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


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.


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.


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.


12 04 2015

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Among their many capabilities, great documentaries can serve as provocative indictments of powerful institutions, profound interrogations of journalistic and filmmaking ethics, as well as personal portraits on the most intimate of scales.  Very rarely do multiple roles coexist within a single feature.  Yet with their remarkable, bold, and spellbinding film “(T)ERROR,” directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe achieve at least the three functions listed above with ease.

Their story starts off simply, following a subject Saeed Torres as he begins a new project working as an informant for the FBI.  This is not his first assignment, though it may be the last for this former Black Panther turned terrorist-baiter.  The sheer fact that Cabral and Sutcliffe can even get away with filming this activity seems jaw-dropping, but it quickly becomes a minor feat in an epic compilation of dangerous documentary derring-dos.


Saeed, or “Shariff,” as he is known to the bureau brass, heads to Pittsburgh for the sake of scoping out a suspected radical terrorist.  The target, a potential homegrown jihadist threat known as “Khalifah”, was raised a well-to-do Protestant and then suddenly converted to a strain of an anti-American Islam.  His activism was mostly limited to Facebook, though, and the FBI seeks to use Saeed’s subterfuge as a way to determine if he would carry out an attack on America.

Note the highlighted word; the bureau seeks to nullify hypothetical threats with the same zeal as real ones.  Aside from being a freaky “Minority Report”-esque Pre-Crime style of maintaining order, it dangerously blurs the line between ideology and intent.  Saeed himself wonders how much the FBI might lead him into situations of entrapment for his marks, though he hardly seems to lose any sleep over his duplicity.


His ambiguity over the fate of the people on whom he observes and reports is fairly remarkable.  The gig, for Saeed, is about his own financial security rather than the physical security of the nation, and he complains about how little the FBI compensates him.  He views himself as neither patriot nor traitor, just a businessman.

As the questionable motives of both Saeed and the FBI come into sharper focus, Cabral and Sutcliffe fittingly adjust their focus in “(T)ERROR” by adding a new perspective to the narrative: that of Khalifah.  They tread a precarious line, one that could have quickly crossed into unethical or perilous territory, by interviewing both the hunter and the hunted without the other knowing.  The film quickly becomes the ultimate cat and mouse thriller, made even scarier by the very real stakes.

But their gamble pays off in spades, and it plays as something more than just a gimmick.  The form and the process of the film provide a wonderful match. “(T)ERROR” highlights the lack of transparency in maintaining a victorious facade for the war on terror as well as the tacit permission we grant to questionable practices.  The film manages to simultaneously be about the subjects, the filmmakers, and the audience, highlighting how we all work to fashion an agreeable reality out of expedient half-truths and outright denial.

But since Cabral and Sutcliffe provide us with a thorough account of what is actually happening, we are left with the task of reconciling the two different images of our world.  The internal conversation may not be fun, but it is so necessary.  A-3halfstars

REVIEW: Cartel Land

11 04 2015

Cartel LandFull Frame Documentary Film Festival

Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land” follows a real-life David and Goliath story, as its participants describe their struggle.  The average Mexican civilians, even as a collective force, are rendered puny by the behemoth of the drug cartels that pervade every corner of their society.

So enter Dr. Jose Mireles, stage right.  He’s a working man just like any other who gets mad as hell and decides not to take it anymore.  Since the Mexican constitution states that power derives from the people, Mireles decides to reclaim that right as the head of vigilante group Autodefensas.  The militia manages to gain some serious traction in towns located in the southern province of Michocán, driving out the entrenched cartels.

But “Cartel Land” asks, at what cost? In order to reestablish order in the region, the Autodefensas become increasingly militaristic themselves and thus relatively indistinguishable from the threat they tried to eliminate.  When it comes to examining the vicious cycle of violence begetting more violence, Heineman knocks the ball out of the park.

Where he falters, though, is jumping back across the border to shine a spotlight on an American vigilante group.  The Arizona Border Recon, run by a deluded patriot, seeks to stop undocumented migrants from crossing the border.  In order to rustle up support, they rely on appeals that range from racially coded language to outright racism.

What function the Arizona Border Recon is supposed to serve in “Cartel Land” escapes me.  Perhaps they were supposed to be a reference group to make the Autodefensas look more sane?  Any other connection between the vigilantes is tenuous at best since such a wide distance separates them geographically.

Mireles and the Autodefensas get the lion’s share of screen time, as they should.  The group is more relevant to the central concern of the film, and they are more interesting anyways.  Every time Tim “Nailer” Foley and his band of self-appointed border patrol agents show up on screen, they just disrupt the narrative flow and dilute the effectiveness of the documentary on the whole.  B- / 2stars

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Days 1-2

10 04 2015

Greetings from Durham, NC! I am here covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of the premiere festivals for non-fiction film in the country. (Many thanks to Camel City Dispatch for syndicating my work so that I could score a press badge.) I have been to quite a few film festivals in my day, and almost all of them are devoted to programming films that meet some vague criterion of excellence. This one, however, keeps a narrower focus and thus plays some truly interesting titles.

Unfortunately, I was only able to spend a few hours at Full Frame in the first two days due to some issues and obligations back at school. But thanks to the availability of screeners, I have quite a few reviews to issue! I will be logging much more time at the festival in the back half of their program, after which I will have much more to say about the festival on the whole rather than just the films individually.

Nonetheless, here are some documentary films that you should definitely look out for if they play at a festival or theater near you!

(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies

11136141_370225293178068_8538359763330573093_oLike reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, but don’t like all the time it takes to get through one? Then check out Yael Melamede’s “(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies,” a documentary about social scientist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s work. At Duke University, he researches the way that humans make irrational and dishonest choices, even when it is ultimately to their own detriment.

In an hour and thirty minutes, Melamede provides a comprehensive overview of Ariely’s research. The film details when we tend to be dishonest, what factors influence our truthfulness, and how these experiments play out in the real world. Melamede takes us to the worlds of professional cycling, public relations, Wall Street, and cheating spouses. He also scores a high-profile interview with notorious NBA referee Tim Donaghy, whose knowledge of how officiating influences game outcomes wound up getting him involved with organized crime’s betting.

“(Dis)Honesty” flows remarkably well from topic to topic. The film is massively engaging, yet Melamede never sacrifices his aim of informing to make sure he is also entertaining. This is the documentary film at its most enlightening, showing immediate applicability to the dilemmas of daily life. Gladwell should just move away from the written word altogether if Melamede and Ariely continue collaborating in the cinema.

Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck

Never heard of artist David Beck? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either before sitting down for Olympia Stone’s documentary “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck.” According to a curator at the Smithsonian, that’s because Beck spends so much time creating new work that he hardly has the time to promote himself.

So, in that sense, Stone takes care of that for Beck by the creation of her film. “Curious Worlds” at once feels like a gallery walk and a retrospective series, providing an intimate look at his very deliberate intent and meticulous process. The film does not work as well when delving into his biography, which does feel somewhat tacked on for time. Nonetheless, Beck’s singular, peculiar works fascinate, just as the film does on the whole.


Beck serves as a problem-solver and a mechanic as much as a sculptor. Though his final products may seem kitschy, he constructs them with such precision and attention to detail and scale that they can hardly be dismissed. I would hardly call myself an art scholar, but David Beck seems like a hybrid of Alexander Calder’s interactive mobiles with Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media sculptures. Now I just need to experience one of his works myself!

(The Full Frame programming staff picked an excellent short film, “Crooked Candy,” to precede “Curious Worlds.” The doc short directed by RiverRun head Andrew Rodgers follows one of the most unusual international smuggling stories: a Bulgarian man obsessed with bringing the toys from Kinder eggs back to America, where they are illegal. Without the proper context or visuals, a viewer could easily assume the subject was talking about drug trafficking … therein lies the subversive humor of the piece.)


11050213_916090585102990_4081167160707705467_nBen Powell’s “Barge” details life on a shipping barge going down the Mississippi River. It eschews narrative principles, such as focusing on a single protagonist and following their development. Instead, it paints a vividly detailed portrait of what it takes to run such a massive vessel – the work it demands, the rivalries it instills, the animosity it inspires, and the loneliness it breeds.

Powell’s camera is well attuned to the many details of the boat, and he seemingly shows every inch of it in “Barge.” Half the film seems comprised of the B-roll footage that most filmmakers shoot to pad their main footage rather than seemingly constitute the backbone of the piece, as it does here.

This eye for the small stuff gives the film remarkable texture but leaves it somewhat lacking in substance and fulfillment. The brief 71 minutes fly by without leaving much of a mark, though time spent watching “Barge” is hardly time wasted. It’s just not necessarily time best spent.

From This Day Forward

From This Day ForwardSharon Shattuck’s intensely personal documentary “From This Day Forward” follows the unique ordeal that her family faced when her father decided to manifest her true identity as a woman. Sharon’s father, Trish, nonchalantly uttered, “When you get married, I hope you’ll let me wear a dress to walk you down the aisle,” thus beginning a long journey pondering the complexities of identity.

Each person in the family has their own set of issues coming to terms with the new reality. Sharon’s mother, Marcia, misses the man she married and adjusts to the different tenor of love she receives from Trish. Sharon and her sister have to come to terms with the fluidity of gender and sexuality at a time in their lives when the current rigid standards of society prove difficult enough. Trish herself has plenty of soul searching to do, not to mention the challenges dealing with a skeptical and unfriendly world. Yet in spite of everything, they find a way to make their unconventional family structure function.

In less than 75 minutes, Shattuck navigates these tough familial quandaries with thoroughness and ease. She never loses sight of the individual in “From This Day Forward,” focusing on the uniqueness of everyone’s path through life. And from that uniqueness comes beauty and understanding. If society wants to continue making forward progress socially, we could all take a few cues from Shattuck’s empathy and humanity.