government informant (“rat”) – which wasn’t an issue in the trial.

Bulger’s point seemed to be that a lot of state and federal law enforcement officials were working for him, rather than the other way around. There was ample proof that at least a couple of FBI agents were thoroughtly corrupt. This wasn’t so surprising – one expects that every barrel will have a few bad apples, – but there were indications that the officials working with Bulger were numerous and included some in high places (like the U.S. Attorney’s office). This could explain how he was permitted to run his operation for decades, murdering numerous people and destroying the lives of many others, while Italian Mafia competitors were arrested and convicted. The story was complicated, but the over all impression was that the law enforcement system came off the rails, and may not yet be back on them. It was truly shocking.
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3. Freedom Summer, by Stanley Nelson, was about the struggle for Black voting rights in Mississippi, including the work by about a thousand mostly white college students who worked there in the summer of 1964. I knew these folks had been courageous and idealistic, but I hadn’t quite realized how harrowing things had been. The old guard racists were fire bombing and shooting at them, and killed three. The film was ultimately inspiring, reminding us that it may not be futile to work for political change in the face of difficult odds.

4. Ivory Tower, by Andrew Rossi, is about the structural problems of higher education in America, including dramatically risings costs, crushing student debt, deteriorating study habits, and confused mission (e.g. whether to get kids ready for the world of work, challenge them intellectually, or entertain them). I was particularly interested in the reporting new education models, incorporating MOOCs and hybrid approaches to teaching.

5. Rich Hill, by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, is an intimate look at the lives of three adolescent boys in a small Missouri town. The families were all working (at least at times) poor, and their situations were unsettled and frequently chaotic. With a lot of anger and despair, it was difficult to watch at times — almost too real, with no apparent good solutions.

In addition to the stimulating films, the food concession was good; I was very happy with my salad combo plate. There was an unfortunate postscript for me – I lost my iPad Air. I probably left it in the theatre on Saturday night. It has most of the books I’m reading on it, as well as many other things I care about. In short, it’s gotten to be more than just another computing device, but more like a little piece of me. I’m feeling a bit shaken to be missing it.
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Educational opportunities

Jocelyn doesn’t use the phone for talking too much anymore, at least to her dad, but she called this week to tell me she was admitted to the Columbia University publishing program. She was thrilled, relieved, and ready to start a new chapter: life in New York City. Her boss at the apres ski bar in Telluride agreed to buy her aging Nissan Altima, and she asked me to figure out the legalities. I said I’d be happy to do so.

Whatever doubts I may have about job prospects in the publishing business, I’m keeping to myself for the time being. It’s wonderful to see Jocelyn, so smart and talented, moving forward and exploring. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all go to New York and be students again?

As a matter of fact, one of the great things about my job is that I get to talk to and learn from really interesting and gifted people. This week I had lunch with Jamie Boyle, professor of law at Duke and one of the most clear-eyed scholars of intellectual property law. His last book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, explains with clarity and force some of the enormous problems with our patent and copyright systems, including how IP law can hinder innovation and creativity. He really is a brilliant guy, and a delightful conversationalist.

We ate at the Washington Duke Inn, which has a cozy clubby feel, and talked about some of the usual things, like sports and food, but also about his leading role in producing the Hargreaves Commission report, which advocated an evidence-based approach to IP protection. We discussed the possibilities for patent reform in Congress and the courts. We also talked about some of the hyper conservative activity in the N.C. legislature, and the N.C. constitutional amendment against gay marriage. We agreed that this right-wing crowd has gone beyond being embarrassing and is hurting the reputation and economy of our state. I also got to see his new car, a sporty and beautiful Jaguar XK.

In other education news, the NY Times reported this week that EdX, the online education consortium, has developed software that automatically grades students’ essays. Its new software is, it says, not perfect but about as reliable as human graders, and gives almost instant feedback to the student. This could be a game changer in education at all levels, potentially helping students with instant feedback, and also potentially eliminating a lot of teaching jobs. Will the net of it be better education at lower cost? And/or will it be another nail in the coffin of the traditional university, without a satisfactory replacement on the horizon?

David Brooks wrote a good column this week about online education and the role of the university. He proposed regarding the mission of higher education as having a technical knowledge part and a practical part. Technical knowledge is about things like formulas and facts, and practical knowledge is about skills that can’t be written down and memorized. Online outfits like EdX and Coursera can cover the technical part, but at least so far aren’t as effective at the practical part. We seem to need human-to-human interaction to learn some things.

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

At any rate, the human touch is a pleasant thing. On Friday Sally and I went out to First Friday, downtown Raleigh’s monthly art and food celebration. We stopped in the Adam Cave Gallery, where we’d bought a painting some months back, and met the painter, Byron Gin. His current show, titled Aviary, continues the theme of the work we bought, with abstract elements, rough textures, and birds. Byron was a pleasant, soft-spoken guy, who seemed happy to discuss how he made his paintings. We remembered the painting we bought, and it was good to be able to tell him how it had brought as daily joy. Among other things, we learned that we shared an interest in bird feeders and photography.

For dinner, we tried without success to get into Bida Manda (wait time 1.75 hours), Centro (wait time 1.5 hours), and noted crammed dining rooms or lines out the door at Caffe Luna, Remedy Diner, and Sitti. It’s good to see our restaurants doing a brisk business, but when you’re hungry, you’re hungry. We finally got a table at Gravy, an Italian place, and had a pleasant meal including a Tuscan Chianti.

On Saturday, we went over to Durham to take in some of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The festival is an annual event that this year featured more than 100 documentaries, 7 different screens, and hundreds of cinephiles, which we somehow had never managed to get to in years past. The afternoon was sunny, and there was a happy energy to the crowd, an eclectic mix that reminded me of Oberlin (where the film club screened classic films once a week) and upper west side New York. The films we saw were all sold out, as were several others we couldn’t get tickets for.

Our favorites were a double bill by featured film maker Jennifer Yu: The Guide and Breathing Lessons. The first was about a park in Mozambique and a young man whose big dream was to be a tour guide. It explored serious environmental issues with a light touch. It featured E.O. Wilson, who at 82 was still charmingly fascinated by ants and other small creatures. Breathing Lessons was about Mark O’Brien, a writer who was paralyzed by polio as a child and spent most of the rest of his life in an iron lung. He seemed very honest about living with an extreme disability. Yu was in attendance, and after each film answered questions from the audience. She seemed really smart and likeable.