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Our writers watched and reviewed as many films as possible. Here are short capsules, sorted alphabetically within each day.

Full Frame film reviews 

Our writers watched and reviewed as many films as possible. The festival provided most of the screeners; in other cases, we found films from other sources. Reviews are by Grayson Currin, David Fellerath, Bob Geary, Rob Harrington, Marc Maximov, Fiona Morgan, Neil Morris, Matt Saldaña and Lisa Sorg.

Denotes highly recommended film

Thursday, April 2

click to enlarge 24 City
  • 24 City
24 City—Jia Zhangke's film about the closing of an antiquated munitions factory in Chengdu could also ignite discussions about what exactly constitutes a documentary. The film chronicles the dismantling of an entire social ecosystem, complete with shops, schools and recreational facilities. In its place will rise a high-rise city of the globalized future. 24 City features several long, often gripping monologues by factory workers who recount incidents from their lives. But here's the rub: Most, if not all, of the workers are played by actors; the characters are composites crafted from interviews. One of the film's highlights is an anguished recollection from a fading beauty of the factory known as "Little Flower," who was so named for a role played by Joan Chen in a popular 1970s melodrama. Is the scene less moving or truthful because Joan Chen herself plays the factory worker? Regardless of one's opinion on these matters, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully composed film; it's an elegy for a more secure, if less dynamic, Communist past. —DF

7915 KM—The Dakar Rally is an annual off-road race for motorcycles and ATVs that typically takes place in northwest Africa. We don't see much racing; instead, the filmmakers visit with the impoverished people who live along the race course. The film is ideologically unsurprising—the point of the wealthy nations' domination of poor countries is driven home by shots of the ecological damage caused by the machines. Still, the interview subjects (none are racers) are given great dignity and offer compelling insights into their worlds. —DF

Art & Copy—Doug Pray's valentine to the great advertising minds of the last half-century doesn't ask many tough questions, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. We meet the geniuses associated with such landmarks as the Lyndon B. Johnson "Daisy" ad, the Volkswagen Beetle rollout, the Ronald Reagan "Morning in America" bamboozlement and the 1984-inspired Apple Macintosh launch. Pray pads his film with too many statistics (of the billions and billions variety), but he makes us appreciate the claim of one that "great advertising makes food taste better, makes cars run better, changes the perception of everything." And another says that advertising, when done well, is art. There's no question that mad men are brilliant at what they do, but at times the claims for artistic importance are unconvincing: One California-bred guy at Chiat/ Day boasts of his creative rebellion, but then we see his insipid ad for wine coolers. —DF

Hair India—Much of the hair shaved from the heads of pilgrims at Hindu temples is sold on the world market as high-end "temple hair" extensions. This film contrasts the humble lower classes who sacrifice their locks in a show of piety with the materialistic, vapid elites, foreign and domestic, who control the industry and consume the product. The filmmakers are equally at home in shacks and shop floors as in mansions and exclusive parties, and it's the breadth of the gulf between the two that gives the film its power. —MM

Mechanical Love—This often meditative examination of the wide possibilities for future human-robot interaction is entrancing and haunting, especially a Japanese professor's efforts to create "geminoid" replicas of himself and his family. But, with only two principal storylines, the film runs out of gas—and things to say—long before the end of its 79-minute running time. —NM

Milking the Rhino—The score for Milking the Rhino mixes stately, atmospheric piano music from the Western world and field recordings of African folk, often presented in griot, story-song fashion. It's an appropriate and symbolic hybrid, then, as Milking the Rhino explores attempts in Kenya and Namibia to overcome outdated Western modes of wildlife conservation while inviting tourists to explore the country's wildlife near tiny, remote villages. Director David E. Simpson takes care to consider multiple sides of the story, balancing respect for cultural traditions with an appreciation of commercial progress and a compulsion to tell the story and to comment on the history of African nature documentaries at large. There's even a needed jolt of self-deprecation for the white-man invading Namibia with a camera and a microphone that "looks like a rabbit." —GC

Voices from El-Sayed—In Israel's Negev Desert, there's a community of 80,000 Bedouins who live a hardscrabble existence that the government compounds by denying reasonable access to electricity. Due to its genetic isolation, these people are also prone to deafness, a condition that has led to a rich but insular community in which everyone knows sign language. When doctors arrive and offer free cochlear implants, things get complicated. With its strong characters and a complex yet lucidly outlined social and political backdrop, the film explores the fault lines of religion and ethnicity, gender roles, communal traditions and the question of whether deafness is a handicap or a gift. This is a fine, bittersweet documentary that, at 75 minutes, isn't any longer than it needs to be. —DF

We Live in Public—Tech millionaire Josh Harris filled a warehouse in Soho with resident volunteers, then rigged up dozens of webcams to record every waking (and sleeping, showering, sh***ing and f***ing) minute. He later did the same with the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. Harris' limitless attention-mongering is enabled by director Ondi Timoner in this hype- and indie rock-fueled production. Still, it's a unique story, and the brash, quick-cutting style will probably attract young audiences. It won the Grand Jury award at Sundance in January. —MM

Wounded Knee—This seemingly straightforward, PBS-style recounting of the American Indian Movement's most daring tactic, the takeover of a small town in South Dakota in 1973, is distinguished by its production methods. In a heroic act of commando documentary filmmaking, MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Stanley Nelson and his team combed news archives around the world, unearthing an amazing amount of original, never-aired footage from the 71-day standoff with U.S. Marshals. As a result, there's very little Ken Burns-style panning and scanning over still photos; instead, you get a real sense of what it was like to be there. The wealth of primary source materials assures this film a place in the historical record. —MM

Friday, April 3

Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene—Petey Greene was a larger-than-life African-American radio and TV host in Washington, D.C., in the '60s, '70s and '80s. He was a revolutionary broadcaster simply for speaking his mind, totally unfiltered (and his language could get salty and very politically incorrect—viewers beware). A former street hustler, Korean War vet, heroin addict and convicted felon, he was considered by many a voice of the people, and he used that currency to hold politicians' feet to the fire and to work for social causes. Don Cheadle, who narrates, portrayed Greene in the 2007 movie Talk to Me, but it's clear that the real Greene was too singular a character to be captured in a fictional biopic. Recently discovered footage of his TV broadcasts, thought to have been destroyed 25 years ago, allowed the producers of Adjust Your Color to go directly to the source. —MM

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo—An eye-catching meditation on Japan's sui generis reverence for nature, from the entomological perspective. The country supports a thriving trade in beetles and crickets for home insectariums, such that the professional bug trapper who serves as the film's tour guide drives a Ferrari. This is the first feature by Jessica Oreck, an animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History. —MM

California Company Town—Director Lee Anne Schmitt offers an unblinking examination of the aftermath of California's company towns. Over the past 125 years, dozens of corporations such as Occidental Petroleum, Sierra Pacific and Borax Energy have bought huge parcels of land to establish their private operations, which included stores, schools and homes for their workers. In doing so, the companies superseded their role of employer to become the town's landlord, merchant and educator as a way to control and placate their employees. When the profits stop rolling in, though, the companies sell out or abandon the property, leaving detritus: industrial warehouses; dilapidated homes and businesses; clear cut, sterile land—and the occasional tourist trap. The bleached tone of the footage, meditative shots of wrecked landscapes and the low affect of the narration add to the film's solemnity. Troubling, yet beautiful. —LS

click to enlarge Camp Diaries
  • Camp Diaries
Camp Diaries—Director and N.C. State alum William Noland uses Dorothea Lange photographs from the National Archives, speeches by President Franklin Roosevelt, racist cartoons and magazine articles, and 1940s newsreels and their omniscient propag-announcers to illustrate the racism and fear that led to the displacement of thousands of Japanese-Americans from their homes to internment camps during World War II. "Their evacuation does not imply individual disloyalty but was ordered to reduce a military hazard," one unseen broadcaster assures the viewer. Despite the insistence of the propaganda machine, Japanese-Americans were prisoners: They slept on ratty mattresses in tiny rooms illuminated with a bare light bulb, and when they ventured outside, their camp was surrounded by fencing topped with razor wire and guarded by armed military police. "Neither the Army or the War Relocation relished the idea," the broadcaster goes on. "They do the job, as a democracy should, with real consideration for the people involved." If after watching the film, the fear tastes fresh, it's because our leaders have created a new bogeyman in Muslims. —LS

Food, Inc.—A compendium of problems related to the modern, industrialized food industry (factory farms; fast-food chains; animal mistreatment; weak federal oversight; the proliferation of food-borne illness, diabetes and obesity; widespread labor abuses; the monopolization of a few meat packers and fewer commodity crops; and the economic and environmental havoc the system wreaks), Food, Inc. is an exhaustive indictment against the way we eat. Like any good attorney, though, filmmaker Robert Kenner builds his case with visual aids (food commercials, grocery-store aisles and hidden camera footage) and expert witnesses (the authors of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, and defecting farmers and fast-food families). The hits keep on coming, but the joy of food endures—and we're left with a yearning for agriculture the way we imagined it: humane, locally grown and organic. —MS

click to enlarge I Bring What I Love: Youssou n'Dour
  • I Bring What I Love: Youssou n'Dour
I Bring What I Love: Youssou N'Dour—Approaching hagiography, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's extended look at the career of Youssou N'Dour sidesteps several tough questions about the chart-topping, Grammy-winning Senegalese singer. Vasarhelyi keenly focuses on N'Dour's 2004 album, Egypt, though, and that project's survival and eventual success might actually constitute sainthood. A musical exaltation of West African Islam was put on hold after 9/11, and Egypt was then shunned by N'Dour's longtime champions in Senegal. N'Dour persevered with the project, launching a highly successful European tour, garnering praise from some of the most venerated American and British critics, and controversially entering Senegal's holy city, Touba, to record music videos. A story of artistic triumph withstanding a tide of derision, I Bring What I Love is, like N'Dour's rich, powerful voice, inspiring. —GC

Lady Kul el-Arab—The story is tantalizing: a gorgeous Druze Arab beauty pageant winner from Jerusalem has her dream of competing in the Miss Israel pageant stymied when the swimsuit contest offends her religious and cultural convictions. However, the setup feels contrived, designed to amplify a conflict everyone involved—chiefly a woman hoping to launch an modeling career—should have known was coming before the cameras started rolling. —NM

Love on Delivery—There's a fishing village in Denmark where hundreds of Thai women live with Danish husbands. When a 31-year-old Thai divorcee arrives, somewhat reluctantly, on a three-month tourist visa, it's her aunt's job to get her married off as quickly as possible. Awkward meetings and cultural dissonance ensue as a hasty porridge is made of commerce and romance. —MM

Ma Bar—See "Finding gems among the documentary short subjects"

Owning the Weather—See "Control freaks"

click to enlarge The Red Race
  • The Red Race
The Red Race—China's gymnastics team dominated the competition at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and this unflinching look at the country's youth program reveals the training techniques that created an athletic empire. Focusing on kindergarten-aged children displaced from home and driven uncompromisingly by their coaches and their families, Western viewers are likely to be stunned by repeated, unrepentant incidents of arguable child abuse. But through the ubiquitous tears and humiliations, the athletes press on. The straight-bar scene is remarkable for both its brutality and the resilience of the film's tiny stars. —RH

Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie—He never got the memo about peace and love ending with the '60s, so Wavy Gravy—the "intuitive clown" previously known as poet Hugh Romney—just keeps on being a sweet, spiritual and wonderfully giving human being. Working with the SEVA Foundation, Wavy's organized 60 benefit concerts with his devoted friends (the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan, among many others) to pay for eyesight-saving surgeries in Third World countries. And yes, the Hog Farm commune is still going. That's right, the Hog Farm was in charge of security at Woodstock, and this excellent doc's got some great footage of it. Wavy was a rapper and performance artist before such terms were used, an anti-war and anti-nuclear activist when the cops beat up activists—hence his broken back. Michelle Esrick's film recalls a time when, in Wavy's words, "originality was expected, not just tolerated," and people wanted their lives to heal the planet. In our shitty, me-first time, here's a chance for a we-first smile. —BG

Salonica—Imagine a city in northern Greece full of Spanish-speaking Jews. For 450 years, Thessaloniki was a kind of Jewish capital of Europe, home to those expelled from Catholic Spain. Few people today know of this thriving community, nor that the Holocaust reached all the way to this crossroads of the Balkans and the Mediterranean. The film teases the audience with the idea it will unearth the city's lost history, yet in the end, we're much like the young American college student eager but unlikely to connect with his grandfather's experiences. We hear the tales of Jewish survivors' experiences in the ghettos and camps, yet learn little about what the city was like before 1943 or after 1945. Salonica leaves off with an atmospheric sense of loss as the city's history fades beneath the layers of modern life. —FM

Smile 'Til It Hurts—The long, strange history of the painfully square, counter-counter-culture campaign Up With People. The film covers a lot of ground, from the group's origins in the cultish Oxford Group and the "Moral Re-Armament" crusade of the first half of the 20th century, through its recent demise and rebirth. There's something heartbreaking about the amorphous enthusiasm of guileless young people being put to dubious spiritual and political ends, or to no end in particular. The film gets especially interesting when it explores the group's mixed record on matters of race and its unintentional appeal to closeted gay teens. —MM

click to enlarge Supermen of Malegaon
  • Supermen of Malegaon
Supermen of Malegaon—As madcap and footloose as its subject matter, this entertaining doc tracks the effort by an Indian filmmaker to make a "Mollywood" version of Superman for his impoverished, Muslim community. The joy and struggle of making movies takes center-stage in this most distinctive setting, and an endeavor that first seems silly and ill-conceived assumes an underdog, crowd-pleasing quality. —NM

Unmistaken Child—When a revered Tibetan Buddhist lama dies, his grieving young disciple is tasked with finding his teacher's reincarnated self. As the filmmakers follow the earnest and sensitive disciple, Tenzin Zopa, on his quest, it's almost cheating that wherever they turn their camera, the stunning beauty of the Himalayan highlands fills the frame. And whatever one's views on reincarnation, interviewing toddlers in remote farming communities is certainly an interesting way to ferret out a spiritual leader. —MM

Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall—The South China Mall is huge—it's twice as big as Minnesota's Mall of America—and an enormous failure. Four years after it opened, it has a handful of stores, no customers and a Venecian-sized canal full of dirty water. Now a "government-owned investor" is on the scene, determined to make it work, because Beijing considers it too big to fail. Sound familiar? You're seeing an empty mall in Guangzhou, but you'll be thinking global finance, insurance swaps and, omigod, doesn't anybody anywhere know how to do anything any more? —BG

The Visitors—This look at the friends and families of long-term inmates in the New York State penal system examines the various motives driving their oftentimes arduous journeys to see their incarcerated loved ones. However, the hour-long film, mostly comprising ceaseless musings by the visitors during a trip back and forth to an upstate prison, quickly becomes as tedious as a five-hour bus ride. —NM

The Way We Get By—This Sundance Audience Award winner tracks three senior citizens who are part of a band of patriots who greet soldiers at Bangor International Airport in Maine, the official arrival and departure point for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. This poignant film slowly reveals the personal lives of the seniors and demonstrates that their labor of love is just as vital for them as the troops they serve. A moving, surprisingly layered portrait of personal strength and the American spirit. —NM

click to enlarge The Yes Men Fix the World
  • The Yes Men Fix the World
The Yes Men Fix the World—The anti-corporate pranksters profiled in 2003's The Yes Men take a turn behind the camera. Their playful humor keeps things lively, even when they take on dead-serious topics like the Bhopal disaster and Hurricane Katrina. Some critics accuse them of exploiting tragedy, but it's clear their hearts are in the right place: They're activists first and comedians second, so that even when their stunts misfire, they've chosen their targets carefully and there isn't any collateral damage. Their enthusiasm is infectious, sure to buoy the hearts of Mother Jones readers and Jim Hightower listeners. —MM

Saturday, April 4

45365—The title is Sidney, Ohio's ZIP code. That's the first cliché of so many: The high school football team, the local election, the girl with the bad-news boyfriend, the other boy who's headed for trouble, and of course, the local radio station—shades of Northern Exposure—are all presented without dimension or point. Or maybe the point is that the filmmakers, who shot for nine months looking for heart in their hometown, managed to convey instead how sad a place Sidney is and how vacuous small-town America's become. Except that we can't all be as empty-headed as this film, or we'd be eating our shrubbery. —BG

click to enlarge Burma VJ—Reporting from a Closed Country
  • Burma VJ—Reporting from a Closed Country
Burma VJ—Reporting from a Closed Country—In this triumphant achievement, director Andres Ostergaard stitches together stunning, smuggled footage filmed by amateur video journalists during a 2007 protest by Buddhist monks against the repressive rules of Myanmar with the recreated narration of one of the video journalists exiled in Thailand. More than cinematic style, the film represents the power of the media and the importance of the free flow of information in our ever-connected yet still violent world. —NM

Carmen Meets Borat—Ionela Carmen Ciorobea is a plucky 17-year-old girl from a family of middle-class strivers in Glod, Romania. That's where Sacha Baron Cohen shot part of Borat, portraying it as the backwater hometown of his fictional Kazakh TV reporter, to the humiliation of many locals. Dutch director Mercedes Stalenhoef came to town next for this project. Her film fascinates almost in spite of itself: Between the staged shots, cartoonish portraits, patronizing soundtrack and evidence of charged interactions with the locals, it invites the question, How many times can one Romanian village be exploited? —MM

click to enlarge The Cove
  • The Cove
The Cove—In Southern Japan, there's a secret cove where thousands of dolphins are captured each year, to stock Sea World-type parks and "swim with the dolphins" encounters around the world. Those that don't make the grade are cruelly slaughtered and sold for lunch meat. The former trainer of TV's Flipper, who's devoted the rest of his life to helping these playful, intelligent creatures, leads a crack team of infiltrators to smuggle footage from the restricted area. Former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos gets it right on his first try as a filmmaker with this great hybrid documentary, half advocacy and half spy thriller. Don't miss it. —MM

Forgetting Dad—Director Richard Minnich turns his camera on his father who, after a seemingly minor car accident, loses his memory. It turns out that Dad—a somewhat remote figure in his son's life—had a few things it was convenient for him to forget. This film, co-directed by Matthew Sweetwood, is enjoyable enough, but it's also fraught with the familial voyeurism of such hits of yore as 51 Birch Street, Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation and Crazy Love. —DF

Lüber Aloft—Heinrich Lüber is a boyish Swiss performance artist who can often be seen hanging in the air at weird angles in public places. His articulate philosophizing accompanies visually arresting performance footage and a glimpse of his creative process. "One of my strategies is to shift perceptions," he says, and while a lot of artists would like to make that claim, Lüber's work is surprisingly effective at shuffling context and perspective. —MM

Miroir Noir—Neither a band biopic nor a concert film, Miroir Noir chronicles Montreal's The Arcade Fire as it records Neon Bible—the expectation-laden follow-up to one of the decade's great debuts, Funeral—and tours in support. Beautifully captured on black-and-white or distorted, washed-out color film by director Vincent Morisset and cinematographer Vincent Moon (the Parisian filmmaker responsible for the Internet-famous Take-Away Shows concert series), Miroir Noir works through impressions and glimpses. Electrifying concert footage and intimate unplugged takes mix with candid internal band debates and telephone messages left by fans and detractors at a toll-free number. Lacking a plot, more questions are asked than answered. Full of loose ends and storylines that don't hint at resolution, the result doesn't illuminate the band as much as it does remind us of its onstage power. A YouTube search could do much the same, but this looks stunning, at least. —GC

click to enlarge Reporter
  • Reporter
Reporter—Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof reports from eastern Congo on a decade-long war that has claimed the lives of 5.4 million but received little news coverage. Accompanied by two contest-winners, including an affable high-school teacher/ photographer from Carrboro, Kristof interviews warlords, rape victims and imprisoned soldiers with equal skepticism and attention to detail. Director Eric Daniel Metzgar captures Kristof's tireless reporting by sitting back and letting events unfold: an intense interview followed by a chicken dinner at a warlord's redoubt; a displaced village that gathers to tell of a slaughter of more than 100; and the slow starvation of many more. However, Metzgar also wisely places the film in the context of an endangered newspaper industry by speaking to fellow reporters about Kristof's brand of journalism—"the part that goes out into the world, and looks at things and tells you about things that nobody else is telling you," as New York Times columnist Gail Collins puts it. Indeed, as centuries-old newspapers die and foreign bureaus shutter, Metzgar shows us that, tragically, the bold and expensive journalism of seeking answers in the heart of conflicts is what we need most. Watching Kristof ask questions and scribble notes is not only a delight, but also a reminder of this troubling reality. —MS

Say My Name—Women have come a long way in hip-hop since Queen Latifah's "Ladies First"—though not nearly as far one might hope. Filmmakers Nirit Peled and Dave Hemmingway have traveled from Manhattan recording studios to a high-school auditorium in Atlanta to the rough streets of Detroit, Philly and London, interviewing an impressive diversity of female MCs. While the film assumes a level of familiarity with hip-hop's cultural history that might make it hard for the uninitiated to follow, it succeeds in showing that women in hip-hop represent a variety of styles, circumstances and opinions—not one voice, but many—all striving for respect. —FM

Steel Homes—See "Finding gems among the documentary short subjects"

The Swindler—There's no one who understands human nature like a con artist. The residents of Malmö, Sweden, were all quite taken by the mysterious Hungarian who arrived dressed as an archbishop and claming to be a custodian of the Vatican's art collection. He performed weddings and also paid handsome returns on loans to people who never asked themselves why this cleric was operating a sketchy investment business on the side. His rueful victims aren't dumb or avaricious, but admit that this "priest" tapped into their most inchoate longings. Watching seemingly intelligent people explain how they were duped helps us understand how people were suckered by Bernie Madoff. —DF

Unit 25—Inside a specialized Argentine prison, inmates are exposed to and embrace Christianity as a means of salvation and spiritual escape. The much-discussed criticism of director Aljeo Hoifman's handsome exposé has merit: Supposedly impromptu conversations and group activities feel suspiciously scripted—scenes captured using multiple camera angles are a bit of a giveaway. Even if truly verite, the film drones on to the point that it begins to feel like a propaganda piece. —NM

Sunday, April 5

Oblivion—Veteran filmmaker Heddy Honigmann presents an intimate portrait of her native Peru from the perspective of working people in its capital, Lima, from the bartender who waits on corrupt government ministers with a bitter smile to the children who do cartwheels in the street to earn money from passing motorists. Honigmann uses vignettes and her own distinct style of interview to draw out the memories of those who've survived terrorism and financial crisis only to feel forgotten by their leaders. —FM

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