At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, INDY Week contributor Ashley Melzer spoke to several filmmakers and one festival-goer about the line between bearing witness and exploitation.
INDY Week contributor Ashley Melzer asked several filmmakers attending the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival what makes documentaries special.
When it was announced that filmmaker and previous Full Frame Career Award recipient Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) would curate this year's "Family Affairs" thematic program on Saturday, many McElwee admirers must have exclaimed "Of course!"
If there is a documentary filmmaker who knows how to merge family matters into his films, it's Charlotte's McElwee. In the 2004 film Bright Leaves, he delved into North Carolina's rich tobacco history while exploring his own family history and trying to maintain a bond with his skateboarding, preteen son, Adrian. His new film, Photographic Memory, which will receive its world premiere Friday at Full Frame, shows that the bond hasn't strengthened. Adrian has turned into a typical teenager—sullen, obnoxious, slightly self-destructive—who makes McElwee flee the country in order to better understand him. And, also, to prevent him from ringing the little punk's neck.
McElwee recently talked to the Indy about his latest film, his program at Full Frame and just how things are going between him and his son.
Independent Weekly: So, you're been summoned back to Full Frame to curate this year's "Family Affairs" thematic program. How did this union come about?
Ross McElwee: Full Frame is a wonderful event that, though homegrown—at least from the perspective of this Southerner—has achieved an international reputation. I was asked to curate a section on films about family, and since I've made a few of those myself, I guess they thought I was a natural choice for curator. I did refine the definition a bit by narrowing it to autobiographical documentaries about family, which complicates the filmmaking in interesting ways.
Your new movie Photographic Memory shows you coping with your, shall we say, ornery son by traveling to France and getting in touch with people from your youth. You appear to juxtapose your more adventurous youth with your son's, which has him always at the mercy of his computer or some device. Is this your way of telling kids to put down the damn iPhone and experience life?
Not really. Or maybe I'm just suggesting that young people perhaps consider calibrating a little the ratio of online life to actually living. But I'm not a Luddite about social media. It's clearly here to stay. I think one of the things I'm interested in in my film is the way things have changed so radically in only one generation in terms of communication and artistic expression. The effects of the generational shift from analog to digital has been massive—on our society, and on the world as a whole. But I'm certainly not saying that my generation's way of expressing itself was better than my son's. There was no dearth of foolishness associated with the analog 1960s and '70s.
You really dive into your relationship with your son quite honestly and nakedly. Has he seen the movie, and will he be there to check it out at Full Frame?
Adrian has traveled with me to Venice, Lisbon, Paris and Los Angeles, where he has helped me present the film in public and even taken questions from the audience after screenings. He's accepted the film on its own terms, perhaps more than I have.
You also quietly mourn the death of film in the movie. With film print currently going the way of the 8-track tape, was this something you really wanted to explore in this film?
Yes, it was certainly intentional that the demise of film and its replacement by high-definition digital video be acknowledged in my film. But I don't think of it as a major theme. It's more of a filmmaker's lament—a somewhat romantic, low-decibel cri de coeur—but not especially worth dwelling on. So, I don't. It just comes up now and then and also functions as a metaphor for the difference between my son's world and my own.
Finally, as someone who been to several Full Frame festivals and received the Career Award, how important has this festival been for you, and what would you like people to take away from it?
Just try to see as many films as you can. The lineup of documentaries is stunning. They were culled from more than 2,000 entries from all over the world. And, also, savor the experience of sitting in that dark room with other strangers and relating to a world that is not completely your own—in some ways, the opposite of Facebook.
Outside, destruction reigned. And near the Carolina Theatre, businesses lost power, according to Twitter. But nothing stops The New York Times, evidently, for there was nary a flicker in Fletcher Hall.
Page One, Andrew Rossi's valentine to The New York Times was a suitable selection for the mid-afternoon, keynote film. Bruce Headlam and Brian Stelter of the Times, both of whom featured prominently in the film, joined the filmmakers and Pittsboro writer Duncan Murrell on the stage and projected an image of wit, affability and even a hint of coolness. Headlam admitted that there had been considerable resistance to allowing cameras in the Times' inner sanctum, but on the evidence of the film, the media-savviest heads in the company prevailed. As Murrell noted, Rossi's film makes the Times seems like a scrappy underdog—and Carr is indeed one—and the audience ends up rooting for the most important media outlet in the country against upstarts like Gawker Media's Nick Denton. Murrell also noted that when editor Bill Keller announces the Pulitzers at the end of the film, it seems—for a split second—like an underdog triumph.
While people outside in Harnett and Lee and Wake counties were dealing with all the reality they could handle, my personal reality-testing was Graça Castanheira's Angst. The Portuguese filmmaker, in a series of aching, beautiful images and a thoughtful voiceover, contemplates the end of civilization as we know it. Using lines from Thoreau's Walden and a string quartet by Schubert as examples of what humans are capable of creating and contemplating, her film is a devastating portrait of a planet that has become overrun by super-predators: humans. She takes the discovery of oil in the mid-19th century as the beginning of the end (and the mid-19th century is when Thoreau and Schubert were working, too). Our growth as a species, our extraordinary mastery of our environment, is due to oil, she points out, with one devastating shot after another.
At one point, Castanheira wonders if the Earth's climatological upheavals could be a means of eliminating the parasite that threatens it.
It was intense stuff, and afterward, she was asked—twice—if there was any hope. A tough place for a filmmaker who'd just said what she thought in her chosen medium, a film called Angst. But now, standing on stage with a lanyard around her neck, she was just another filmmaker being subjected to ordinary, mundane questions about the film.
Afterward, I asked Castanheira about her scientific reading. She cited the work of Richard Heinberg.
So, is there any hope? On the evidence of Angst, no.
I saw another film Saturday: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was an extraordinary survey of the rise and fall of a certain period of African-American consciousness. Although it featured the footage of a group of Swedish filmmakers, director Göran Olsson seemed to be uncomfortable telling the story with that footage alone. An opening title disclaimed that the film "did not presume" to represent the entire history of the movement, but the subsequent film did take something resembling a narrative shape, beginning with the tensions between late-period Martin Luther King and the young firebrand Stokely Carmichael, and ending with the infestation of drugs into urban black neighborhoods. Olsson further removed himself from the narrative by enlisting African American poets, musicians, activists and scholars to contribute voiceover commentary. The younger commentators, like Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, weren't as interesting as those who were first-hand witnesses, including Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte.
It's the 1972 Angela Davis, however, who scorches a hole through the screen in a lengthy, powerful riposte to her Swedish interlocutor's stock question about black militancy. Davis, an imperious, beautiful woman, nonetheless revealed pain and vulnerability as she described the terror and violence her family faced in Birmingham, Ala. (In this peroration, Davis noted that she was friendly with some of the girls who were killed in the notorious 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; this is something Davis has in common with Condoleezza Rice. Who knew? One wonders if they knew each other back then. Now they're both academics in California.)
Errol Morris' Tabloid begins in 10 minutes. I'm off.
"Perhaps we should go to that after-party, have a drink, socialize and then go home," I often think around this time.
But for those in search of something bold and different, 10 p.m. is when some of the real gems of the festival emerge. But it's a gamble. In years past, I've stumbled out of the night's last film after midnight muttering angrily to myself—or groggy from a nap.
But last night, there was a wonderful film called DRAGONSLAYER. This film, by Tristan Patterson, is an impressionistic (but also linear) portrait of an athlete and subculture hero in decline. Specifically, the subject is a skateboarder from Fullerton, Calif. named Joshua "Skreech" Sandoval. A onetime star in the skating world. the film catches Sandoval on the downside. He's still recognized at events, and he still skates. But his body is banged up and he's suffering from depression, which he treats with a steady supply of alcohol.
We see him skating in abandoned swimming pools, hitting skate parks in California and Oregon. He's a gentle but scarred soul from a difficult family background. Skating got him through his adolescence and early adulthood, but now that his career is on the wane, the future is starting to resemble the past.
But that's only part of the impact of the film. Filmmaker Patterson evidently shot part of this film by giving a camera to his subjects, giving his story a first-person feel. Cinematographer Eric Koretz's images, aided by the famous Southern California light (and the HDSLR, more below), are luminous.
There's a shaggy, Western romantic tale going on here. Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark have tried, with varying levels of success, to capture these quicksilver moments of youth dropout subculture. But Van Sant tends to over-aestheticize, while Clark's films are marred by his prurience. DRAGONSLAYER seems to hit the sweet spot, capturing a beautiful interlude between two characters whose very different lives are intersecting for a time. I left the theater thinking I should go re-read some Jack Kerouac.
[Patterson's film is also notable for being shot in HDSLR, which is simply a technological advance that allows HD video to be shot through the lens of SLR still cameras, thus giving video the short depth of field we associate with traditional 35mm movies. Here are video samples.]
The other surprise of Friday was Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story. While I was sure Buirski would do a fine job recounting the struggle of Richard and Mildred Loving to get the state of Virginia to accept their interracial marriage, I was unprepared for the impact of seeing the Lovings themselves. Mildred was a bright, elegant woman of African and Native American lineage, while her husband was fairly extreme in his whiteness. A gruff, taciturn man who was loathe to open up in front of cameras, Richard's anti-presence is a reminder of a time before reality TV and YouTube when people weren't so camera-ready. His simple fortitude was quite something to behold: As a white man, he could have solved his own predicament easily by simply divorcing his wife. But he didn't, because he loved her. There was nothing sentimental or soft about him, no post-Oprah sensitivity (a la Buck, another great film from Friday). He was a hard country man, but I recoiled when one of his own lawyers called him a redneck, in a present-day interview.
So, seeing the Lovings forced out of their rural Virginia home—where they were part of an interracial social group—and become reluctant soldiers for justice, was an experience that left me misty-eyed for a good hour. Buirski deserves credit for recognizing the power of the story, as well as unearthing the extraordinary, unused archival footage shot by Hope Ryden, who was present last night.
My first film today starts in 10 minutes, so we'd better get moving. Here we come, Blue Sky, Dark Bread and Angst.