Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Days 3-4

13 04 2015

IMG_8479Admittedly, I have been spoiled in my festival experiences, spending the majority of my time at ones that essentially get pick of the litter in their selections (Cannes, Telluride, NYFF).  Never – before attending Full Frame, that is – had I attended a regional festival with a tightly, intentionally selected slate of films.  And, logistically speaking, it was certainly the easiest and most manageable to navigate with most screenings taking place around the same time and mostly within the same walkable space.

I saw no outright duds, which could just as easily be due to my own scheduling and screening.  But their selection was robust and purposeful, balancing a wide variety of topics, tones, and levels of notoriety.  They showed everything from flashy documentaries from well-established directors like the late Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, and Joshua Oppenheimer down to some experimental and audacious efforts from no-names.  There were films with big distributors and others that will probably never escape the festival circuit.

Perhaps most notably, there were documentaries that will reach extremely wide audiences thanks to patrons in cable.  Of the eight films I saw projected at the festival (as opposed to on my computer via screener link), a whopping half will be broadcast on television networks – HBO, Epix, Showtime, and the History Channel.

Documentary film still has an audience, perhaps even bigger than ever thanks to the streaming revolution, the wide accessibility of filmmaking technology, and the mainstream success of non-fiction efforts like “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial.”  While some may lament that very few will get to experience these films in the traditional theatrical setting, I will be glad if the average consumer just sees them and then contemplates their form and content.

The Lanthanide Series

The Lanthanide SeriesI doubt that Erin Espelie’s avant-garde documentary “The Lanthanide Series” will ever be seen outside of the festival context, except maybe on some obscure streaming platform.  And that’s perfectly fine – there’s a place for these films too, and I am glad Full Frame curated this challenging, peculiar object.

“The Lanthanide Series” is part “Koyaanisqatsi” for the digital age, part poem, part visual essay, and part rumination on the very nature of the mediated image and its inherent distortion.  But in regards to its content, it’s a tale about how a few small elements, usually passed over in high school chemistry, are deeply and inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

The documentary is unashamedly ambitious, and it mostly succeeds. As with many works that go out on a limb, “The Lanthanide Series” occasionally slips. Yet even when it frustrates, it remains compelling since every image draws curiosity as to its construction and capturing. How exactly director Erin Espelie pulls off each shot makes for a wonderfully perplexing puzzle.

It’s notable that this is perhaps the first film concerned with technology that does not take a gloom-and-doom attitude towards these advances.  Although, Espelie does make expert use of “The End” by The Doors in her sound mix, which does invite comparisons to “Apocalypse Now.”  So maybe that’s a statement in and of itself.

How to Dance in Ohio

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In her documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” director Alexandra Shiva does something that I have not seen since accomplished since “Silver Linings Playbook.”  She uses those who see the world differently to help us understand life more clearly.  Her choice of subjects: teenagers and young adults on the autistic spectrum as they prepare for their spring formal dance.

Shiva shows a whole center that comes in for counseling but focuses on three girls at different stages of development who form the backbone of the narrative.  16-year-old Maredith is just learning how to socialize and step away from just sitting in front of her computer.  19-year-old Caroline is attempting to navigate college classes on her own.  22-year-old Jessica is working to live independently from her parents and hold down a job of her own.  Each girl has some awareness that they are tired of being babied, yet their transition towards adulthood gets stifled by their incomplete social toolkit.

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The creative team of “How to Dance in Ohio”

No subject ever gets propped up for easy pity since Shiva treats them all as human beings.  They are not there for us to look down upon or view as some kind of charity case.  We can learn so much more than just about autism and the unique challenges and obstacles faced by those who suffer from it.  We can learn about the very ways in which we all interact socially by paying attention to their observations and listening intently.

Shiva and her team took some heat at the post-screening Q&A from a few viewers who thought the dance existed more for the sake of the film and not for the subjects themselves.  After all, Dr. Emilio Amigo does say that the event is a confluence of the worst factors for those on the autistic spectrum between all the noise and stimuli.  But she was quick to defend her process, and I am convinced that Shiva made “How to Dance in Ohio” with the utmost respect and care for everyone involved.   It shows in the final product, too.

Coincidentally, I wound up sitting next to Shiva at a screening the next day.  (Aren’t film festivals neat?!)  I told her that I loved the film and have been telling my friends to look out for its HBO broadcast; she seemed genuinely touched.  I am glad to help do some small part to help this touching, humane film inspire even more people.

Deep Web

Deep WebI had pretty much ideal screening conditions for “Deep Web” – no preconceived notions and virtually no prior knowledge.  I just saw the general logline when browsing the original announcement of Full Frame’s program and signed up.  Since my knowledge of the deep web was essentially limited to the hacker with the guinea pig on “House of Cards,” I figured I could use a few more hard facts.

As it turns out, I was woefully uninformed about a story with some vast implications for the way we live in an increasingly digital world.  The case of Silk Road, an underground Internet marketplace, could potentially set a precedent for cases involving online search and seizure.  The government is currently prosecuting Ross Ulbricht for running the Silk Road and enabling the purchase of illegal items such as drugs.  Though not included in his formal charges, they have indirectly accused him of involvement in the murder-for-hire schemes that took out would-be whistleblowers for the site.

Proof is tenuous at best, and the FBI has yet to answer the question of how they were able to glean so much information on Silk Road.  Ulbricht’s defense argues that they may have violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  They make a frightening point that, without a disclosure from the bureau, future cases of cybercrime could be decided by previously inadmissible evidence.

What could have devolved into a classic, standard miscarriage of justice story becomes a gripping tale about civil liberties in the Internet era.  Director Alex Winter (of “Bill & Ted” fame) uses “Deep Web” as an instrument to challenge institutions and their attempts to exert hegemonic force to maintain order.  Can the government use any means to reach their desired end?  Who even benefits from those ends anyways?

Ask some of the people interviewed for the movie, and they will say private prisons, pharmaceutical companies, and police departments are the big winners from keeping Silk Road subdued and the war on drugs raging.  For once, these kinds of interviewees do not come across as paranoid conspiracy theorists but rather as deep critical thinkers.

I should note that, technically, the documentary is not even finished.  Winter said he was working to cut in more footage from new developments in the past two weeks prior to the May 31 premiere on Epix.  Count me in as an intent follower of this case from now on.  It is too important to look away from.

The Term

The Term - picAnything about Putin’s Russia seems like a fascinating topic these days, with the autocrat seemingly unstoppable in his invasion of Ukraine. “The Term” focuses on the voice we rarely seem to hear from – his opposition. Heck, from the news coverage, you would think anyone who dares to disagree with him gets quickly shipped off to a Siberian gulag.

“The Term” starts off promising but quickly devolves into a brutally mechanical routine. Directors Alexei Pivovarov, Pavel Kostomarov, and Alexander Rastorguev model their film’s structure after the instructions on a shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, repeat.

First, we see a scene from the streets of Russia, where Putin dissenters seek to peacefully demonstrate and harmlessly tease his stolid armed guards. Of course, their protestations are often met with an unmerited violent response.

Then, cut to the key personalities working against Putin. Old and young, political and anarchic, each has a different idea as to how the president’s oppressive regime can be toppled.

Finally, to cap off one section and transition to another, the documentarians cull the annals of YouTube to find some ridiculous footage of Putin. Nothing will ever top the pictures of him shirtless on the horse, but him hang-gliding with geese and big game fishing come pretty close.

All these components are worthwhile to watch, but their assemblage does the gravity of the subject a disservice. By the end of “The Term,” I felt much like I do walking out the door after finishing my usual morning rituals. I know what happened, but ask me to recall everything blow-by-blow, and there would be some big gaps.

Western

WesternAmong the documentaries I saw at Full Frame, none felt more like a narrative film than “Western” from the Ross Brothers.  The experience was akin to a very deliberately parsed fictional indie film, and Bill Ross deserves serious commendation for bending time to his will in the editing room.

“Western” always feels taut and escalating towards some kind of breaking point, but that moment will not necessarily come since it is actual reality rather than an invented one.  In the border towns of Eagle Pass and Las Piedras, a fragile, agreeable sense of peace between the two localities seems to be ripping at the seams due to the incursion of gangs and drug violence.  As the events unfold, a rancher, a mayor, and many others have to find some way to make sense of it all.

I would not exactly say I was riveted by the experience, but the Ross Brothers cast some kind of spell over me that kept me intrigued throughout as I tried to figure out what this sorcery was and how they were pulling it off.  It’s the documentary as a landscape, one that captures a wide swath of activity along the border and also manages to get it in a satisfying amount of detail.

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon

Stevan Riley pretty much hit the jackpot in terms of material from which to compile his biographical documentary of Marlon Brando.  The revolutionary actor’s children gave him access to Brando’s private tapes, which he recorded to make sense of his craft and bring some sense of inner balance.  These audio recordings represent an indelibly intimate look at a man and performer notorious for his inaccessibility.

Listen to Me Marlon” is the end result of Riley’s fusion of the tapes of Brando’s musing with various interviews and archival footage readily available to the public.  Yet I cannot help but wonder if a more interesting documentary might have resulted from relying more heavily, if not exclusively, on the tapes.  Riley rarely delineates when we are privy to Brando’s private thoughts from when he is on the record with a reporter, making for a blurry line between public persona and private self.

Regardless of my preferences, “Listen to Me Marlon” still makes for a fascinating watch.  Riley informs us of Brando’s philosophy on any number of items from screen acting (“the face becomes the stage in close-up”) to romance (“the penis has its own agenda”).   I just cannot help but wonder if a more radical, powerful documentary lurks underneath the surface of one that seems to settle for pretty good.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Drunk Stoned Brilliant DeadWith a title like “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” director Douglas Tirola seems to imply four stages or traits will receive equal billing in his history of the National Lampoon brand.  But, from what I observed, “brilliant” trumped the others.  Tirola proves far more interested in hagiography than biography.  He heaps praise on the humorists, then briefly mentions that they relied heavily on drugs and alcohol to do their work.

As for the “dead,” it really only applies to co-founder Doug Kenney, whose passing in 1980 unofficially marked the end of an era.  (Curiously, he never mentions the overdose of John Belushi that occurred two years later.)  The close of the film feels somewhat rushed, as if the crumbling of a towering comedic empire needed to come with a lesson.  But the majority of the documentary is a fun, informative look at how a group of witty writers brought truth through humor during the crisis of authority in Nixon’s America.

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