Michael Moore calls Durham, North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival one of the best festivals in North America. This year's strong lineup included a retrospective of Stanley Nelson (“Jonestown”), a series of harrowing "family films" curated by Ross McElwee and of course a slate of new documentaries. Among them were a survey of "real bearded Santas" living in geriatric Florida (“Santa Land”), the story of a Louisiana prisoner designing his dream home from solitary confinement (“Herman's House”) and side-by-side dissections of U.S. health care (“The Waiting Room,” “Escape Fire”).
Here are six films worth checking out from the festival.
1. "Special Flight"
“Special Flight” won both the Grand Jury and Filmmaker Awards at Full Frame. That must have come to a surprise to many at the awards ceremony, judging by the film's sparsely attended screening. It was hardly so for those who saw it.
Set in the purgatory of a Swiss detention center for illegal immigrants, Fernand Melgar's powerful documentary isn't disturbing in the routine ways one might expect. The facility is clean; the inmates get along. The officials who run it are as cordial as camp counselors. The "residents" are free to cook, play foosball, and await their three possible fates: a release, a deportation or an Orwellian-named "special flight." The latter entails being strapped down by guards until they cannot move, carried aboard a chartered plane like a piece of luggage and dropped in their native countries, as one inmate puts it, "like bags of garbage."
Lacking traditional voiceovers and interviews, “Special Flight” might be faulted for not giving more context on Switzerland's draconian immigration laws. But its vérité immediacy does something more important: it invites the audience to care about its subjects as human beings first and not as tokens in a political struggle.
The men, mostly Africans and Eastern Europeans, have come to Switzerland to escape hardship. One has spent half his life in the country and raised a family. Another is an ethnic minority who believes he won't survive a return to Kosovo. "The minute you step off that plane, you're dead," his brother tells him during a visit.
We see the haunted look in his eyes as he awaits the inevitable. At the start of the film, he explains how he ended up in custody: he didn't have the right sticker on his windshield.
2. "Girl Model"
Nadya is a 13-year-old Siberian girl who is sent to Japan, where they like their girls young. "Very young," we are told by Ashley, an American scout who was once a model herself. She's our unreliable guide into an industry beneath an industry, built on the sale and marketing of teenage bodies. Lured by the $8,000 promised in her English-language contract, Nadya arrives in Tokyo alone. When she arrives at the modeling agency, no one there speaks Russian.
It's a scenario ripe for exploitation, and directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin create a palpable sense of dread out of where such conditions might lead. They parallel Nadya's story with bizarre episodes from Ashley's life; she's a woman clearly troubled by her job, but who obviously enjoys its spoils. At times she seems on the cusp of admitting something that might shed light on the situation.
Built upon mood, theme, and insinuation, “Girl Model's” ambiguities provoked a strong audience reaction. At the film's Q&A director Redmon admitted that there was another movie about the making of the movie that they decided to leave out. He hinted at receiving threats while the filmmakers were in Russia. "If I start talking, it's all going to come out," he said and would say no more. The film will air early next year on PBS.
3. "Fanuzzi's Gold"
"I find gold because I look for gold," Ed Fanuzzi says in this whimsical character study, "and if you don't look, you don't find." The junk collector has just dredged a ring from the sands of Staten Island. More often what he finds are slivers of wood, valueless coins and chunks of metal. These are precious to him, too, and he hauls his treasures back to a home besieged by growing piles of such castoffs. Sometimes, he drolly admits to his loving wife, he takes things home just because they're broken and he knows how to fix them; he fixes them and throws them away again. It's his life’s work.
Fanuzzi's tirelessly upbeat attitude, and the details of his past, make this more than fodder for an episode of "Hoarders." We learn about the damaged things in Fanuzzi's life through photos and home videos — a daughter with schizophrenia, a grandson with autism and a paraplegic son. He shows us a lift he made for his son using castoff parts; it cost $50, Fanuzzi says with pride, and the notion of salvaging what's been broken takes on a moving weight.
Fanuzzi's restless creativity and dauntless humor earned the short the runner-up audience award at Full Frame, where it made its world premiere. Given a chance, a wider audience will embrace "Fanuzzi's Gold" too.
4. "Mr. Cao Goes to Washington"
Freshman Congressman Joseph Cao doesn't fit the mold. He's the first Vietnamese-American Congressman ever, and he represents a majority black district in post-Katrina New Orleans. He's a former seminary student who idly suggests a BP exec perform hari-kari (Spike Lee later recorded Cao demonstrating the act on "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise"). And most confounding of all, he's a Republican centrist, who cast the only GOP vote for President Obama's health care reform bill. Can he survive reelection?
The engrossing doc won the "Full Frame Inspiration Award," but that's a bit of a misnomer. Cao is cast as the idealistic ingénue a la Dave, but the political reality he enters is incredibly complex; race, class, and party affiliation play an overlapping and often unspoken role. Indeed, Cao may not be the innocent he seems and his tragic flaw, in fact, may be believing his own campaign narrative.
From Tea Party outrage to the snow leopard of bipartisan compromise, "Mr. Cao Goes to Washington" deals with all the hot button issues of the current election year in a disarming way. Director S. Leo Chiang previously profiled the New Orleans Vietnamese-American community in "A Village Called Versailles," and as he follows Cao's journey from "dialing for dollars" fundraising to "going negative" in his own campaign, he shows us how we deeply we may misunderstand our current political realities.
5. "Radio Unnameable"
Bob Fass ruled the pre-dawn airwaves during the 1960s and '70s. The New York City disc jockey was at the off-center of the countercultural movement, a nocturnal enabler of hippies and nighthawks on his late-night "Radio Unnameable" program.
This Kickstarter-funded project takes the audience through the highlights of Fass' unconventional radio career — from transforming JFK Airport into an all-night Happening and preventing an on-air suicide to a successful effort at mobilizing New Yorkers to do the unthinkable: band together and clean up the streets with a garbage strike "Sweep In."
Filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson deploy the usual blitz of talking heads and era-specific photos, but the real prize are the radio broadcasts themselves. They were culled from hours (and hours) of broadcast reels that Fass preserved by lodging into every corner of his home. Interwoven throughout the film, they include important appearances by a young Arlo Guthrie, a besotted Jerry Jeff Walker, and an impish Bob Dylan playing pranks on late-night callers.
Along with “Beauty is Embarassing” (a profile of artist, animator, and "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" puppeteer Wayne White), this was one of the most entertaining bios at the festival. “Radio Unnameable” superbly recreates a time when the radio mattered. For those who are interested, Fass continues to dish out his brand of no-format FM radio, one night a week on MBAI, the northeastern outpost of the perennially embattled Pacifica radio. He's in his seventies, and he isn't paid a salary.
6. "Photographic Memory"
Twenty-five years after "Sherman's March," Ross McElwee continues to delve into his family history. One might wonder if McElwee's brand of ingrown documentaries has become stale, and the answer is no, net yet. In fact, the premise of the film (his first in digital video) undercuts some of McElwee's own propensities as a filmmaker. That is, the godfather of the home-video documentary clashes with the YouTube age via his son Adrian.
Adrian, who bears a passing resemblance to Scooby from “Storytelling,” is as absorbed in social media and technology as Ross was his 16mm camera. In a shot that defines a generation, Adrian is shown typing on a laptop, watching TV, texting on his cell phone, and listening to an iPod. Adrian's overstimulated life baffles his father and McElwee amusingly documents his attempts to connect who's always connected elsewhere.
To get a sense of his own youth (and produce said film), McElwee forgoes his usual Southern backlot to wander France, where he was a photographer's assistant in Brittany during his 20s. With a few photos and memories as a guide, he searches out figures from his past, including a woman with whom he had a passionate relationship — he thinks.
The unreliability of such memories and McElwee's fumbling detective work gives the picture much of its interest as a meditation on photography and age. The ending may be a bit open-ended, but one supposes McElwee is leaving the door open for the next film in his series.