reporting from full frame documentary film festival

I spent my weekend at the full frame documentary film festival (held annually in Durham, NC). I go to full frame every year, and for four days, immerse myself in documentaries. There are always some duds, but generally, the quality of films shown at F.F. is extra-ordinary. I saw twelve films this year, at least three of which are worth saying some more about. You can’t rent these films yet, because they are all brand new, but watch for them, because I suspect that they might get some distribution in major cities, and certainly, on netflix.

The Edge of Dreaming (Dir. Amy Hardie)

In this doc., filmmaker Amy Hardie documents the strange journey of her 48th year. Hardie, a science documentarian, has a vivid dream that her horse, George, has died. Awoken by her dream, she ventures out into her yard with her videocamera to find a dead George, flies buzzing round his swollen eyes. A couple of weeks later, Hardie meets an ex-lover in a dream, who informs her that she will die at 48. Hardie is about to turn, you guessed it, 48. What follows is the incredible documentation of her journey to her 49th birthday.

Always the skeptic, Hardie wants to dismiss her dreams, but in spite of herself, she becomes obsessed. She responds to her own fear by pointing her camera toward the ordinary details of her life– her children’s play, lazy moments in bed with her husband, and the incredible landscape of her home in Northern Scotland. This documentary is visually stunning, it’s artistic without being pretentious, personal without being self-indulgent, but more than anything else, the film illuminates the incredible connections between mind, body, and earth.

Waste Land (Dir. Lucy Walker)

All of the new documentaries at Full Frame are in competition; at the end of the weekend, awards are distributed. My favorite award is the audience award. Some people might not trust ‘audiences,’ but I tend to think that the ‘audience award’ winner at full frame is the best film in the festival. If you’ve ever seen one, you know that there is nothing more excruciating to endure than a bad documentary. You try, you really try, to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. But after about 20 minutes of a bad doc., even the most generous of us begin to get antsy. Why is the film so long? Why have they chosen to interview this guy? What is this song, and why is it playing now? If only I had been the editor, it wouldn’t be this way (disclosure: I have no production skills at all)… and it’s only been ten minutes. For this reason, when an audience (being polled as they exit a theater) claims to really love a documentary, I trust them.

Waste Land is no exception to this rule. The film follows vic muniz (a brazilian artist known for making portraits out of strange materials) on his latest venture. Muniz was a poor kid growing up in Rio de Janeiro, and now that he’s made it big, he wants to give something back to his community. In search of that something, he travels to Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Jardim Gramacho lies on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, and in spite of the smell, provides jobs to those whose luck has run out. The ‘pickers’ make a living by picking recyclable materials out of the constantly increasing landfill. They then exchange the recyclables for cash (rates determined by the kind of material). The pickers are good-humored about it, but they work and live in a dangerous neighborhood where drug-related violence and poverty are the norm. Muniz’s plan is to create portraits of the pickers out of the recyclable materials through which they make their living. The story is fascinating, the art is beautiful, but what makes this doc. so moving is the incredible subjects Muniz chooses for his portraits. From a labor organizer who claims Machiavelli as a primary literary influence to a restaurant trained chef who feeds her friends hearty meals in the midst of a landfill, these people are beautiful in spite of their flaws, and through them, Walker tells a great story.

Summer Pastures (Dir. Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Tsering Perlo)

Summer Pasture follows the daily routine of a family of twenty-first century Tibetan Yak herders. The subjects of the story, Locho, Yama, and their chubby baby girl, are nomads. By definition, nomads have no home; moving with the seasons, they carry their belongings on their backs. And yet, every day, while Locho is out herding his livestock, Yama makes a home in the middle of a pasture. She endlessly collects, dries out, and then stores Yak dung for the family fire. She milks the animals, and from their milk, makes cheese and butter. From Yak fur, she produces thread that is fashioned into string. When forced to go to the city for supplies they cannot get from the land or the livestock, Yama and Locho are lost. Because they are illiterate and inevitably adopt the odor of the Yaks with whom they live, to city-dwellers, explains a laughing Yama, “nomads are like animals.”

It’s hard to believe, but for the duration of this 98 minute film (long for a documentary) I was absolutely entranced by Locho and Yama. The filmmakers are to be credited for choosing such lovable subjects and for telling their story without a trace of judgment, pity, or condescension.

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