Documentary filmmakers hold our stories in their hands.
Whether we are their subjects or their audience, our relationship to documentarians is defined by one deceptively simple concept: trust. Do we trust that they will tell our stories fairly, or will they go for a sensational takedown? Do we trust what we see on the screen, or do we feel skeptical of a hidden agenda? The answers make or break a documentary.
The ethics of representation is the subject of this year's Thematic Program, curated by Jennifer Baichwal, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Each year, the internationally renowned, four-day celebration of nonfiction filmmaking lures documentary lovers and creators to the epicenter of the Carolina Theatre, with additional screens at the Durham Convention Center, the Durham Arts Council, Full Frame Theater at the American Tobacco Campus and outdoors in Central Park.
It's a subject that Marshall Curry, the honoree of this year's Tribute Program, knows well. Since 2002, the New York City-based filmmaker has earned Oscar nominations for Street Fight, which documented Cory Booker's failed first run for mayor of Newark, and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. He also won major awards for films about young NASCAR aspirants (Racing Dreams) and the unlikely Libyan revolutionary Matthew VanDyke (Point and Shoot), and was executive producer of Mistaken for Strangers (see below).
You can watch all of these films at the festival, among more than 100 others. Almost half of those are part of the New Docs program, which includes 26 premieres and 32 foreign films—all eligible for the Audience Awards that will be bestowed at an Awards Barbecue on Sunday, April 12.
With such a broad palette of topics, from political and environmental stories to personal and family stories, Curry's work demonstrates the prismatic complexity of the documentary form, with its unstable mixture of the personal and political, the artistic and the pragmatic. To warm up our critical thinking skills for the festival, we spoke with Curry about how he navigates the documentarian's peculiar, slippery path between truth and artifice, storytelling and polemic, honesty and sensitivity.
We also pay tribute to legendary director Albert Maysles (page 17), hike up a mountain with the local filmmakers premiering mountaintop coal-removal doc Overburden (page 14), and ask some Durham filmmakers, what is an "experimental documentary" anyway (page 19)?
And we offer mini-reviews of 57 films you can see at Full Frame, making note of premieres, local connections and our top picks. Whether you drop by the festival for a couple of screenings or plunge in to rub elbows with filmmakers all weekend, you'll be left with plenty to think about, especially if you take advantage of the A&E Film Speakeasy conversations at the Convention Center—new wrinkles of complexity in your worldview.
INDY: Is there a through-line in the diverse topics your films cover?
MARSHALL CURRY: Mostly, I'm just struck by a story that seems interesting. But I think they're usually about a character who has passion for something and the moment where idealism bangs into reality. It was not a conscious decision to make films about that, but someone pointed it out to me, and I realized it's true. An environmentalist who is suddenly facing life in prison for arsons he committed, an idealistic politician running into the realities of machine politics in Newark, kids who dream of being NASCAR drivers and the challenges associated with that—it's the bone I keep chewing on, when passionate people bang into reality.
Is it important to you for your films to have real-world outcomes, whether that's in a subject's life or public policy?
My films are not polemical. They all embrace complexity. They are more like novels than editorials in the newspaper. I studied religion in college, and one of my friends who also studied religion said, "You know, I'm still confused, just at a higher level." In a way, that's my goal with these films—not to answer questions, but to shed light on parts of the world that people haven't noticed so much, or tell incredible stories about the human condition and, hopefully, elevate conversations about complex things.
But I think they have had real-world effects. The candidate who lost in Street Fight ended up winning the next election. I don't know that Street Fight made that happen, but the film was part of that conversation. And If a Tree Falls came out during Occupy Wall Street, and I know those folks had a lot of screenings at Occupy sites around the country. I understood from some law enforcement people that it was also being discussed by them in terms of productive ways of reacting to activists, because the film chronicles some pretty destructive responses that radicalized people rather than pulling them into the democratic argument.
All of those are great, but I don't measure the value of documentaries in terms of whether they get a bill passed. There are films that do that, and I think those are great, but it's not the only thing that should be the value of a documentary.
For something like Racing Dreams, how do you win a family's trust?
I spent a lot of time talking to them about what the project was about, what I was interested in and how I thought the process would work. I think people can just kind of feel your spirit when you meet them and talk with them. I was thrilled that people gave me as much as access to intimate moments as they did. All the characters in my films have taken a leap of faith to allow me to tell their stories, and I take that gift seriously. I think about it a lot as I'm shooting and editing—that these are real people and real lives that I'm sharing with the world.
The Thematic Program at Full Frame is about the ethics of representation. Is that something you can talk about in relation to your films?
Every film has tons of ethical questions that you have to sort through. With Racing Dreams, one of the challenges was that the main characters were children. I'm very glad that nobody followed me around when I was 12 and recorded everything I said to put it onscreen in front of millions of people. I was very aware of that while editing. But at the same time, I didn't want to make a soft-focus, gauzy film that didn't tell the truth about what it's like to be 12.
So there is a balance between wanting to protect people who have entrusted you with their stories but not to airbrush those stories, because you also have some responsibility to the audience. To me, the goal is warts-and-all, but to contextualize those warts so that they elicit empathy rather than a sneer.
But I don't make takedown films that edit things out of context and make people look bad. All of us have flaws, all of us have problems in our families, and sharing those stories, if it's done right, creates a connection between the audience and the people they're watching, and challenges the audience to think about themselves, their families and their own choices.
There are some experimental documentaries at Full Frame, and Duke's experimental documentary MFA program is having its thesis shows right now. Do you have any thoughts on the tension between being true to reality, as we think documentaries should, and altering reality, as experimental works should?
I have big-tent appreciation of documentaries. I like historical documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk. I love first-person documentarians like Ross McElwee. I love vérité stuff. And I love films like Koyaanisqatsi, which I would say qualifies as experimental film. I know that there are some purists who want to be very strict about what is and what isn't a documentary, but I like diversity in types of stories. If you're presenting something as a historically or journalistically accurate story and, in fact, it's not, that can be problematic. But I think if people are watching a film that they understand has either fictional or impressionistic elements, that's great.
You premiered your first film at Full Frame, and they've gone on to show all your others. What has your experience of the festival been like?
The Street Fight premiere was the first time I ever played a film in front of an audience, so that was a crazy moment for me. I remember sitting in the back of the theater and staring at the backs of people's heads, thinking, "Please don't walk out," so worried they would see what an amateur I was. But people were very generous. That's what makes Full Frame exceptional.
Before I even made my first film, I used to go down to Full Frame to watch films—the selection is so incredible, and it's very accessible. At most festivals, there's this industry hustle, but Full Frame is not a festival where people are constantly looking over your shoulder when you're talking to them. It's a place I could go as a 20-something who had never made a documentary in my life, and I could walk up to editors and directors and they would talk to me about their work. It's about people who love films and love making films, sitting in this courtyard in North Carolina in the springtime, where you're looking up and going, "Oh, look, there's Albert Maysles."—Brian Howe
Rock bands are treated as holy sacraments in documentaries about them. The making of their records often elicits a genuflection from filmmakers that would be more appropriate for watching the Bible being drafted. The preparation for their tours can reflect planning so exhaustive it may seem as though they're brokering peace in the Middle East. And the personal dynamics of their members can seem so tense it's as if the cinematographers were sent to hug them all, coddling them to ensure the entire operation survives, as though the world's happiness depended upon it.
Despite ample dramatic shots of The National performing on stages on several continents, the band itself is a secondary concern in the Marshall Curry-helmed Mistaken for Strangers (Curry served as executive producer). Instead, the focus is the relationship between the band's thin and dashing but moody frontman Matt Berninger and his happy-go-lucky and rather round younger brother, Tom, who ends up directing one of the most poignant, humanizing rock docs ever made.
Matt invites Tom, a metalhead and bedroom B-movie producer, to join The National on a worldwide tour as a production assistant. Tom's love of booze, lack of confidence and aversion to responsibility ultimately lead to his dismissal. The emotional low, though, powers the film's redemptive high.
The result is a reminder that even our idols are people with personal problems—that even as they spend weeks in high-end studios or nights on big stages, there are situations at home they're desperate to solve. Maybe that even means making a nepotistic but well-meaning decision about a feckless new hire.
Mistaken for Strangers flatters neither of the Berningers, the other two pairs of brothers that form The National or the group's network of managers and handlers. But by the time the credits roll, you empathize with all of them as people simply trying to exist while crowds of screaming thousands (or families with greater expectations)demand more. —Grayson Haver Currin
This article appeared in print with the headline "Passion meets reality"