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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival capsule reviews

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Our writers watched as many of the films as possible, but this list isn't exhaustive. Reviews are by Victoria Bouloubasis, Bob Geary, Craig Lindsey, Neil Morris, Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, Joe Schwartz, Lisa Sorg, Chris Vitiello and Emily Wallace.

indicates strongly recommended film


Beauty Is Embarrassing—There's nothing but colorful delight in this free-spirited chronicle of Wayne White, a Tennessee artist/ painter/ puppeteer/ painter/ all-around creative type. The film tells how an eccentric small-town kid grew up to be one of the chief forces behind Pee-wee's Playhouse, crafting and voicing many of the show's beloved puppets. He also served as an art director for music videos by Peter Gabriel and the Smashing Pumpkins before breaking into the art world by creating humorous, often profane "word paintings." Paul Reubens, Todd Oldham, Matt Groening and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh are among those who discuss White's quirky genius. Ultimately, director Neil Berkeley does an even-keeled job showing how a passionate artist such as White strives to live a creative life (and be less of a neurotic nut), even when living and working in areas where such creativity is more frowned upon than celebrated. (93 min.)—CL

Big Boys Gone Bananas!—A Swedish journalist makes a documentary about the mistreatment of Dole banana workers in California—they are nonchalantly sprayed with pesticides—and the film is accepted into the Los Angeles Film Festival. That is, until Dole brandishes its legal brass knuckles and threatens to sue the journalist and the film festival for defamation. What follows is an examination of a corporate thug determined to hide the truth and the filmmaking team that defied its intimidation tactics. (Dir. Fredrik Gertten, 90 min.)—LS

The Bus—Damon Ristau directs this hourlong ode to the iconic Volkswagen bus, a tub-like road tripper's dream complete with overhead camper and enough room to fit your gear and your eight closest friends. It is part history lesson, as it traces the car's development by the Nazis, production by the Allied forces and later prominence in hippie and surfer circles, but the bulk is a rhapsody by VW owners espousing their love for their rear-engine rides. One such owner—a one-man traveling band—bought the bus, his first and only car, for $800 and has driven it across the country from bar to bar for 20 years. He washes and shaves in the backseat sink. A couple who got married in a bus and had their vows read from the manual own a half dozen VWs, some driveable, others converted to chicken coups and tool sheds. Taxi drivers in the Congo demonstrate how to fit 20 people or 100 chickens in the backseat. As owner Tom Hanks says to David Letterman in the film, "If you suffer from a rare dementia like I have, it's the car to have."(60 min.)—JS

Cat Cam—If, after watching thousands of hours of cat videos on YouTube, you're still starved for footage of felines, then Cat Cam is right up your alley. Many cat owners have wondered about the experiences of their wandering pets, and as this short doc demonstrates, these sociable animals behave largely like people: They visit with their friends, sit in the sun, have a snack. We know this thanks to an electronics engineer who concocts a still and video camera to hang around his cat's neck. The results are artful, if unsurprising. (Dir. Seth Keal, 16 min.) —LS

Detropia—Fantasy or reality? Dystopia or utopia? These are questions raised in Detropia, a sympathetic and complicated portrait of modern-day Detroit that plumbs deeper than urban decay chic. Detropia doesn't just focus on the ruined skeleton of a city but also on its still-throbbing nervous system: the living inhabitants, both human and nonhuman who, whether they ended up there by accident or by choice, show a tenacious allegiance to the City of Detroit. Harrowing and hopeful, Detropia introduces us to a range of point-of-view characters struggling to make sense of Detroit's industrial past and precarious future. They provide some of the keenest analysis you'll hear about globalism's problems, as the film takes us inside a United Auto Workers meeting, the North American International Auto Show (where Al Sharpton makes a cameo) and public hearings with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing to discuss a controversial city consolidation plan. Detroit as a space for art and culture is subtly explored as well, from experimental performance art to the Detroit Opera House and a live R&B band at Hamtramck's Raven Lounge. A pointillistic portrait slowly emerges, as characters that seemed isolated touch one anothers' lives in some way: opera singer, blogger/ barista, foreign tourist, local news reporter, union president, lounge owner, feral dogs, performance artists, scrap metal scavengers and even the mayor himself are all part of a fragile ecosystem. Whether the view is optimistic or pessimistic remains undecided, but Detropia offers realistic dispatches from the frontlines of America's shrinking middle class. (Dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 90 min.)—SP

Eating Alabama—Clad in camouflage and wide, dark-rimmed glasses, Andrew Beck Grace sits in a shooting house in northern Alabama, loading a shotgun. "Yikes," he whispers to the camera through a nervous grin after we learn that although he's from a long line of Alabama hunters and farmers, he's never done this before. Eating Alabama follows Grace (the film's director), his wife and two friends as they try to return to a semblance of their roots by eating food grown only in their state. Their hunt—at times discouraging, hilarious, inspirational and completely unsustainable (take driving upward of 700 miles to create one well-rounded meal, for instance)—provides a glimpse at the challenges of eating local. (61 min.) —EW

Five Star Existence—Has your smartphone or laptop become a part of your body? That's happened to Finnish director Sonja Linden, and she's not sure if she's OK with that. Errol Morris meets Donna Haraway in this series of pristinely shot vignettes that add up to a meditation upon technology and humanity. Stopping to talk about the frightening speed of cultural change sometimes guarantees the discussion's obsolescence, but Linden keeps us focused on people through tight head shots of speakers looking directly at the camera. She shows us how technology shapes the work and lives of a dairy farmer, a logger, a futurist, a policeman, an Internet addiction counselor, a youth worker, a physically disabled woman and others, interspersed with more theoretical musings by professors of neurology and psychology, futurists and various therapists. Although this film might have been better with fewer vignettes—and if Linden had removed her personal life from it—cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg's work is breathtaking and Linden frequently matches the imagery with a light, profound narrative touch. (90 min.) —CV

A Girl Like Her—In the 1950s and '60s, girls and women—most of them middle-class whites—who became pregnant outside of marriage were shunned and exiled, often to homes for unwed mothers. There, they were forced to surrender their babies at birth to the foster care and adoption system. (The boys, however, went about spreading their seed with impunity.) In this film, a dozen women recall how they became pregnant—largely through ignorance and naivete—and in riveting detail discuss their parents' reactions, life in the unwed mothers home and the lifelong emptiness they have felt as a result of losing a child. As an effective cinematic device, we only hear the women speaking over '50s and '60s health class films and other footage extolling the virtues of homemaking. Think times have changed? Two words: Rick. Santorum. (Dir. Ann Fessler, 48 min.)—LS

Girl Model—Audiences will be depressed or disgusted at what they witness in this documentary, a bleak, damn-near-nauseating look at the international modeling scene. Filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin follow Nadya, a 13-year-old Siberian girl who wins a model search and is whisked away to Japan, where she finds that a pretty face and wafer-thin figure doesn't necessarily make her successful. The doc also follows a former model-turned-scout named Ashley (not to be confused with the filmmaker), who discovered Nadya. Ever cynical, Ashley spends the movie in a constant state of numbness, trying to avoid thinking about how the modeling industry chews up and spits out girls like Nadya all the time. However unsettling and just-plain-wrong this film can get, it may also compel parents who watch it to quell their young daughters' desire to become the next Kate Upton. (78 min.)—CL

Herman's House—"The best activism is equal parts love and anger." That's artist Jackie Sumell's approach as she and Herman Wallace, a Black Panther activist who's been in solitary confinement for all but eight months of the last 40 years, design his dream house. In this world premiere, director Angad Singh Bhalla follows Sumell's quest to free Wallace, who was placed in solitary in 1972 on a flimsy conviction for fatally stabbing a prison guard, and to help him build a community center for youth to break the cycle that has put 2.3 million Americans in its prisons—800,000 of whom are in solitary confinement. Sumell, who lost her mother to cancer during the project, gradually becomes part of Wallace's family as they first try to find property near his Louisiana prison and then in New Orleans' Seventh Ward, to which Sumell relocates from New York. Sumell re-creates Wallace's 6-by-9-foot cell for a gallery exhibition to raise awareness of his plight. Phone conversations between Sumell and the remarkably optimistic Wallace provide the film's most dramatic moments, comprising a testament to the power—a nd inherent frustration—of compassion. (81 min.)—CV

Italy, Love It or Leave It—Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi can't decide. Should they leave Rome, as many of their friends have, for the less expensive, cleaner and better run Berlin (Gustav's view)? Or should they give in to nostalgia and remain in Italy despite corruption, unemployment, pollution and the rolling scandal of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Luca's view)? The filmmakers take the argument on the road in a series of Fiat 500s for a six-month tour of the country to tally pros and cons. Gustav tries to persuade Luca to confront Italy's contradictions and failings, revealing the squalor of immigrant orange pickers and a scenic-yet-toxic Lake Como. Luca counters, showing facets of the country that might inspire an optimistic view in Gustav, such as Puglia's regional governor, Nichi Vendala, who is openly gay and communist, and Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri, who eloquently labels voluntary departure as desertion. The result is a tongue-in-cheek, yet sincere, road movie, peppered with corny animations and slightly contrived conversations. You have to wait until the ending for their verdict (no spoiler here!), but the journey is completely worth it. (75 min.)—CV

Justice for Sale—Paired with Invisible War, another Full Frame feature film that explores rape in the U.S. military, Justice for Sale provides a fuller understanding of jurisprudence—or the lack thereof—in the armed forces. This is the story of a male soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is wrongfully convicted of rape, the woman lawyer who fights to free him—and the troubling evidence that nongovernmental organizations may actually be contributing to the injustice. (Dir. Ilse and Femke Van Velzen, 83 min.)—LS

Love Free or Die—Durham's own Macky Alston (Family Name) returns to Full Frame with another insightful, penetrating doc, which won a Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. He sets his sights on New Hampshire holy man Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to become consecrated as a bishop. Of course, this doesn't go over well with other conservative bishops around the globe, who do everything they can to exclude Robinson from their activities. (The movie starts with him in England preaching the Word wherever he can, as he's been disinvited to the bishop-heavy Lambeth Conference going on there.) Nevertheless, Robinson goes on a mission not only to inspire closeted bishops, priests and other religious folk to come out and praise the Lord, but to show that LGBT people can be just as faithful and compassionate as straight people—perhaps even more so. (82 min.) —CL

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington—"It's not about the party," Louisiana Rep. Joseph Cao tells a constituent as he's running for re-election in 2010. "It's about the individual." Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is a brisk account of what happened to Cao, a likeable Vietnamese refugee and ex-Jesuit priest, after he won an unexpected victory in the 2008 congressional election. As the film began, I remembered that Cao (pronounced "gow") was the only Republican in the U.S. House to vote for President Obama's health care reform bill. What I didn't remember is whether Cao was re-elected. Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang makes the most of that mystery. Cao, in this sympathetic portrayal, begins as a pro-life but otherwise progressive independent candidate who is recruited by the Republican Party to run in a heavily black, Democratic New Orleans district represented by Rep. William Jefferson. Yes, the same Jefferson who kept his bribe money in the freezer. Jefferson goes to prison, Cao is elected, and he tries to straddle a great partisan divide. He supports Obama's health insurance reforms against the tea party but backs away when the final version doesn't take a stronger stand against abortion. He cultivates Obama, hoping the president will endorse him against his Democratic opponent, a disbarred attorney. What happens next? Don't google it; watch the film instead. (71 min.)—BG

Photographic Memory—In his latest documentary, Charlotte-born filmmaker Ross McElwee lives out nearly every parent's fantasy: He escapes to France in order to get away from Adrian, his ornery teenage son. However, if you know the Sherman's March filmmaker's previous work, you also know that this won't be some long-needed vacation getaway. To better understand his kid's mind-set, McElwee travels to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, where he worked one spring as a young assistant to a wedding photographer, to track down old, memorable acquaintances and to revisit and re-examine his own rebellious, adventurous youth. But, mostly, McElwee, in his trademark intimate, introspective manner, spends his time quietly letting go of the past. The son he once found utterly adorable drifts away from him; he's making movies on digital video instead of film , which he once thought was so essential: McElwee tries to begrudgingly accept that the times are a-changin'. [Interview coming soon.] (84 min.)—CL

Putin's Kiss—This film, along with fellow Full Frame screenee Reportero, which chronicles the daily perils of Mexican journalists, should jolt American media types out of their self-pity. A impressionable young Russian woman, Masha, joins Nashi, a right-wing nationalistic youth movement and becomes infatuated with its iron-fisted leader. But trouble erupts when she becomes disillusioned with the movement and begins consorting with dissidents and members of the opposition, including a prominent journalist. Their friendship and her political awakening come at enormous personal cost. (Dir. Lise Birk Pedersen, 83 min.)—LS

Radio Unnameable—Before there was Twitter, talk radio, NPR or the Occupy Wall Street movement, there was Radio Unnameable. Bob Fass' free-form radio call-in show on New York City's WBAI gave unprecedented voice to the city's artists, activists, misfits and conspiracy theorists. This film of the same name retraces Fass' radio career, from the consciousness-raising 1960s to the divisive '70s and the rise of Black Power, feminism and the Young Lords. The first "electronic community," Radio Unnameable served as a switchboard for the counterculture and the souls who phoned in from all over the city. These call-in moments, ranging from the dramatic to the humorous to the serene, are the film's best at conveying the intimate connection between Fass and his listeners. While Radio Unnameable catered to the city's late-night denizens, the film's visual rhythm is hardly soporific, re-creating the atmosphere of Fass' studio through a lively mix of period film footage, stills and show logs, accompanied by new interviews and vintage audio of Fass' shows salvaged from reel-to-reel tapes. Owned by Pacifica, WBAI was New York's only noncommercial, listener-supported radio at the time; it was known for its critical, left-wing reporting and Fass' spontaneous programming. His guests included figures from the burgeoning folk music scene (the first live radio performances of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" and Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" happened on the show), as well as anti-war activists such as Abbie Hoffman. While illustrating the power of radio as the original social media, Fass' case also shows there is no greater threat to authority than free speech that generates a sense of community. (Dir. Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, 90 min.) —SP

Raising Resistance—As the idea of food and land sovereignty gains traction in the U.S., Raising Resistance presents a brazen example of small-farmer defiance in Paraguay. Here the farmers are fighting the rampant growth of transgenic soy in South America, the world's largest producer of this genetically modified foodstuff. Filmmakers Bettina Borgfeld and David Bernet weave interviews with campesinos, agricultural scientists, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo Méndez and the Brazilian growers whose work threatens the livelihood and independence of the native farmers. "We are patriots struggling for our sovereignty," explains farmer Geronimo Arevalos. He and an unofficial collective of farmers exude a powerful narrative that moves beyond agrarian dialogue, instead offering the ecological, cultural and societal implications of a global economy reliant on Big Agriculture and its finite effects on a community in its most raw form. Beautiful images of expansive farmland engulfed in fog ease into an active portrayal of struggle and daring courage as the farmers finally stand up against an herbicide-spraying tractor and embark on a movement to protect their land, their people and their home. (84 min.) —VB

Trash Dance—All human movement is dance. For many, this remains a revolutionary concept, but not for Forklift Danceworks choreographer Allison Orr. Director Andrew Garrison follows Orr as she develops a dance performance with Austin Department of Solid Waste Services workers—and their massive trucks. Orr works a bit in each department, building trust and meeting the people behind the people who collect our trash: boxers, rappers, harmonica masters and, yes, dancers. Along the way we get to know Don Anderson from Bulky Item Collection, who finds aesthetic pleasure in the white oak smoke that escapes from his grill, Tony Dudley from Dead Animal Collection, who matter-of-factly removes struck cats and armadillos from city streets, and Shiron Hill from Litter Abatement, who has started to see sanitation management as a kind of pre-archaeology. Orr focuses these and other workers on the creation of a piece out of their working experiences. The final performance, featuring a solo on a hydraulic crane and claw that might bring tears to your eyes, expresses the power of artistic collaboration in a seemingly unlikely place. (68 min.)—CV

Under African Skies—Remember Paul Simon's Graceland? If not, let this doc from Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) take you back to the mid-'80s, when Simon traveled to apartheid-torn South Africa to record with native musicians and ended up with a platinum-selling classic album. As Simon travels again to South Africa to reunite with these musicians for a silver-anniversary concert, the movie also revisits how Simon became a lightning rod for controversy. After the album was released, Simon was accused of being just another privileged white artist defiantly going to Africa and stealing music from poor black folk. But the movie shows how these poor black folk, which include the great Hugh Masekela, the late Miriam Makeba and the sensational a cappella collective Ladysmith Black Mambazo, had a grand old time creating music with this white boy. (101 min.)—CL

Without a Fight—Set in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, against a backdrop of bloody unrest, village youth toss aside their often warring ethnic and religious tribalism to instead battle for supremacy on the soccer pitch. As the teams compete in the local and loftily named Champions League, the film chronicles the march toward the season's championship and the backstories of some of its participants. Coaches must not only contend with political unrest and violence, but also players whose training is inhibited by such obstacles as hunger and a lack of shoes—impoverished kids occasionally have been killed trying to steal cleats. The film is both uplifting and illuminating, a look inside a place where the degree of bloodshed and poverty might seem foreign, but the healing power of team athletics is universal. (Dir. Jason Arthurs, 55 min.) —NM

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