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Friday, April 4, 2014

Southern Documentary Fund's Rachel Raney on “In-the-Works” at Full Frame

Posted by on Fri, Apr 4, 2014 at 1:00 PM

  • courtesy of Danielle Beverly
  • Old South
This Sunday at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Southern Documentary Fund presents "In-the-Works," its annual sneak peek and critique session for new projects that have yet to reach their final cuts. This year, the program runs from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Durham Arts Council and features Danielle Beverly’s Old South, about a standoff between a historic black neighborhood and a white fraternity, and Dawn Porter’s Trapped, about embattled abortion clinics. In-the-Works is just one way that SDF serves as a financial sponsor and support system for Southern documentarians. We spoke with Executive Director Rachel Raney about the program, the films and the big-picture work that SDF does year-round.

INDY: How long have you been Executive Director of the Southern Documentary Fund?

RACHEL RANEY: I’ve been here since 2011. This will be my third Full Frame as Executive Director. There is this interesting trajectory of films that start at Full Frame as works in progress but then land coveted slots at the festival. I called Cynthia Hill recently, who’s our co-founder and whose film Private Violence is playing at Full Frame this year, and she mentioned that she's had three of her feature-length films do that exact thing, dating back to her first project, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, then The Guestworker, now Private Violence.

Tell us more about the In-the-Works program.

SDF inherited In-the-Works from another organization, but we give it a little bit more of a Southern flavor. It really is the only dedicated forum in the festival to showcase Southern work. Full Frame does give a little extra attention to entries that come from North Carolina, but SDF works with films that are being made all over the American South.

How do you select the featured films?

We convene a panel each year. It usually has anywhere from four to six people, including SDF staff and non-SDF people. For example, this year’s panel included an arts critic and a filmmaker who had work in Full Frame last year, but who is not part of SDF. We have a regular panel that reviews projects four times a year for fiscal sponsorship with SDF, and obviously those people get really attached to the projects and want them to succeed, so I think it’s important that we have an independent panel that helps us pick In-the-Works. It’s often the first time they’re hearing about these projects or seeing any bit of them. It’s a blank slate.

How far along do the projects have to be?

  • courtesy of Dawn Porter
  • Trapped
That’s an interesting question. One of the films we’re showing this year, Trapped, is still in production. They are still shooting, but the filmmaker behind it, Dawn Porter, whose Gideon’s Army was the opening night film at last year’s Full Frame, is just so good that even her early material is really up to snuff. We often end up showing things close to their final stages because we want to present work that is polished at the festival. We also do a monthly works-in-progress screening series called Fresh Docs. Because it’s monthly, we can show a range of projects. But with one slot at Full Frame, we like to show things that are really going to grab the audience’s attention.

How is this program an extension of the work you do all year long?

Since I’ve been with SDF, I’ve wanted to be associated with any great film being made in or about the American South. I put a lot of time into recruiting films because often, there are filmmakers from Milwaukee or New York or Seattle who fly down here to shoot but don’t know about our regional organization. Certainly, we have a closer relationship to people who are living in the area, but we want to connect with filmmakers from other parts of the country who are making Southern work.

This year’s In-the-Works is a good example of that. One of these filmmakers is from the Northeast and the other is from Milwaukee, but the fact that we knew they were down here making movies shows that we’re getting more aggressive about making sure we’re working with all the best filmmakers dealing with the South. I also think it speaks to the kind of robust support we’re offering: We know where they’re at in their process and the decisions they’re facing. We’re grabbing them by the hand and saying, “How can we help you make these movies and launch them into the world?” It’s really going beyond the model of fiscal sponsorship.

What do you hope filmmakers get out of these screenings?

We hope that they’ll get some good feedback from the audience, especially with these two particular films. With Trapped, she’s still making the movie, so she wants to hear stories from people related to this material, whether they’re about an abortion clinic or a piece of legislation that’s pending. She’s looking to extend the content of the film based on this screening. How are you relating to the characters? What’s working? What’s not working?

Also, there’s the exposure, because hopefully the captive audience of 200 people who come to see your movie will begin to follow your efforts as you launch the film. They tell their friends; they like the Facebook page; they follow you on Twitter. They subscribe to your newsletter and they become supporters of the project. I don’t mean financial supporters, but people who let others know that this movie is out there.

Just getting to attend Full Frame as a filmmaker is a huge perk as well. They get a filmmaker pass and spend four days immersed in the festival, watching films, talking about films, meeting other filmmakers. A lot of the films that get featured at In-the-Works are by new or emerging filmmakers, and that’s just huge for them. It’s a different level of access than just buying a ticket and showing up for a screening.

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    In-progress docs Trapped and Old South screen at Full Frame on Sunday

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Friday, September 20, 2013

When Philadelphia destroyed a community of black radicals: Jason Osder talks about Let the Fire Burn

Posted by on Fri, Sep 20, 2013 at 12:05 PM

  • Zeitgeist Films
Last spring I covered the Tribeca film Festival for Documentary Magazine. I thought that the quality of documentary films was very strong. New HD cameras help to make the images sing, but the films that really jumped out at me relied heavily on archival footage.

The most rigorous use of archival was seen in Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, which relied exclusively on available footage. For me, it was also the standout film of the festival. Recently I traded emails with the director because I wanted to find out more about the film, but even more importantly I wanted to do what I could to get others to see it.

ARTERY: First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself as a filmmaker and how you came to work on this particular project.

JASON OSDER: I developed an passion for documentary at the Documentary Institute Program at the University of Florida—this group has now become the documentary film program at Wake Forest. I can't say that I had more than a vague idea what it was all about before I went to school there, but I found a mode of communication that seemed to suit my way of thinking and fulfill a longing for expression that I can always remember having.

As for the MOVE story, it is something I remember from being a child growing up in Philadelphia. As a child, you lack the frames that most adult use to understand an event like this: race relations, or police brutality, or militarization or what have you. For me, I was just scared.

Later, when I went away to college I remember being re-choked that this event that had loomed large in my childhood was basically unknown to my peers from other parts of the country.

Do you think that the fact that you identified with the story, from a childhood perspective, influenced the storytelling? I ask this because your answer made me key in on the nature of the deposition footage. It really exists in this strange realm where the child has an intense sense of maturity and gravitas.

Absolutely, it influenced the story telling.

I'm not sure that I would use the word maturity, but I think in a film where the audience is asked to question the truth, the testimony is sort of unimpeachable.

I am particularly interested in the way in which archival footage was used in the film. Can you talk me through the process of making the film from this perspective? Further, at what point did you settle on the idea of taking a very rigorous and formal approach to the project in terms of using only archival footage.

I have to give the editor, Nels Bangerter, major credit for this decision. It happened when he came on and reviewed the footage. I had shot a handful of interviews. I was not interested in interviewing a wide range of people, but getting to the heart of the story through a select group of emotionally revealing interviews with people whose lives’ had been changed by the events. I had shot most of the ones I wanted, including Michael Ward (who is seen as a boy in the film).

When Nels came on, he describes seeing all of the material that I had been collecting for nearly a decade fresh and at once. He saw that there were special possibilities of working with the archival material, especially the hearings. He was the first to realize that we could build drama in those hearing scenes while also delivering the exposition and context that a viewer would need. There was a bit more to it that that, but the whole discussion, from suggestion, to deciding to at least attempt to cut the film in this style happened in less than 48 hours.

Once we made that one radical decision, we strongly agreed that everything else about our approach should be formal, rigorous and classical.

The lack of mediation really works. It takes the footage out of both its social structure as well as the current one. I was recently talking to Chad Fredrichs from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth. He is thinking he will only make historical films using entirely archival footage from now on. What’s next for you?

Actually, I am looking at another incident from 1985—the assassination of an Arab-American activist named Alex Odeh. 

It is still early, but it looks like an opposite approach: exploring the relationship between past and present more overtly by focusing on the present-day efforts of activists trying to get the unsolved murder taken more seriously by the Justice department and the FBI. It is likely that the historical mystery will be revealed through observational shooting of the present-day investigation .

Most people who see a film aren't going to have any idea about the amount of work that went into it.

Well, that is always true, and in a sense, it is what we are going for. A film should feel effortless, like there was not other way it could have happened... but I get your point.

That is, it isn't simply a matter of getting some tapes, going through them, and putting it together to make "sense" of the story. Can you tell me a little bit about the thought process that went into choosing and working with this subject matter? What I'm looking for is something that talks about the ideas in relation to race, power and media—that in some ways can most effectively be dealt with the critical distance of both time and in a way separation—that feels like it could only have been done in this manner using only archival footage.

Well, this is the only way to make THIS film, but there are other films to be made that would say something different about this subject matter. There are storylines and themes that fell away, partly because we decided to use an all archival approach.

I think the strength here is that it becomes a morality play. I think it will be timeless in the sense that it will always seem to say something critical about the present day. It will not date in the way a film with interviews or narration always places itself in the time it was made. This is placed in the time that it happened—like a stage play. There are also valid criticisms for doing it this way.

I also think audiences are changing. They are hyper-sensitized to manipulation. This sort of pastiche approach is a way to defuse some of that suspicion.

Finally, it was always a puzzle with this story: how to represent a truth that is so fraught with conflicting versions? In the end, using the archive is a way that the viewer was always aware that they were seeing a perspective reframed turned out to be the best answer to that challenge of representation. Every piece of footage already had an agenda before it was part of our film—the viewer knows and needs to grapple with this.

Let the Fire Burn plays at 7 tonight at Full Frame Theater, American Tobacco Campus, Durham. Read Lisa Sorg's INDY review

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    It was always a puzzle with this story: how to represent a truth that is so fraught with conflicting versions?

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

INDY Week at Full Frame: What's the difference between bearing witness and exploitation?

Posted by on Sun, Apr 7, 2013 at 9:13 AM

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.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

INDY Week at Full Frame: Why Documentary?

Posted by on Sat, Apr 6, 2013 at 1:04 PM

INDY Week contributor Ashley Melzer asked several filmmakers attending the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival what makes documentaries special.

Indyweek asks: Why documentary? from Independent Weekly on Vimeo.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ross McElwee talks his latest film, his Full Frame program and his son

Posted by on Thu, Apr 12, 2012 at 5:40 PM

Ross McElwee's "Photographic Memory" - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

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.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Full Frame video interview: Julie Moggan, director of Guilty Pleasures

Posted by on Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 7:50 PM

Interview with Julie Moggan, Director of Guilty Pleasures from Independent Weekly on Vimeo.

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Full Frame video interview: Susan Saladoff, director of Hot Coffee

Posted by on Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 1:02 PM

Interview with Susan Saladoff, Director of Hot Coffee from Independent Weekly on Vimeo.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Full Frame Day 4: taking refuge from the storm—in reality

Posted by on Sun, Apr 17, 2011 at 10:54 AM

The big news of the area Saturday was the destructive system of tornadoes that whipped through at about 3 p.m. But for 1,200 people inside Fletcher Hall, our biggest concern was whether David Carr, one of the paper's higher-profile writers, would get his big story about the Tribune media group and its clownish, destructive leaders.

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.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Full Frame Day 3 (Friday review): the Kerouac-like DRAGONSLAYER plus thoughts on the Lovings

Posted by on Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 9:31 AM

Leslie Brown in DRAGONSLAYER
  • Leslie Brown in DRAGONSLAYER
The late-night slot at Full Frame—those movies that start in the witching hours of 10 p.m. or so, are always a tough call for the intrepid Full Framer. By then, we've seen three or even four movies. We've stuffed some food and a beer or two and coffee and water and have grown bleary-eyed.

"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.

But it's more than that, too. Early in the film, Sandoval hooks up with an enigmatic young woman, Leslie Brown, a cutie who retains her mystery behind her oversized sunglasses and sparing words. Compared to the trainwreck that is Sandoval, Brown seems to have her act together. Still, the two of them hang out for the duration of the film's narrative span—which seems to be a few months. They drive to Portland, Ore., they drive to Arizona. They go to a drive-in movie. They go to punk shows. They go camping, swimming and fishing.

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.

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Full Frame video interview: Jarred Alterman discusses Convento

Posted by on Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 9:16 AM

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