Full Frame Day 2: Thoughts on The Pipe and Oregon, plus Day 2 preview, Barbara Kopple and guns

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Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard in Barbara Kopples Gun Fight
  • Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard in Barbara Kopple's Gun Fight
Indy scribes fanned out through theaters Thursday. It was gratifying to see familiar faces, and healthy attendance in the rooms. A few thoughts about Day 1 before we dash off for Day 2.

Kate Dobbs Ariail writes in about The Pipe:

My dumpster-diving vegan, abandoned building-sqatting, freight train-hopping niece alerted me to the story of The Pipe a couple of years ago. At that time, she was an aspiring activist journalista without much training in the separation of fact and passion, so I discounted her tale, which she’d picked up while in Ireland. I owe her an apology. The perfidy of Shell and the complicity of the Irish government with Shell and against its own people are horrifying. The Pipe—though a first feature-length film for its director, Risteard Ó Domhanill, is calm, lucid and utterly damning. The filmmaker was right there when people were willing to put their bodies on the line for their land and their waters: when they went out in rubber boots and storm coats to face the Garda and Shell’s mercenaries, in order to be dragged off to jail; when they took their fishing boats up against the tremendous ships of the multinational petro-colossus and the Irish Navy, again and again after making bail; when went go into the water in wetsuits, for God’s sake, to attempt to halt the dredging of an “environmentally protected” area—that’s courage way off the scale of 1 to 10.

We caught Peter D. Richardson's How to Die in Oregon, which lived up to its advance billing as a powerful, sensitive look at people who have taken advantage of that state's death-with-dignity law. Although Richardson and Full Frame programming director Sadie Tillery told the audience we were "brave" for watching this film, the whole point of the central character, Cody Curtis, and her struggle against terminal liver cancer, was precisely that she wasn't particularly brave. Death is a fate we all have to meet, whether we're brave or cowardly, a good person or a bad person. In Curtis, we had a fairly ordinary middle class woman in the prime of life who has to confront early death. Although she prepares to terminate her own life, it's clear that she prefers to die passively, to "drift off." I've seen other assisted-suicide films and I'm always a little frightened of the people we see, such as the first death in How to Die in Oregon, who loudly demand the right to die, grabbing the poison and gulping it down. That's not Curtis, and frankly, that's not me—at least not yet.

According to those of a stoical bent, life is a process of preparing to die. But not many of us are really prepared to welcome at death so openly; for most of us, death is a passive process and we hope to be taken painlessly, when we're not looking. Curtis seems to be no different, and the film's power comes in seeing this appealing, thoughtful and very normal woman spending a year composing herself for her premature death.

How to Die in Oregon is very fine film, though I wish Richardson had devoted a few more minutes to a serious examination of the ethical concerns about legally enabling people to take drugs to hasten their demise. Instead, opposing views are given very briefly to a embittered, wizened old guy who seems to live in a Dixie flag-festooned trailer park and a doctor who seems to be part of a Christian protest rally.

And now to Day 2... Today's heavy hitters are Barbara Kopple's Gun Fight (see below), Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story and James Marsh's Project Nim.

At 2 p.m. in Fletcher Hall, catch Raising Renee, a portrait of Durham artist Beverly McIver and her relationship to her disabled sister (Chris Vitiello's review is here; Ashley Melzer's interview with filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher is here).

At 4:40 p.m., catch Durham filmmaker Josh Gibson's Kudzu Vine. Read Sylvia Pfeiffenberger's appreciation here.

In Durham Central Park at 8:30 p.m., there's a free screening of the parkour celebration My Playground, which received an enthusiastic reception last night in Cinema 3.

There are two films by career-award winners Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, The Devil Came on Horseback and Joan Rivers (read Neil Morris' interview with the filmmakers here; read Nathan Gelgud's 2010 Indy review of the latter film here).

But our pick hit of the day is is the double bill of Il Capo and Buck, playing in Cinema 3 at 1:10.. Find out why by checking out our capsule review blurbs.

Last week I spoke to Barbara Kopple about her new film Gun Fight. It premiered earlier this week on HBO and will be rebroadcast and shown on demand through May 8. Although Bowling for Columbine remains the seminal doc on the topic of American gun policy (and it was a watershed in the commercial viability of documentaries, too), I find that I prefer Kopple's lucid, restrained and non-sensationalist treatment of the issue.

But I also found it ironic: In 1977, the 30-year-old Kopple shot to fame with Harlan County U.S.A., for which she won the Oscar for best documentary. This riveting film told the story of a Kentucky coal miners strike and the women who assumed the backbone of the movement. The film achieved the force of a Western as the strikers faced off with the mine company’s hired muscle in an armed standoff, and there perhaps was no scene as memorable as the meeting where one union firebrand, a middle-aged woman, punctuated a speech by pulling a pistol from her bra. [See trailer here; the redoubtable Lois Scott appears at 2:00.]

Harlan County launched Kopple on a career that has encompassed subjects such as Woody Allen, Mike Tyson, The Dixie Chicks and George Steinbrenner, along with other labor films and the occasional foray into film and television dramas, including an Anne Hathaway indie vehicle.

When I mentioned Harlan County to Kopple, she laughed and said, “Yes, there are a lot of guns in that one. That film was made over 30 years ago and I wasn't looking at guns in the same way, but you're absolutely right. Everybody had guns, they open-carried them.

"And people used them. The first day, or second day, after I got to Harlan County, two miners got into a fight with each other. And then the next day, one of the miners—who'd gotten shot—was driving around in his car with a sign on the back of his car saying, '.38s ain't shit,'" she says with a laugh.

But three decades later, guns themselves come under scrutiny in Gun Fight. In an unintentional coincidence, it takes violence in the Appalachians—the Virginia Tech mass shooting—as its starting point. Her film follows several expert witnesses to this country’s gun debate—such as it is. Colin Goddard, who survived the massacre of his French class on April 16, 2007 by a heavily armed and troubled fellow student and became a gun control advocate in its aftermath, is prominently featured in her film.

I tell Kopple that, as someone who keeps a modest farmer’s arsenal, I can attest that there are plenty of gun owners who think American laws are scandalously lax. She laughs, “The NRA just hasn’t gotten to you—yet.”

While Goddard’s credibility is unimpeachable, Kopple’s film features powerful witnesses from the front lines of the carnage inflicted by the sea of 300 million guns in this country—a crucial if unknown percentage of which are not in the hands of responsible, emotionally stable, law-abiding adults.

"One of the things I really care about in this film," Kopple says, is to get a lot of different points across. I also really care about people whose lives change from guns in a split second, sort of a snap of your fingers. It happens everywhere, affects every community, people of every race and every class."

We meet Scott Charles, trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, who takes battle-hardened teenagers on tours of the hospital’s trauma unit. Charles, who calls the vicinity the “deadliest neighborhood in one of the deadliest cities in one of the deadliest countries in the civilized world,” later takes pains to point out that the country’s suburban classes are largely insulated from the daily toll of gun violence.

“Occasionally you get the Columbines that happen, the Virginia Techs, but they’re anomalies,” he says, noting that 10,000 people have been shot in Philadelphia in five years, in a numbingly banal litany of domestic disputes and street corner altercations.

Indeed, viewers may come away from Gun Fight marveling at the disconnect in our culture, wondering if gun violence is another example of the gaping class divide in our culture. Kopple spends a lot of time with gun rights groups, who tend to be composed of middle-age people, mostly white and male, with a paranoid worldview. It’s these people who are so uncompromising, and such effective fundraisers and organizers, that they wield influence so mighty that even Republican politicians are afraid of them, and law enforcement groups, which normally have politicians scurrying to their side, generally are frustrated in their efforts to encourage more stringent gun laws.

"They've made gun control like a poison, so that if you want to get elected or stay in office... no one wants to touch this issue," Kopple says.

Except for a pro forma montage of guns in American movies, Kopple’s film avoids the showy pop culture invasion that marked Bowling for Columbine (Marilyn Manson! South Park!). Instead, her film is focused on the points of view of people with a stake in the debate. Gun Fight is bolstered by the courage of physician Garen Wintemute, who views gun violence as a public health problem, and the apostasy of Richard Feldman, a longtime P.R. man for the National Rifle Association, who has since denounced the organization as being primarily devoted to raising money for itself.

Kopple and her editing team were nearly finished with the film—in fact, they'd shown a final cut to HBO—when this country suffered another mass shooting, again perpetrated by a mentally ill person armed to the teeth, which nearly claimed the life of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

"The editor and I got every piece of footage we could. We stayed up one night and put a little piece together," Kopple says.

I asked if the Congress, having seen one of its members shot in the face and nearly killed by a legally armed psycho, would summon the courage to face down the paranoid geeks of the NRA.

“I don’t know,” she said.

After tonight's screening at 7:10 in Cinema 3, you'll have the opportunity to discuss these issues further with Kopple, Goddard, Feldman and other guests.

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