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Full Frame lineup


Indy staff and freelancers watched several dozen of the more than 60 films screening this weekend. Here are short capsules, sorted alphabetically within each day. Blurbs were written by Gerry Canavan, David Fellerath, Jaimee Hills, Marc Maximov, Fiona Morgan, Neil Morris and Lisa Sorg.

  • Indy picks are noted with a indy
  • Special out of competition films are noted with a Ø
  • Films under 55 minutes long are noted with a ]S[

For schedule info, visit www.fullframefest.org or visit the festival, where schedules are everywhere.

Thursday, April 3

The Last Conquistador—The city council of El Paso plans to erect a giant statue of the Spanish colonial governor Juan de Oñate, over the protests of descendants of the Native Americans he brutalized. History, it seems, continues to be written by the victors. This PBS-style documentary presents competing points of view in fairness to all involved, with ample backstory to illuminate the debate. —MM

Lioness—Though an act of Congress forbids women from combat positions, wars tend to be messy affairs. Members of Team Lioness, an all-female unit created ad hoc to search female civilians in Iraq, have found themselves on the ill-defined, ever-changing front lines. Five Lionesses are profiled, from a squirrel hunting good ol' girl from Arkansas, haunted by memories of the war, to a sweet, soft-spoken Latina from Queens trying to raise a family with an active-duty husband. Their burdens show the costs of our continuing occupation. —MM

]S[ Left in Baghdad—This short is an alternatively light-hearted and melancholy look at Ross Graydon, a soldier who lost his left arm fighting in Baghdad. We follow his journey from Walter Reed Medical Center to his return home to Kentucky, where he, his wife and their daughter try to adjust to his new prosthetic arm and changed life. The scene in which his daughter takes Ross to speak to her elementary school class makes this film worth seeing. —NM

]S[ Of Shadows and Men—This short film, shot mostly in a bustling tea house, gives us a portrait of the dying art of Chinese shadow play. Showcasing the life of an elderly master puppeteer, the film shows us snippets of an actual play, the techniques at work behind the screen, the role this art plays as an important part of Chinese culture, and the hope for the future of this nearly extinct art in the puppeteer's talented grandson. —JH

Sally Gross: The Pleasure of Stillness—A fixture of the avant-garde in New York, Gross has been a dancer and choreographer for more than 50 years and is still going strong. Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) and Karen Nutile let their graceful, down-to-earth subject speak (and move) for herself. —MM

indy The Siamese Connection—Durham-based filmmaker Josh Gibson fashions an experimental, stylized film centered on the lost years of original Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker spent living near Mt. Airy, N.C. Gibson also utilizes a number of Triangle performers to recreate this piece of allusive history. See sidebar. —NM

Ø indy Trumbo—A film adaptation of Chris Trumbo's stage play based on the letters of his father, celebrated screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, the most famous member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. An A-list cast of actors read excerpts from the letters, and the ample archival footage fleshes out the film. See sidebar. —DF

Up the Yangtze—Scenes from "the new China," of a poor schoolgirl whose family home will be flooded by the massive Three Gorges Dam; of an ambitious college student's capitalist dreams; and of the cruise ship on which they both find work catering to brain-dead Western tourists: Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang traveled with his grandfather to see the old country he'd heard about in stories, but "instead, we found a brand new country being created." A poetic reflection on the human consequences of a rush to modernity as inexorable as the floodwaters' rise. —MM

Friday, April 4

indy At the Death House Door—The filmmaking partners behind Hoop Dreams and Stevie join to tell the story of the Rev. Carroll Pickett, who served for 15 years as the death house chaplain at Texas' Walls prison unit. Using Pickett's own accounts and audio recordings he made in conjunction with his role in every execution, the film gives raw, mournful opposition to the death penalty. Against this backdrop, James and Gilbert also investigate the possible innocence of Carlos DeLuna, in whose execution Pickett participated and remains haunted by. See sidebar. —NM

indy Be Like Others—In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-change operations are perfectly legal. Heartbreaking stories of ordinary gay men's and women's last-ditch response to murderous intolerance show the human capacity to inflict suffering in its infinite variety. Viewers will note similarities between the U.S. and Iran, not just the obvious differences—religious bigotry, shattered families and teen suicides infect the Land of the Free, too. It's a matter of degree. —MM

]S[ Beginning Filmmaking—When filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt gives his daughter Ella a video camera for her fourth birthday (she'd been hoping for a magic wand), he quickly learns a valuable lesson in the stubborn independence of children. However well-intentioned his desire to share his world with her, Rosenblatt's efforts to direct Ella towards the elements of film composition repeatedly run aground against both her 30-second attention span and her own ideas about what makes a movie good. —GC

indy Bigger, Stronger, Faster—A rollicking exposé of the steroid culture, by first-time documentarian and former juicer Chris Bell. Similar in tone to Super Size Me (which would have been a good title, if it hadn't already been taken), this film entertains at a fast clip. And Bell has done his homework, enlisting experts at the cutting edge of science and medicine to support his thesis that the drugs are of less concern to the health of our bodies than that of our hypercompetitive, quick-fix society. —MM

Ø indy The Black List—Former New York Times and current NPR film critic Elvis Mitchell invited a diverse group of prominent African Americans to the East Village studio of his friend, photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, to share their experience of race in America. The result is an exquisite series of portraits, in which Toni Morrison, Colin Powell, Al Sharpton, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and 15 others provide fascinating insights into black consciousness at the intersection of the personal and the political. Not to be missed. —MM

]S[ Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy—Two companions—one with Down syndrome who cares for her partner suffering from severe cerebral palsy—fight through personal and bureaucratic travails. The film rips at your heartstrings, but the production itself is barebones and unadorned. —NM

Bomb It—This film takes a comprehensive look at "bombers" (a.k.a. graffiti artists) from the gang member to the first-grade school teacher, from New York City to the Berlin Wall, representing graffiti as not only a culture but also as a kind of language. This is a brief history of graffiti (dating back to the cave wall drawings) seen through the eyes of its creators. Fast-moving, full of slang, the film juxtaposes graffiti artists' views with those of the authorities who prohibit it, and provides a cross-cultural perspective for why bombers do what they do—whether it's a statement against commercialism, or an attempt to free art from the museums, or simply a beautiful crime. —JH

Daughters of Wisdom—Kala Ronga is one of the only Tibetan monasteries created solely for Buddhist nuns. As meditative as its subjects, this film follows several of the sisters as they perform their daily chores and rituals and recount their metamorphoses from uneducated countryfolk with limited opportunity to enlightened spiritual seekers. The Himalayas provide a breathtaking backdrop. —MM

]S[ indy Flying on One Engine—Dr. S. Dicksheet spends half of every year in a squalid, mouse-infested apartment in Brooklyn, collecting Social Security and living off fried rice. The other six months he travels throughout India, performing cleft lip surgeries free of charge on thousands of impoverished children. Partially paralyzed, constantly on the verge of medical crisis himself, he is revered in India as a "human god." This debut film by Joshua Weinstein is a funny, fascinating, fully rounded portrait of an eccentric humanitarian who's been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. —FM

indy Full Battle Rattle (Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, USA, 90 mins.—One of the most thematically rich films in the festival gives extraordinary access into fake Iraqi villages erected by the military in the Mojave Desert as a training ground for soldiers slated for deployment. Many Iraqi exiles actually live in the villages, paid to role-play for the soldiers' training. The sometimes lighthearted, always provocative film explores the concepts of reality versus fantasy—how one often helps define the other. See sidebar. —NM

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson—It's been a big year for Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side. Gonzo looks to be the definitive documentary of one of an emblematic figure of the Vietnam-era counterculture, a New Journalist (a tag he hated) who introduced readers to Hell's Angels, Las Vegas and the absurdities of presidential politics. The key people are here—including No. 1 fan Johnny Depp—but the film's strengths lie in its revelations of Thompson's tender side, and its acknowledgement of his precipitous burnout. —DF

]S[ Holding Fast—Director Mary Harron (American Psycho; I Shot Andy Warhol)—and her filmmaking husband John C. Walsh present lush footage in and around a Tibetan refugee camp in Darjeeling, India. This is more of a well-made audio-video composition, not necessarily an didactic piece. —NM

]S[ indy Infinite Justice—Karl Tebbe takes a page from Todd Haynes' underground classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story for his brutal experimental short Infinite Justice, which re-peoples familiar horrors from the Iraq War like Abu Ghraib and the Daniel Pearl beheading with Ken dolls and G.I. Joes. The surreal result is a disturbing and utterly unforgettable film (just three minutes in length) that could change the way you think about the war. —GC

Lucio—Seventy-seven-year-old Spanish anarchist Lucio Urtubia was a sort of Forrest Gump of 20th century radical movements. His counterfeiting talents connected him with a global who's who of subversives, from Che Guevara to the Black Panthers to the ETA and IRA. This flashy Spanish film oversells its subject's importance, but it's a tasty yarn. —MM

My Daughter the Terrorist—Stone-faced recollections of childhoods shattered by violence explain the frighteningly hardened wills of a pair of female Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The mother of one grieves for a daughter still alive but lost to a brutal ideology. While the film doesn't delve very deeply into the lives of its subjects, it memorably exposes the terrorist mindset, and serves as a corrective for those who conflate suicide bombing with radical Islam. —MM

indy Neither Magic Nor Memory—"Peace floated; cold dread was its spell." We hear the words of Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti over hazy footage of clouds and the countryside, and later, bodies, rubble, and the ravages of World War II. This film is a biography through interviews and photos, a love story of Radnoti and his wife and the story of his struggle to ensure his words would survive the Holocaust, if he did not. He was an important witness, a most human voice surviving in the most inhumane conditions. It's a thoroughly sad, amazing story. —JH

indy Ø The New Americans—A seven-hour made-for-television documentary traces the journeys to America of five families. The challenges are varied—a group of oppressed Nigerian Ogoni need to escape their refugee camp, while we also visit the curious (and plantation-like) world of training young baseball players in the Dominican Republic. From the production company of Steve James and Peter Gilbert (see sidebar), The New Americans has the compulsive watchability of the best television and will be shown in its entirety twice—today and Sunday. —DF

]S[ Observando El Cielo—This experimental film meditates on the skies' ever-changing moods: constellations on a clear night, the silent march of a lunar eclipse, dazzling lightning and graceful cloud formations. Many shots are framed to show human intrusion in the natural world: the corner of a rooftop, the dome of an observatory and the glow of a campfire—harkening to primitive times when people thought the gods controlled heavens' temperament. We have long looked to the firmament for answers and intelligence; yet the deeper we probe, we find only questions. —LS

indy Paradise—An elderly Swedish couple live in a summer cottage by the water. She rows across the way to pick lingonberries while he bakes a sponge cake. This is Scenes from a Gentle Marriage, and its dramatic crux is the decision whether to redecorate the feature wall of the house. At just under 60 minutes, this film is almost nothing, yet it's everything. —DF

]S[ Paradise - Three Journeys in the World—This poetic, sometimes slow-moving film follows the lives and struggles of African immigrants who live and work in Europe in order to provide for their families back home. It is an interesting look inside a story that has obvious parallels to America's attempt to address its rising Hispanic workforce. —NM

indy Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains—The incredible true story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed high in the Andes in 1972 has already been told by Hollywood (Alive, 1993)—here the survivors tell it themselves. This high-budget production over-relies on dramatic recreation, but the gripping first-person tale gathers momentum and generates ever-greater suspense. Two-plus hours pass in a heartbeat. —MM

Summerchild—Sveta, an 11-year-old waif, must choose between life in a boisterous Russian orphanage or adoption by a well-meaning, if slightly dull and chilly Finnish couple. The audience isn't given much to go on besides cursory impressions, but the film raises interesting questions about haves, have-nots and what's best for children. —MM

To See If I'm Smiling—Six former Israeli servicewomen describe their experiences in the Occupied Territories. Their psychic wounds and loss of innocence reflect the truth that in battle, there are no good guys and bad guys, only Us and Them. This understated yet deeply affecting film derives its power from the painful introspection of women who have come to realize their lives will never be the same. —MM

indy Trouble the Water—This Hurricane Katrina doc differs from its predecessors in that much of the footage was shot by a survivor who tried to ride out the storm in her attic. The inspiring saga of Kimberley Rivers Roberts and her family before, during and after the storm is the most personal, up-close account to date of those horrific days in 2005, when our country abandoned its citizens in their hour of need. —MM

Saturday, April 5

Alone in Four Walls—A grim tour of a Russian boot camp-style juvenile detention center and the scrawny, traumatized boys doing time there. Life outside the center, where a segment of Russian society has degenerated into lawlessness, is even grimmer. Artfully made and deeply disturbing. —MM

American Teen—A mega-hit at Sundance, American Teen follows the progress of four kids through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Ind. The film employs the familiar archetypes: There's the jock, the rich bitch, the band geek and the cool artsy girl. While the film is entertaining and should make no one nostalgic for high school, one can't help but notice the aggressive editing and how the kids seem to perform for the cameras—a savvy and hyper-aware generation that was raised on reality television. —DF

Beautiful Son—Autism isn't just a diagnosis, it's a political issue, as affected families have banded together to lobby for legislative action (is the mercury-based vaccine ingredient thimerosal the culprit?), and to share information on controversial new treatments. The filmmakers, parents of an autistic child, touchingly document their own family's struggles and their awakening to the activist movement. —MM

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)—For more than a decade, Ellen Kuras has reigned among America's top indie cinematographers (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Summer of Sam, I Shot Andy Warhol). During that time she has documented the lives of a large, fatherless Laotian family struggling to get by in America. The father had worked with American forces during the bombing campaign in Laos, and when they leave, he's left without protection and the means to support his family. Though Kuras' narrative can be frustratingly diffuse, particularly in the early going, her film features ravishing location photography and a compelling narrator in Thavisouk Phrasavath, a son and head of the family. —DF

Ø indy Body of War—Tomas Young had been in Iraq only five days when a sniper's bullet paralyzed him from the chest down. At 25, he becomes an anti-war activist, traveling the country to tell his story. But the film is mostly an intimate chronicle of Young and his family as they try to cope with the physical and emotional repercussions of one soldier's devastating injury. Interspersed are clips from the floor of Congress, where lawmakers parrot the president's talking points to justify their vote to authorize war. Co-directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, with original music by Eddie Vedder, this film has already generated a lot of festival buzz. —FM

Bulletproof Salesman—The directors of Gunner Palace and The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair return to Iraq for a black comedic character study of Fidelis Cloer, an avowed self-profiteer who markets in armored vehicles. Cloer's boots hit the sands before the insurgent uprising even fully began, keenly aware of the bloodshed—and business opportunity—that was to come. —NM

]S[ indy City of Cranes—A lyrical, meditative short doc about cranes? You bet—this trip up and into the copious, oft-overlooked machines dotting the London skyline, and the solitary livelihood led by workers manning them, is both gorgeous and informative. —NM

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo—Director Lisa Jackson's highly personal focus on the scourge of rape being used as a weapon in Congo's ongoing civil war lays bare an under-reported tragedy. The connection reached between the Congolese victims and Jackson, herself a rape survivor, only adds to the film's emotional impact. —NM

indy The Horseman—Stig-Anders, a dogged Luddite throwback, tills his acre in a remote corner of Sweden with horses instead of a tractor. Some liberties were taken with the documentary form, and while this film is not for the short of attention span, the stunningly beautiful camerawork casts a spell, as does Stig-Anders' plainspoken passion for farm and forest. A neighbor remarks, "Modern people need someone like Stig-Anders. He is like a mirror. They can see what they have become." —MM

The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories—A self-consciously droll examination of the quirky characters who inhabit the sleepy Bulgarian town of Belene—think Vernon, Florida on the Danube. Some locals' past involvement with a communist internment camp provide a few moments of gravity. —MM

indy Order of Myths—The title sounds like a just-discovered book by Michel Foucault or Claude Levi-Strauss, and indeed, Margaret Brown possesses a keen eye for history and sociology, and how things become the way they are. In this case, the city of Mobile, Ala., holds two Mardi Gras celebrations, one for the whites and one for the blacks. Change comes slowly to this city that has celebrated the holiday for 300 years, and Brown's film captures the nuances and ironies of an entrenched culture. See sidebar. —DF

]S[ indy Salim Baba—This Oscar-nominated short visits the streets of Kolkota, India and the man who continues to run an old "cinema cart" showing worn snippets of 35mm film for children. The film invokes an air of magic and carefree innocence, of a time when just the opportunity to watch a movie was itself a joy. —NM

]S[ Song of a Sperm Donor—Emmanuel Dayan's 12-minute documentary catches up with Jeffrey (a.k.a. Donor 150 of the California Cryobank sperm bank) as he meets his daughter Ryann for the first time. Jeffrey—a marginally employed masseuse who lives alone in an RV with three dogs he calls Mom, Dad and Junior—is certainly a fascinating and unique individual, but this film is really as much Ryann's song as his. What does an age of anonymous sperm donation do to ideas like "fatherhood" and "family"? —GC

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates—Young Iranian Massoud Bakhshi tells us at the outset that his film about the history and people of Tehran is unfinished, that all he has are fragments and impressions. He also tells us that 94 percent of Tehranis are poets, and the other six percent are filmmakers. There's a fair amount of this sort of whimsy in this alternately beguiling and maddening postmodern exercise. Bakhshi employs archival film footage and his own gorgeous time-lapse effects to create something akin to The Man With the Movie Camera, but one wishes he hadn't succumbed to fashionable epistemological despair. —DF

Today the Hawk Takes One Chick—This is an account of the elderly "gogos" (grandmothers)—who devote their lives caring for just a portion of the vast HIV-positive population of Swaziland. It is a straight-forward yet moving glimpse into not just models of personal courage but also an epidemic that continues to ravage most of the African continent. —NM

Sunday, April 6

]S[ La Corona—False eyelashes meet tattoos at the annual beauty pageant held in a women's prison in Bogotá, Colombia. Poignant and respectful, the film weaves several women's personal stories—many were convicted of crimes including homicide, armed robbery and guerrilla activity—as it chronicles their mental and physical transformation into poised, coiffed beauty queens draped in borrowed evening gowns. In final competition, the pageant host poses questions to contestants that we should all ask of ourselves: On your last day for whom would you ask forgiveness? What is the most important thing in life? —LS

Ø Flow: For Love of Water—According to a common prediction for the new century, clear is the new black, as water is replacing oil as the key commodity that will spark turmoil within and between nations. This well-argued if somewhat pedestrian film forecasts the problems to come. —MM

indy Good Ol' Charles Schulz—"Sparky" Schulz was "recognized by teachers as being exceptional. It was up to him to decide if he was going to be someone who connected with other kids," we learn from a childhood pal of the Peanuts creator. It's a clue to the neuroses that Schulz would nurse for the rest of his life—to incredible artistic success and heavy personal cost. The real little red-haired girl is here (and tells us that Schulz got to first base) and we learn that Lucy was inspired by Schulz's first wife, and her pestering of Schroeder at his toy piano was a metaphor for the marriage. —DF

indy In A Dream—If Van Gogh was still around during the '60s, got married and had two kids, he might have been like Isaiah Zagar, an obsessive portrait maker who chronicles his family life in grand-scale mosaics covering several buildings (inside and out) in Philadelphia. The filmmaker, Isaiah's son, gives us an inside view into his father's mania, his artistic techniques and the home life that shapes his art at a point when the family may be breaking apart. It's a moving, beautifully shot portrait of a very bizarre man. —JH

Lakshmi and Me—When feminist Indian filmmaker Nishtha Jain turns her camera on her maid Lakshmi, she discovers uncomfortable truths about the politics of gender and class. Lakshmi is a vivacious and independent spirit whose destiny is circumscribed by humble origins, and Jain gets caught up in her sometimes tragic life story. As she wins Lakshmi's confidence, conflicts arise as she tries to act simultaneously as her employer, documenter and friend. —MM

]S[ My Olympic Summer—Recently divorced, director Daniel Robin looks to his parents' home movies for redemption. Among footage showing the idyllic life of a 1970s nuclear family—his father was an Army rabbi, his mother, a devoted housewife—Robin finds an undeveloped roll of film and an unopened letter unveiling the marriage's imperfections. When Robin's father, who served as the rabbi to the 1972 Israeli Olympic team, is taken hostage by Palestinian guerrillas, tragedy unites what once was asunder. —LS

indy Please Vote for Me—In a Chinese experiment with democracy writ small, third graders in Wuhan vie for the office of Class Monitor. All campaigns quickly go negative, as meddling parents play Karl Rove to their stressed-out progeny. The intense, at times hilarious exercise teaches the children appropriate lessons about the value of connections in a society where power isn't won by popular vote. This film is proof that good competition can make for great documentary. —MM

Ø Spine Tingler—Part of the festival's Special Programming slate, this slickly-produced biopic is not a paradigm of gritty documentary filmmaking. However, its overview of the extraordinary life of eccentric schlockmeister William Castle is one of the most entertaining, easily watched films on the schedule. It is a tour through old Hollywood and a filmmaker who took the concept of movie promotion to new, outlandish, and successful heights. —NM

]S[ The Tailor—The comedy of errors captured by this minimalist look inside the tiny shop of a Barcelona tailor is entertaining for about, oh, 10 minutes. After that, offbeat character study gives way to tedium as one becomes weary of being subjected to a constant stream of anger customers complaining to the deaf ears of a disorganized, shoddy businessman. —NM

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