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Another dispatch from Full Frame
With a little more time to reflect, I can now write about some of the films I saw at Full Frame:
I would have enjoyed The Invention of Dr. Nakamats and Life Extended more if they had not been paired together. Though they share some thematic elements and both hail from Scandinavia's treasure trove of documentary filmmaking, each one is an hour long. The former follows one of Japan's most prolific inventors (with more than three times the patents of Thomas Edison). Like Edison, Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu is also an amazing self-promoter, always on to the next untapped need of society for product, and has even perfected his own diet and sleep pattern which he insists will make him live to be a healthy 144. While the film could perhaps be viewed as being a bit condescending towards Japanese culture and in particular its penchant for odd products, I found that it humanized the inventor's personality in a way which transcended place. Plus it was one of the few laugh-out-loud films I saw at the whole festival. Life Extended, on the other hand, was a much more serious film about the human desire to live forever. The style reminded me very much of last year's Bloody Mondays and Strawberry Pies -- mixing very stylized visuals with what is basically a talkumentary. An interesting film but could not be as well appreciated because of its length following another hour-long film. The irony was I found a little voice in my head hoping the film would not live forever but would soon die a quick death -- if only to spare me from chair fatigue (or Dr. Nakamatsu needs to invent some way we can float in a theater while watching the film).
My Perestroika was probably one of my favorite films of the festival simply because it took me into a world I did not realize I had always wanted to know about (if that even makes sense). The film follows a group of Russians who came of age against the backdrop of the fall of the Soviet Union. With amazing archival images gathered from subjects and Russian archives, the film is really a story of a generation lost between the false dreams of Soviet communism and the post-communist era. And yet, even as the film explores their stories against the larger turns of history, it also explores the mundanities of their lives. So it manages to both capture universal themes of growing up and what it was like to live during a certain era. As someone of approximately the same generation as the subjects, the film also held a special meaning. I recall being in junior high school and already questioning why we considered the Russians our enemies, wanting to know as much as I could about their daily lives. I even wanted to transfer into the one county high school which taught Russian (though ended up studying the then-more common Spanish and German). Now, nearly three decades later, I feel I have finally learned something about the daily lives of Russians of that time. And wondering about the children of these kindred children and where their personal and national history will take them. Anyway, a long digression but one which made me realize the power of this film.
I must admit that I am maxed out on films on more contemporary international events, especially on Iraq or Afghanistan. There were several at the festival and I made an exception to see The Oath which I had heard good buzz about from Sundance. The film looks at two brothers-in-law who have loose (or perhaps not so loose) connections to Osama Bin Laden. One ends up in Guantanamo Bay and is a character expressed through his letters and the words of his U.S. military defense team. The other returns to Yemen where he makes a living as a taxi driver. The one in Yemen is by far the more interesting character, full of contradictions which are well-developed by the filmmaker, Laura Poitras. As with her previous film My Country, My Country, The Oath is an example of a filmmaker trying to explore large and complex issues of our post-9/11 world by focusing her lens narrowly on one or two characters who help reveal those complexities. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. And amazing that an American filmmaker could get this kind of access and create a film which provides a degree of humanity to both those sympathetic to Bin Laden's cause and to current U.S. military operations. Whatever we may think of either, the film lets them both be expressed, warts and all and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions.
12th and Delaware was aimed at doing the same thing, around the abortion debate in the United States. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady applied a similar approach of filmmaking as they did with their previous film Jesus Camp. They chose a microcosm of a movement to explore deeper political rifts in American society. In this case, it was the corner of a street in coastal Florida where an abortion clinic meets not only with street protesters but a pro-life women's health clinic on the opposite corner. The filmmakers succeed in taking us inside both clinics and to the street and gain unique access not only to the clinic owners and the protesters, but also to some of the women and girls who come through the doors of these clinics and are facing unwanted pregnancies. While this access makes the film incredible, what was more lacking in the film compared with Jesus Camp was a deeper sense of those on either side of the divide. It was hard to humanize either side when we went no further with them than their clinics or the street to see who they are in their daily lives. Still I expect this film will be a big hit at festivals and theatrical this year and only hope that those on both sides of this issue take the time to see it and use it for a point of discussion and debate rather than making assumptions about it. Wishful thinking, I suppose, but time will tell.
Well, with all these heavy issue docs, it was definitely time for something a bit more personal. Usually I can only take one personal documentary at a time because they take longer to reflect on. I managed three in one day: The Kids Grow Up, In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee, and The Edge of Dreaming. Personal films take a bit more time for me to reflect on, so I will save my final blog entry for those.
I also saw as many shorts as I could, all of which I enjoyed - particularly Photograph of Jesus, Notes on the Other, and Book of Miri. Probably the one which inspired the most debate was Born Sweet, Cynthia Wade's latest film about villages in Cambodia which were victims of arsenic poisoning caused by international organizations' digging wells for clean drinking water, not realizing that the wells would contain the poison. The debate mostly surrounded the film's treatment of one of the organizations which has dug new wells and is engaged in a campaign (via popular karaoke) to educate villagers about the correct wells to drink from, and whether the film was truly a documentary or an advocacy piece for that organization.
If I have any criticism, it is that Full Frame should provide at least one (if not two) traveling audience microphones for the Q&As. In none of the venues was it possible to hear the questions and, although most of the filmmakers were adept at repeating the questions for the rest of the audience, sometimes there would be an audience member who wanted to present more of a comment or long drawn-out question and these were difficult to sit through without hearing.
And of course one can always bemoan the fact that Full Frame shows almost all of its films only once. While understandably in a four day event, this allows the festival to program more films, it also made it difficult to build buzz for a film from those who had already seen it. There were a number of films I regrettably missed either because they were programmed against something else I wanted to see or I only discovered them through word of mouth. Indeed Full Frame does show the award winners again, but I am unbelievably all docced out...at least until Silverdocs.
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