Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Day Two

Another day of nice weather greeted the second day of Full Frame (that may change tomorrow though). I saw a particularly strong group of documentaries today, but it got off to a rough start:

RAW MATERIAL, INDIGESTIBLE – Now, this wasn’t a movie – it was a collection of 10 film bits and fragments selected by writer/archivist Rick Prelinger. It’s part of this year’s thematic program “One Foot in the Archives,” that also included showings of BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, STRICTLY PROPAGANDA, and THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE.

In RAW MATERIAL, Preliger would show a brief clip of, say, “an actual hobo” then provide a little commentary and take questions. He stressed that this was an exclusive showing of these films, mostly black and white films from the ’40s, because he’s “reluctant to put into the public pool” just yet. Among these “scratch transfers” were such bits as the KKK marching in a Pennsylvania parade, footage from an Illinois asylum, and a heavily-edited-for-our-safety “technique for electro-shock therapy” training film from 1951.

The films were interesting, but the audience participation part dragged with all too few insights into the use or mis-use of archival film in the ethics versus copyright debate. It was cool to see an actual hobo though.

HOW TO PICK BERRIES (Dir. Elina Talvensaari, 2010) / WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA (Dirs. Marc Francis & Nick Francis, 2010) The first of these short films is a 19 minute mediation on the culture clash in Finland due to Thai immigrants coming to co-opt their national crop of Cloudberries. It didn’t really grab me, but its transitions through ethereal imagery is striking. I get a little weary of docs just made up of still shots of nature with a voice saying supposedly profound things on top of it.

The much better second short takes a look at China’s expansion into Africa in the Aughts. We follow Chinese businessmen working with Zambian power brokers to develop relations further with farmers and road workers. The access to these people is remarkable, but some scenes seem somewhat staged. It’s a swift professionally made 75 minutes of wheeling and dealing with the scenario of Chinese colonialization compared to the British’s previous entanglement with Africans being brought up in the discussion afterward with director Nick Francis.

THE LOVING STORY (Dir. Nancy Buirski, 2011) Full Frame founder Buirski returns to the festival to premiere her debut doc, and it’s one of the best films on display. Its the emotionally powerful story of Mildred and Richard Loving – the couple involved in overturning the law in Virginia banning interracial marriage in the ’60s in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Lovings were arrested in 1958 right after being wed, and told they had to divorce or leave the state. They spent 9 years fighting the system aided by ACLU lawyers Bernie Cohen and Phillip Hirschkop. An astounding array of previously unseen footage, both black and white and color, makes up the film, along with interviews of the key players decorating the edges.

A post film Q and A moderated by Walter Dellinger featured Buirski, producer Elisabeth Haviland James, Hope Ryden (who filmed the Lovings back in the day), retired lawyer Cohen (who got a standing ovation), and daughter Peggy Loving.

Also a cool piece by local writer Glenn McDonald interviewing Buirski was in yesterday’s Raleigh News & Observer. You can read it here.

GUN FIGHT (Dir. Barbara Kopple, 2011) Kopple’s (HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., AMERICAN DREAM, SHUT UP AND SING) moving examination on the severe state of current gun laws and gun ownership comes off like a better thought out BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. Production on the film began 4 days after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and it follows one of the students who was shot (Colin Goddard) as he campaigns for the fight to prevent gun violence for one of its fascinating strands.

We also meet former NRA spokesman Robert Feldman, emergency medical physician/gun violence researcher Garen Wintemute, and Temple University’s Dr. Amy Goldberg, all providing probing thoughts into these complicated and often contradictory issues. Kopple’s film is not anti-gun, nor pro-gun in any extreme fashion, it just wants to grasp the heart of the arguments. It left me with the debate going on in my head, and isn’t that what the best documentaries are supposed to do?

A Q & A with Kopple, Feldman, producer Marc Weiss, producer Williams Cole, editor Bob Eisenhardt, Godard, and his parents (Andrew and Anne) followed the film.

CURE FOR PAIN: THE MARK SANDMAN STORY (Dirs. Robert Bralver & David Ferino, 2011) Again, it’s time for the final slot rock doc. I know some of the music of the ’90s alternative Boston band, but never really delved deep into their discography. This film makes me want to as it’s a throbbing mix of concert footage, interviews, and TV appearances that make a convincing case for the genius of front-man Mark Sandman.

I always wondered what really went down when Sandman died during a performance in Italy in 1999, and this film touchingly tells me. CURE FOR PAIN doesn’t break any new ground for music docs, but it’s a excellent portrait of a man who believed he only needed a 2-string bass slide bass guitar, a sultry vocal, drums, and a baritone sax to make incredible music. And he was right.

My only complaint was that a lot of the material used was of fuzzy deteriorated VHS video (like from Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Jon Stewart Show of which you know better quality versions exist. However, as a friend said “Morphine was always a very lo-fi band.”

There was a Q & A after, but I was fading fast so I left to drive back to Raleigh and write this. Please check back for coverage of days 3 & 4.

More later…

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