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Six Full Frame Documentaries You Must See

By Robert Silva | Indiewire April 18, 2012 at 12:54PM

Six Full Frame Documentaries You Must See
1
"Mr. Cao Goes to Washington"
"Mr. Cao Goes to Washington"


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.