Hopefulness as a Radical New Direction in Documentary Film

I have at times referred to the Full Frame Film Festival as the “Festival of Tears.” Don’t take this as a dig. I am a sincere and devoted follower of documentary film, and I have attended Full Frame with religious regularity for at least a decade. One of the primary endeavors of documentary filmmaking is to provide an open, unmediated window through which an audience can become vicariously immersed in moments of authentic experience. When captured deftly by a filmmaker, these fleeting bits of purity can hit the audience like so many tons of brick. Moved by such wallops, I’ve cried tears of triumphant joy, gut-wrenching empathy, soaring pride and infectious laughter.

As he was introducing his film “Sea of Shadows” on Saturday night, director Richard Ladkani said he had been frustrated by documentary films that shed light on urgent issues of political, environmental or social injustice without indicating paths of action for involvement. He explained that these types of films leave audience members feeling despondent and hopeless. Instead, Ladkani wants to educate his viewers as to how they might become involved in solving the problems his films call attention to. Ladkani’s films could never be described as feel-good (his 2018 film “The Ivory Game,” details the negative political, social and environmental ramifications of the illegal elephant tusk trade. “Sea of Shadows” is also about an illegally sold animal product,. In this case it is the swim bladder of the endangered Mexican totoaba fish, which has become a high-dollar commodity in China), but the heaviness of the content in his films is balanced by a healthy dose of motivational imperative. Ladkani encourages viewers to support the causes his films champion by providing resources and specific action plans for those who want to help. Leaving the theater after seeing “Sea of Shadows,” I felt inspired to share the story of the film and help it to garner a wider audience.

And on that note: below are the social media links for Sea of Shadows. And It sounds like it will be streaming by May. Please watch it!

Facebook: @seaofshadowssos – https://www.facebook.com/pg/seaofshadowsSOS/

Instagram: @seaofshadows – https://www.instagram.com/seaofshadows/

Twitter: @seaofshadowssos – https://twitter.com/seaofshadowsSOS

Incidentally, I didn’t cry during “Sea of Shadows.” Don’t get me wrong. I found the film to be stirring, jolting, heart-breaking and tragic, but it just wasn’t a tear-jerker for me. Was it because of Ladkani’s added ingredient of hopefulness? I think it was actually due to the film’s overall tone, which was that of an action/thriller movie.

p.s. For the record, I don’t actually think that tears are a good unit of currency by which to value documentary films.


Minding the Gap

Last year at Full Frame, I saw a work-in-progress cut (something between a trailer and short) of Bing Liu’s film Minding the Gap. Liu had recently secured the Garret Scott grant and was about to jump into another year of production. I remember being surprised at how much the film moved me. I made a mental note to look out for it in the future.

When I saw that the final cut of Minding the Gap would debut at Full Frame this year, I jumped to grab a ticket. My memory of the film’s premise was a little sketchy, but it was easy to recall how deeply it had affected me. Waiting for the film to start in a jam-packed theater, I caught sight of the young director as he regarded the crowds of of people filing in. He looked nervous and happy. Bits of the film started coming back to me:  Liu documents his best friends as they skateboard through the empty streets of their hometown; Liu interviews each of them at regular intervals throughout their adolescence and young adulthood. All of those shots and events were still in the film, but it had become something much more fleshed-out.

Minding the Gap bowled me over. To a large degree, the film is about male friendships and the idiosyncrasies that beset them. To paraphrase Liu, the film is about masculinity and vulnerability. Continue reading

The Last Men in Aleppo, directed by Feras Fayyad

This film is about the Syrian Civil Defense’s “White Helmet” volunteers at the frontline of the conflict in the capital city. Watching the film was the experience of viewing the obliteration of a city and its civilians at ground zero. The film opens with Khaled, a White Helmet, scanning the sky for Russian and Syrian jets and helicopters as they strafe the city. For the next 104 minutes we are dragged through a labyrinth of urban apartment buildings while Khaled and his crew alternately take cover or rush into the bomb sites to save people and recover the dead. And the bombs keep coming, and coming, and coming. And Khaled and his team keep running into the smoke to excavate, jackhammer, shovel and eventually dig by hand through the rubble in search of humans. The first time we see this process, a small child is extracted from a tiny crevice at the bottom of an impossible mountain of concrete. The camera is close enough for us to feel every abrasion, taste the chalky grit and sense the impact-induced sleepiness of the little body. I had a terrible thought: people aren’t being killed by bombs, they are being killed by buildings. They are being buried and crushed under monumental summits of cinder block, concrete, electrical wiring, rebar, tile and the choking dust produced by the pulverization of those materials. The violence in Aleppo is incessant and it feels impossible to deal with, but it is a very real thing that is happening right now. Against all odds, amidst the blinding terror, Khaled and the other people depicted in the film demonstrate and communicate unwavering love and gentleness towards each other and towards their families. There are moments of searing poignancy. Khaled is enchanted with his children. He hugs them, kisses them and showers them with love, all the while contemplating whether it is more dangerous to stay in Aleppo or flee the city. This film is brutal. Many of its images are etched in my mind, no matter how hard I try to shake them. The film is also a massively important achievement. Before risking his life to make this film, the director Feras Fayyad was imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian government for documenting the civil uprising in Syria. After his release he continued to receive death threats and was eventually forced to flee the country. The triumph of this film is not only one of human rights advocacy but also one of arts advocacy.



Full Frame Awards List

2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Award Winners

The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award:
Starless Dreams, dir. Mehrdad Oskouei

Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short:
Clínica de Migrantes: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, dir. Maxim Pozdorovkin

Full Frame Audience Award–Feature:
Life, Animated, dir. Roger Ross Williams

Full Frame Audience Award–Short:
Pickle, dir. Amy Nicholson

Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award:
Sonita, dir. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award:
Call Me Marianna, dir. Karolina Bielawska

Full Frame Inspiration Award:
Starless Dreams, dir. Mehrdad Oskouei

Full Frame President’s Award:
The Mute’s House, dir. Tamar Kay

Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights:
Kiki, dir. Sara Jordenö

‘Starless Dreams’ (2016) by Mehrdad Oskouei

A still from Mehrdad Oskouei's 2016 film, 'Starless Dreams.'

A still from Mehrdad Oskouei’s 2016 film, ‘Starless Dreams.’

The title of this film, like many film titles at Full Frame each year, failed to lure me in. The title was my first introduction to this documentary. I saw the name of the film sitting there on the schedule and immediately got it confused with other two-word titles scattered across a color-coded timeline of the 4 day festival.

I didn’t know much about the film before I sat down in a packed theater alongside my fellow Seminarians and a few other familiar DA faces, but from the moment it began (with the striking close-up of an ink-pad and brayer) I found myself immersed and carried along in that immersion in an unforgettable way. Here was a girl being processed and admitted to jail. But here was a group of girls somewhere else. The first few minutes of the film were disorienting. Eventually, I caught my bearings and found myself inside an Iranian prison for adolescent girls. I felt like I was there because of the way the camera was used. It takes us close to the subjects as it gazes upon them unflinchingly. The subjects are a handful of inmates, all girls around 17, who stare back at the camera/at us, and speak, often with shocking candor, about the infractions that landed them there.

Attached to the crystal clear camera-eye is a soft but insistent and conspicuously male voice. It fires blunt questions at the girls and they answer. The back and forth has a nice rhythm to it, but most things about this film and about these girls’ existence is not nice. the whole situation is in many ways like a what those of us who live secure, privileged lives might call a nightmare. The director’s line of questioning tends to focus on the lives these young women lead prior to being locked up. Mr. Oskouei seems to be pointing to the transgressions against the inmates by men – pimps, dealers or their own fathers or brothers – as the cause of the upending of their lives. This equation doesn’t take a lot of proving beyond the consistent and very real testimony of the interviewed girls. And while the film touches on bleak and miserable things that go unchallenged everyday, it somehow manages to celebrate the girls’ shrewdness, their creativity and even their capacity for joy.