Indy picks: Full Frame '14 | Full Frame Documentary Film Festival | Indy Week
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Indy picks: Full Frame '14 

Our contributors reviewed as many films as we could get our hands on. Highly recommended titles are preceded by *. Reviews were written by David Fellerath (DF), Brian Howe (BH), Craig D. Lindsey (CDL), Sylvia Pfeiffenberger (SP), Ashley Melzer (AM), Neil Morris (NM) and Lisa Sorg (LS).


* LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM (U.S., 97 min.)—In the Vietnam War, the communist North conquered the capital of Saigon and started executing South Vietnamese people who had cooperated with the U.S. military. Combining historical footage and modern interviews, this riveting film chronicles the heroism of American soldiers who defied orders and helped at-risk South Vietnamese escape the country. You'll see parallels with ethical questions currently facing the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you'll never hear "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" the same way again. —LS

A PARK FOR THE CITY (U.S., 33 min.)—This short about Belle Isle Park, an abandoned zoo in Detroit, proves speculations made in the book The World Without Us: When humans leave, nature takes over—for the better. After a bankrupt city could no longer maintain its parks and zoos, it began selling to private investors. Public spaces became off-limits. Photos and motion-activated camera footage document native flora and freed fauna as they reclaim their former prison. —LS

* MONK WITH A CAMERA (U.S., 90 min.)—This is the fascinating story of a man's unusual journey from high fashion to maroon robes. Nicky Vreeland, a former dapper dandy (and the grandson of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland) rejects all material comforts—except for his love of photography—to become a Buddhist monk. —CDL

* OLGA TO MY FRIENDS (Finland/Norway/Sweden, 58 min.)—Fear and confusion rule the life of an indigenous Sami (or "Lapp") woman who was raised in a state orphanage to speak only Russian. Olga escapes social dysfunction and drab cities to find her sense of purpose—and eventually, a friend—at remote reindeer herding stations. An ambient score by Esa Kotilainen accompanies gorgeous views of desolate tundra. —SP

* SEX(ED) THE MOVIE (U.S., 77 min.)—Since the dawn of cinema, Americans have used the form for sex education. This frank and funny romp through archival sex-ed films—more than 100,000 have been produced since 1893—provides a titillating history of shifting social attitudes toward morality, public health, gender roles and sexual politics. —SP

SEEDS OF TIME (U.S., 77 min.)—You might expect the contents of a doomsday vault to be sexier than a few seeds, but in the face of climate change, biodiversity is a hot commodity. Likewise, this film hides its terrifying message in a somewhat unexciting package, but hey—when the apocalypse comes, we'll have worse things to whine about. —AM

* PRIVATE VIOLENCE (U.S., 81 min.)—The scourge of domestic violence is the focus of this extraordinary film by Durham director Cynthia Hill. Opening with a harrowing vérité sequence set in Chatham County, it illuminates its subject through the experiences of two women, one a brutally abused spouse searching the legal system for justice and healing, the other a longtime advocate for battered women. —NM


WHITE EARTH (U.S., 20 min.)—If you can't catch The Overnighters, try this worthy thumbnail sketch of the fracking rush's consequences. In a wintry North Dakota beset by internal migration, economic desperation and environmental despoliation, three sweet children prove to be thoughtful observers of their world. —DF

* DAMNATION (U.S., 87 min.)—This documentary exemplifies the genre: It's educational, uplifting and cause-driven. Exploring America's largely obsolete obsession with building dams for hydropower at high cultural and environment costs, this slanted yet exhaustive exposé is beautifully shot and produced, though the narration occasionally feels intrusive. —NM

* EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL (U.S., 83 min.)—In his autobiographical documentary, Darius Monroe upends stereotypes about criminals, chronicling how a high-achieving yet short-sighted teen turned to bank robbery in order to help his working-class family pay the bills. After serving time in a Texas prison, Monroe atones for his past, encountering supporters and skeptics of his redemption. It's a tense, thoughtful film that raises issues of forgiveness and restorative justice. Spike Lee is executive producer. —LS

SANTA CRUZ DEL ISLOTE (U.S./Colombia, 19 min.)—It's odd and a bit disappointing that a film about a three-acre island—one of the most densely populated places in the world—off the Colombian coast spends the majority of its brief running time on the surrounding ocean and the workdays of ingenious fishermen, rather than focusing on population density. —NM

YANGTZE DRIFT (U.S., 26 min.)—It's water, water everywhere, as Duke grad student John Rash, with his black-and-white camera, trawls the Yangtze River, which was re-engineered at great environmental cost. The prevailing mood is unease as newly affluent Chinese people look to the sky for rain, fireworks and cell phone signals. —DF

MONK BY BLOOD (Japan, 25 min.)—Scion Sasaki is one of those 21-year-olds who wants to do it all: He's a college student, an aspiring chef and a moonlighting DJ. But in this intimate, solemn short, he travels to Kyoto during winter break and confronts a tough question: Will he become the next head monk of his family's Buddhist Temple? —CDL

BUTTERFLY GIRL (U.S., 78 min.)—The daily pain and perseverance of Abbie Evans, a Texas teen afflicted with a rare, incurable skin disorder, is sobering yet inspiring. The staged quality of some pseudo-vérité footage makes this film's running time feel padded, but it leads to a closing credits reveal not to be missed. —NM

CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART (U.S./UK, 102 min.)—The corrosive influence of the media on the legal system is a legitimate issue, but here, it's a disingenuous pretense for thinly veiled propaganda for Smart, who conspired with teens to murder her husband in 1990. Chronicling her televised trial, the film glosses over incriminating evidence while conflating every curiosity with proof of injustice, appearing to kowtow to the jailhouse access granted by Smart, ever the camera hog. —NM

CAN'T STOP THE WATER (U.S., 33 min.)—Climate change, oil industry abuses, unrecognized ethnic identity and poverty all collide on Isle de Jean Charles, where a Native-American Cajun community struggles to keep its homeland. Traditions shaped by island life are threatened in this fascinating look at topographical and cultural erosion. —AM

APOLLONIAN STORY (Israel, 66 min.)—"Fuck you!" are the first words we hear from Nissim Kahlon as he chips away at his lifelong obsession, hollowing out a livable niche in unyielding rock. His rough temperament alienates wives and children, but not his son, Moshe, who endures daily abuse to help his father extend the seaside cave into an artisanal home of enviable proximity to nature. —SP

* AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ (U.S., 91 min.)—Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski returns with her latest elegant, archival footage-filled doc. This time, she rounds up black-and-white TV clips, home movies and interviews with friends of Tanaquil Le Clercq, a dynamo ballerina who was afflicted early in life with polio. —CDL

FOUNDRY NIGHT SHIFT (U.S., 5 min.)—When we think of Steinway pianos, we think of the music of Mozart or Ellington, the feats of agile fingers and sparkling minds. What we don't often imagine are the sparks of molten pig iron, the delicate ballet of machines and humans, behind every Steinway frame forged in this Ohio foundry. —SP

SUMMER 82 WHEN ZAPPA CAME TO SICILY (Italy, 80 min.)—The behind-the-scenes details of Frank Zappa's ill-fated '82 concert in Sicily become an unusual homecoming story for both his family and the filmmaker. The facts live up to Zappa's myth and offer solace to his documentarian, who creates a lovely meditation on memory and the ties of family. —AM

* E-TEAM (U.S., 89 min.)—This visceral look into the lives of Human Rights Watch observers puts us on the ground with them as they leave peaceful lives for the shock of war. Intimate accounts of conflict weigh heavily as they work to turn personal tragedies into global action items. —AM

* THE OVERNIGHTERS (U.S., 100 min.)—To tell the tale of desperate migrants searching for work in North Dakota, Jesse Moss lives among them as they take refuge in a Lutheran church. At times, the film plays like the TV series Friday Night Lights. Pastor Jay Reinke and his wife are the embattled moral center of a provincial community hostile to their efforts to be good shepherds. A late revelation deepens this profound exploration of charity, morality and salvation. —DF

* THE CHAPERONE (Canada, 14 min.)—By using various forms of visual art (hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, puppetry, even piñatas), this amusing, colorful short tells the so-insane-it-must-be-true story of a teacher's run-in with a biker gang during a middle school dance. Even with all the visual silliness, the message is never lost: Don't mess with chaperones! —CDL

UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL (Ukraine/Australia, 80 min.)—Kitty Green's documentary pulls back the curtain on Ukrainian feminist collective Femen. Though the film feels unavoidably dated, as both the group and the country have evolved since it was shot, it's a fascinating study of 21st-century direct action in which attractive women exploit social media and the 24-hour news cycle while putting themselves at considerable risk. See story on page 15.DF


FAIRYTALE OF THE THREE BEARS (Russia, 12 min.)—A post-Perestroika blues in three verses, this film offers glimpses of the emotional scaffolding of three men who remember life in the former Soviet Union with varying degrees of rue, ambivalence and nostalgia. —SP

* FLOWERS FROM THE MOUNT OF OLIVES (Estonia, 70 min.)—Heilika Pikkov's portrait of an Estonian nun in a Jerusalem convent is utterly engrossing. Long before Mother Ksenya took holy orders, she was, among other things, a Nazi collaborator, a drug addict and a cancer researcher. In her stooped figure, we see the contradictions and mysteries of the human character. —DF

* THE GREAT INVISIBLE (U.S., 92 min.)—Through the stories of surviving Deepwater Horizon oil rig workers, corporations that sacrificed safety for profit and ruined industries in the Gulf of Mexico, Margaret Brown's sobering, smartly produced film—winner of the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW Film 2014—drills below talking points about the 2010 BP oil spill, into the real causes and costs of an environmental catastrophe. —NM

TOUGH LOVE (U.S., 83 min.)—This emotional yet workmanlike appraisal of the child welfare bureaucracy, viewed through the travails of two troubled parents trying to regain custody of their children, deserves credit for not merely deifying social workers. It also spotlights steep challenges facing parents within the system, who are sometimes held to a standard of "parental perfection" that defies reality. —NM

RICH HILL (U.S., 92 min.)—Trawling the familiar milieu of small-town squalor, this 2014 Sundance award winner succeeds thanks to the filmmakers' sublime sense of style. It follows the lives of three troubled teens in the titular rural Missouri town, and their stories—certainly not unique in their desolation—are posited as emblems of a fading American dream. —NM

* THE CASE OF THE THREE SIDED DREAM (U.S., 86 min.)—Rahsaan Roland Kirk invented ways to extract every ounce of sound from multiple instruments at once, playing a jerry-rigged setup of saxophones, nose flutes, gongs, whistles and other instruments he heard in dreams. Using interviews, home movies, audio recordings and TV clips, including a groundbreaking 1971 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film illuminates the motives and impact of an eccentric genius. —SP

ONE CUT, ONE LIFE (U.S., 105 min.)—Dying filmmaker Ed Pincus teams up with once-estranged collaborator Lucia Small to make a film in the personal vein of his 1970s work. Both filmmakers have messy, complex motives, and their willingness to share—and boy, do they ever—will seem brave to some, sloppy to others. Still, it's an honorable farewell from Pincus as he takes stock of his life, his loves and his future. —DF

* NO MORE ROAD TRIPS? (U.S., 80 min.)—From hundreds of home movies, Rick Prelinger assembles a moving, lyrical, entirely silent narrative of wanderlust that spans the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the 1920s and 1960s. Through the lenses of vacationers, we see what memories they valued, from small moments of roadside picnicking to national landmarks and Las Vegas lights. Mostly shot before Eisenhower's interstate highway project, when road trips bore through rather than around America's small towns, it feels like a land of the lost. —LS


THE VISITORS (U.S., 87 min.)—No words are spoken in this experimental film, though we don't miss them with a score by Philip Glass. Rhythmic long takes of sumptuous, high-contrast, black-and-white portraits of people, buildings and nature ostensibly portray the human relationship with the digital world. This is director Godfrey Reggio's fourth collaboration with Glass, following Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. When the lights came up, I felt numb, like I had been on Facebook too long. —LS

OUR MAN IN TEHRAN (Canada, 85 min.)—You've seen the movie, now meet the real people behind Argo and the broader Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Propelled by talking-head reminiscences from former hostages and American and Canadian government officials, this documentary works best when it explores the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the storming of the American embassy. —NM

* THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Denmark, 90 min.)—In this absorbing documentary on art process, Lars von Trier plays himself as half awestruck acolyte, half tempting devil. He challenges Jørgen Leth to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human five times, imposing increasingly diabolical rules. The exercise and its outcomes reveal a complex ethics of creativity and, even rarer, the workings of the trickster mind behind provocative feature films such as the new Nymphomaniac. —BH

* THROUGH A LENS DARKLY: BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLE (U.S., 94 min.)—Under Thomas Allen Harris' dramatic direction and narration, this spellbinding feature tells the stories of black photographers (including the legendary Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava) who've made it their life's work to visually document their people. It also explores how African-Americans have been documented on film throughout our country's history. —CDL

* THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL (U.S., 75 min.)—This is a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening account of the Portland Mavericks, a mid-'70s independent minor league baseball team founded by the flamboyant Bing Russell, the ex-ballplayer, television character actor and father of Kurt Russell. Occurring outside of Major League Baseball's fixed farm system, the Mavericks' unlikely success on and off the diamond calls into question the propriety of MLB's antitrust exemption. —NM

All photos courtesy of Full Frame Film Festival


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