Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Previews: FULL FRAME Documentary Film Festival, April 6-9, 2017

Has it been 20 years already? Full Frame Documentary Film Festival rounds out its second decade in the heart of Durham, opening this Thursday (4/6) at the Carolina Theatre and other downtown venues, and running through Sunday (4/9).

They say cada cabeza es un mundo, and in the documentary universe, every film grants us access to a world we don't normally see: from Holocaust survivors, to Aleppo's White Helmets; viral Internet celebrities, to escaped victims of Boko Haram; LGBT folks, to people with disabilities; tribal leaders, to solitary caretakers; poets, dancers, and musicians, to outsider artists and nomads. Documentaries have a way of mining even ordinary lives for their not-so-ordinary revelations--and blind spots.

Check out the vast subject matter, complete lineup and schedule at Full Frame's website:

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Selected reviews:

Thursday Screenings

Still Tomorrow, dir. Jian Fan, China, 88 min.

   Viral Internet poet Yu Xiuhua rejects labels--whether it's being hailed as the "Chinese Emily Dickinson," discriminated against as a person with cerebral palsy, or tagged as "bad in a former life" by the local shaman. She has said in interviews: “I am first and foremost a woman, then a peasant, then a poet; but if you forget to ask about all my labels when you read my poems, then I respect you.”
   Rising from rural obscurity in 2015, the 40-year-old poet trapped in an unhappy marriage earns new fans, and sets all of China talking--about talent and disability, sexuality and empowerment. Will freedom and independence (sexual, personal, financial) lead Yu to a new kind of despair? Or can she learn to walk through the waves without falling?
   I liked this film more than I was expecting to. Although I don't speak Chinese, I fell in love with Yu Xiuhua, her honesty, and the way she uses poetry to exist. There are too few films about 40-year-old women, their struggles, their love lives, and their art. Especially given that the Internet--the medium of Yu Xiuhua's fame--is a young person's game.

Timberline, dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon, US, 13 min.

   What happens when a US Naval base goes up for sale? The tiny town of Sugar Land, in remote Pendleton County, West Virginia, is about to find out. Meanwhile, a mountaintop NSA listening station, known as Timberline, continues to operate nearby, in near-total secrecy--since Wikileaks revealed some of its operations.
    This film is a nifty vignette, leaving some dangling question marks about what our government is up to, but maybe, like the residents of Sugar Land, we don't have to worry about it so much. I loved the coincidental documentary aspects of the film, capturing residents' homey interior decor, and the way they talked--whether it was to the camera, to each other, or to undercover federal agents.

Friday Screenings

All Skate, Everybody Skate, dir. Nicole Triche, US, 20 min.

   The Topsail Beach Skating Rink is open every night from 7 to 10, care of Doris Jenkins, who is also the local Postal clerk. In an airbrushed t-shirt emblazoned with her name, the almost-octogenarian spins scratchy 45s and rents out skates to kids of all ages, in this sweet slice of americana (which is always local) on one of the more humble of North Carolina's Outer Banks islands.
   The disco ball may have a few cracked mirrors, but just like Doris, it still takes its nightly spins around the rink, seemingly unstoppable.

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, dir. David Barba, James Pellerito, US, 83 min.

   Professional ballet is a rarified world of exaggerated theatricality, physical discipline and perfection. At 37-years-old, American Ballet Theater star Marcelo Gomes is pushing the envelope on what a great partner dancer can do. We learn about the family history and career of this Brazilian, and openly gay man, known for his special ability to connect with female ballerinas. The "anatomy" of the title becomes all too real through the course of the film, as we watch him struggle against the inevitable limitations of his aging, though still magnificent body.
    I feel like the film lacks something in terms of cinematography and narrative arc:  there are too many talking heads, telling us what a great dancer Marcelo is, testimonials that would seem to fit better on an artist's web resume. We travel from city to city with the globetrotting artist, ho hum, predictably earning rave reviews in each. For awhile, I wondered if this guy was going to have any problems; and then the ruptured relationship with his father was introduced. However, this just remained a source of unresolved tension; it does speak to a powerful source of stress in LGBT lives, i.e. the rejection by family members. All in all, Marcelo is a complex character, whom I felt I was only just beginning to get to know by the end of the film.
   The best scenes by far were the closing ones, shot in Central Park, taking us outside the theater for a moment and into nature, where Gomes' sheer physicality and emotional sensitivity finally came together into a memorable image. It made me wish the whole movie had been framed differently, to show more, rather than to tell quite so much.

The Kodachrome Elegies, dir. Jay Rosenblatt, US, 11 min.

   Looking at Kodachrome home movies feels insanely personal. I almost quivered with existential grief, watching the director's own family home movies in Part 1. It felt like I was watching my own parents, my own sheltered childhood--because our home movies looked exactly like this:  same colors, same clothes, same vacations, same interior design, and those same, self-conscious and funny ways we staged ourselves for the clickety-clack handheld camera. Part 2 taps the wider world of educational and commercial films, the safe, sanitized zone of public life. Then comes Part 3:  raw Zapruder Film footage, images we have seen so many times, that we can no longer "see" them, anymore than we can "unsee" them.
    The narrative arc thus created--exploding "safety" and nostalgia--may be simplistic, but delivers the intended primal shock.

The Original Richard McMahan, dir. Olympia Stone, US, 21 min.

   Miniaturization is something we associate with doll houses and model makers--but does it belong in a museum? Can a "Mini Museum" constitute a grand narrative about humanity's drive to create? Flea market employee Richard McMahan thinks so, so he huddles over the kitchen counter of his childhood home in Florida, building tiny versions of furniture, sculptures, paintings, and technological artifacts from all times and places in human history. Each item and brushstroke tells a story, not only of the object, but of Richard's depth of study into the artist's motives and methods, and his utter commitment to handiwork in the age of digital reproduction.
   There are several short films about Richard McMahan already on YouTube, so this subject begs for a feature-length treatment--this is a delightful point of entry, following Richard along his daily rounds, and to a serious exhibition of his work at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston.

Saturday Screenings

The Botanist, dir. Maude Plante-Husaruk, Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis, Canada, 20 min.  

    Like a Tajik Michelangelo--or post-Soviet Luke Skywalker--Raïmberdi combines traditional wisdom of Kyrgyz elders with his university science training to create a small renaissance:  a hydroelectric generator, built literally out of junk. His ingenuity makes life more comfortable for his family, but what he really wants is to work as a botanist again. Tales from the forgotten fringes of empire, with bleakly beautiful views of the mountainous Shaymak region of Tajikistan. 
    Gorgeous visuals; I wanted to watch this film again so my eyes didn't have to search for subtitles.

Dysphoria: Inside the Mind of a Holocaust Survivor, dir. Joseph Edward, UK, 16 min.

   A small upright figure walks along Brighton beach, surrounded by a beautiful, but harsh environment: crumbling chalk cliffs, an impervious sky, and waves that have pounded striated rock for centuries. Ladislaus Löb, a Transylvanian Jew in British exile, looks back over his life, as slow dolly shots take us back down the streets and train tracks of his memories--from his hometown, where anti-semitism was routine, to the Hungarian ghetto, and eventually Bergen Belsen. Ladislaus escaped the notorious death camp, through a twist of fate, and lives with a kind of survivor's guilt, or dysphoria.
    A brief film that covers a lot of ground, connecting us effectively to distant times and places through intimate testimony and self-examination.

The Great Theater, dir. Slawomir Batyra, Poland, 30 min.

   Peek behind the scenes at the Teatr Wielki--the Grand Theatre of Warsaw--and discover the inner workings of a small city unto itself, or perhaps a giant spaceship: a hive of machinery, otherworldly in scope, with a well-coordinated army of technicians, mechanics, engineers, costumers, carpenters, shoemakers, maids, musicians, and actors. Directing it all, like the voice of consciousness itself, is an omniscient stage manager who ensures seamless operations.
    Witty, fascinating, and purely visual, like an industrial sci fi movie made before cgi.

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