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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

An overview of what's playing this year


All films reviewed by Rodrigo Branco (RB), David Fellerath (DF) and Fiona Morgan (FM).

Bonhoeffer, directed by Martin Doblmeier, 90 minutes

The story of the German Lutheran minister who died defying the Hitler regime reminds us that there were tiny but fearless voices of conscience in Nazi Germany. However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no passive resister: As a member of a wealthy and well-connected family, Bonhoeffer was party to the bomb plot against Hitler, a role that would eventually cost him his life. Although this is a worthy and informative film, one wishes that the filmmakers could have come up with a fresher biographical approach that engages with the revisionist currents in Germany associated with W.G. Sebald, rather than sticking with a familiar blend of archival photos, talking heads and linear voiceover. --DF

Dans Grozny dans (The Damned and the Sacred), directed by Jos de Putter, 75 minutes

This film explores the struggle of a group of Chechen kids who are fighting the war with the Russians by using the only power they have: dance. While dealing with all the difficulties war brings--such as lack of supplies and the fear of being shot at any time--they put all their energy into doing their best performance. Guided by an enthusiastic teacher, the kids take a four month tour all over Chechnya and nearby countries, enchanting viewers with their presentations, which border on perfection. --RB

De l'autre Cote, directed by Chantal Ackerman, 99 minutes

The great French feminist filmmaker (Jeanne Dielman) turns her attention to America's shared border with Mexico. Her austere and sometimes irritating approach is to roll the camera from a stationary tripod, as local residents from both sides of the border discuss their experiences. In one eerie and deeply unsettling sequence, Ackerman accompanies a helicopter patrol of the border. She peers through night lenses and shows us a line of ghostly figures walking through the desert in search of gainful employment and a better life. --DF

Divining Mom, directed by George Kachadorian, 70 minutes

This intriguing, but unfocused film looks at the culture of dowsing--from its origins among pragmatic farmers looking for water, to new age practitioners who see it as part of psychic phenomena and earth religion. Heated debates ensue between scientists and dowsers as to who the real religious fanatics are. The film eventually finds its heart when interviews with the filmmaker's parents--his divining mom and skeptic dad--culminate in the story of how she took up the practice in response to a family tragedy. --FM

Flag Wars, directed by Linda Goode Bryant, 95 minutes

Flag Wars, the jury prize winner at South by Southwest last month, has all the elements of a compelling and incendiary documentary. Set in Columbus, Ohio, this film examines the conflicts that arise when relatively affluent gays and lesbians move into a black, working-class neighborhood. Highly recommended. --DF

International Sweethearts of Rhythm, directed by Greta Schiller, 31 minutes

The all-woman jazz band from the early '40s recounts the difficulties and prejudice it had to deal with during its career. The band merged black and white women, who, besides struggling with the intolerance in the inflexible Southern United States, had to prove they were as good as male musicians. Archive images and testimonials capture the band's greatest moments. --RB

Life in a Basket, directed by David Hogan, 34 minutes

The stars in this surprising video are homeless people from downtown Los Angeles. They expose their lives by showing everything they have: a miscellany of things they find and transport in shopping carts for selling, or for their own personal use. The characters end up revealing their various personalities and the things they consider important, even though they might seem, to the viewer, useless at times. Also, they explain some of the reasons that led them to a life on the streets. --RB

Onibus 174, directed by Jose Padhila, 120 minutes

In a leafy Rio de Janeiro neighborhood, a desperate, probably drug-addled man takes a city bus hostage. The resulting standoff, which would last several hours, was broadcast on live television and became a national scandal. This tense, you-are-there documentary sifts through the tapes of the events and also finds a surprising amount of background information on the one-time street kid who would end up as the hijacker. Although this film is an indictment of Brazilian poverty and police ineptitude, it is also a somewhat hopeful corrective to the stereotypes that movies like the recent City of God tend to reinforce. Recommended. --DF

Open Hearted, directed by Marc Ostrick, 53 minutes

A first-person account of filmmaker Marc Ostrick, who was born with a bad heart and is now preparing to have his third surgery. After a brief recollection of his two previous operations, the video illustrates the tension and fear he faces, as well as his later recovery. Featuring Ostrick's family and a close friend as sources, it gives a touching view of their involvement in his life in preparation for the impending operation. --RB

School's Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas, directed by Jeremy Simmons, 80 minutes

This MTV-produced film is a diary of the Walt Whitman Community School in Dallas, the only gay magnet high school outside Los Angeles and New York. The school year begins with only 10 students due to the school's low profile, and ends with seven. The struggling principal fields teenage melodrama with an unusually serious edge--one 16-year-old boy is diagnosed with HIV and a transgendered teen is pressured by his friends to start taking hormones. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have abandoned major questions about their fascinating and important topic for the pursuit of yet another juvenile "reality TV" experience that does a disservice to its vulnerable teenage subjects. --FM

Seabiscuit, directed by Stephen Ives, 54 minutes

Likely to be the hit of the festival, this documentary is based on the runaway best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand. The racehorse Seabiscuit was one of the biggest stars of the century, an emblem of the American underdog during the Depression. No less remarkable is the story of the jockey, John "Red" Pollard, a star-crossed, half-blind lover of literature, who found tragedy and greatness on a horse as unlikely as himself. Excellent archival footage and narration do justice to this great story. --FM

Speedo, directed by Jesse Moss, 80 minutes

Jesse Moss follows up last year's Full Frame entry, Con Man, with this study of Long Island demolition derby driver Ed "Speedo" Jager. Speedo is a frustrated race-car driver and a well-intentioned dysfunctional family man, and he vents his rage during weekend demos. This modest but quite charming film plays like a three-act Hollywood flick--a middle-aged romance that contains more crashing cars than Jerry Bruckheimer can count in his sleep. Recommended. --DF

Stevie, directed by Steve James, 140 minutes

This deeply personal new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James is a wrenching and troubling experience, filled with searing images of heartland poverty and cyclical violence. The title character is a young man who had been James' Little Brother in the early 1980s. Fifteen years later, James tracks him down, only to discover that the perpetually embattled Stevie is now facing the worst trouble of his life. Battling his feelings of guilt for having abandoned the boy, the director attempts to intervene in Stevie's adulthood, making for a fascinating, depressing and perhaps ethically questionable documentary. Recommended, but bring tissues. --DF

The Sweatbox, directed by John Paul Davidson and Trudie Styler, 87 minutes

Featuring a large behind-the-scenes crew, this film presents a step-by-step look at producing what turned out to be one of Disney's most acclaimed cartoons: The Emperor's New Groove. From visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, to drawing every tiny detail in the characters' features, it shows what it takes to create a story from conception to realization. Besides all the work of the producers and directors, there's also great singing by Sting (Trudie Styler's husband), who was in charge of the movie's soundtrack. --RB

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, directed by Mark Moormann, 90 minutes and Only the Strong Survive, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 96 minutes

What does it say about the present state of popular music that there is such a vogue for documentaries about the glorious sounds of the 1950s and 1960s? First, there was Buena Vista Social Club, then there was last year's Standing in the Shadows of Motown. This year's Full Frame has two more films that prove the durability of the genre. Mark Moormann's Tom Dowd is a study of the man who was the sound engineer for some of the greatest records of the last 50 years by artists ranging from Tito Puentes to Aretha Franklin to the Allman Brothers. Meanwhile, Chris Hegedus's buoyant Only the Strong Survive focuses on Memphis, Tenn., and the Stax sound. Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding and the Supremes' Mary Wilson are among the artists profiled. --DF

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