This week, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2019 Full Frame Festival and watch internationally-acclaimed documentaries. It was a journey of emotion and compassion. I watched movies ranging from being isolated in a compound in Burkina Faso to life in the middle of Brazil’s financial crisis. From watching these films, I realized that every sound, every film reel, and every angle mattered. The manipulation of sound attracted me as “The Ambassador’s Wife” had distinct rustic sounds that annoyed me but also begged me to pay attention. There was chaos all around; she was not able to do things herself, and she couldn’t be alone. Even if she was alone, the sound of the constant construction surrounding the compound enveloped around her ears.
The manipulation of colors and angles attracted me to Ressaca, a film focusing on the lives suffering at the hands of the destabilizing Brazilian economy and its corrupt government. Every shot filmed in black and white; it felt intimate as it almost felt invasive. I was able to see Marcia’s tears painted black from her mascara, crying and struggling to say goodbye to the theater who couldn’t continue to afford to pay her as a prima ballerina. I was able to see Filippe, struggling to keep his family becoming impoverished while juggling between ballet and driving an Uber to make ends meet when the government couldn’t help. I was able to see Joao, a nice old man who lived in the poor conditions of Brazil’s favelas. I could see every detail of the rundown buildings and the amount of burden on Joao’s shoulders as he took care of his grandchildren in the most drastic conditions. Every person made me realize that there are many stories like this, censored and oppressed. Ressaca’s filmmakers were able to make their characters, real people’s stories, so beautiful despite the characters’ the pain and suffering their government has brought upon them.
From this experience, my heart is heavy, and it is hopeful. The genre of the documentary film showed me how detached I am from the world, but also how I can make it better. From Burkina Faso to Brazil, I found myself having a global perspective, an open mind to the harsh realities people are facing, and the needs they are deprived of in their lives. If you want to broaden your knowledge of the world and go on this rollercoaster of emotions as I did, I recommend you to go next year’s Full Frame Festival!
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.
For me, the experience of full frame was something new and unique to any academic opportunity I’ve ever pursued. I wouldn’t say I watch a ton of documentaries, but I do tend to gravitate towards history documentaries, journalistic documentaries, and really any topic that sparks my curiosity. Going into full frame, I was expecting a variety of films on varying concrete topics that would not leave me walking out of the film utterly confused and wondering what I just watched. I was surprised to find this was not the case at all. My first day started off somewhat as I expected at the festival with the Ambassador’s Wife. The film centered around the monotony and solitude of a wife to an ambassador. The film itself was quite boring, and I found myself urging the film on during it’s slow draw out scenes. If the intention of the film maker was to have viewers have this reaction in order to have us jump into the shoes of the wife, it was effectively achieved. If this wasn’t the intention, the film was a musicless and disinteresting story centered on what this lady does everyday (not much) that I thought had confusing style of organization. I won’t say much more just because it was my least favorite of the films.
The next screening, Ressaca, was one of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen. It focused intensely on the lives of public artists and workers in Rio who found their home and workplace at a historic theatre. These people were in the firestorm of government corruption and the non-existent public funding for artistry and the story of their plight was beautifully captured. The stylistic choices of the film makers, such as the music and the black and white filter, created a nail biting and serious depiction of a person’s struggle and raw emotion. I had to continually remind myself that I was watching a documentary and not a budgeted Hollywood drama. It’s so fascinating to me how the film makers we’re able to capture the moments in the film. There was one moment where the director was running around during a violent protest in the midst of teargas and projectiles. Some of these film makers will go to unbelievable lengths just to tell a story. Overall, it’s a film I hope has or will win many rewards.
The next day I was met with what quite possibly was the most bizarre documentary I had ever seen. I should have known what was in store for me when I chose a film with the name “Koyaanisqatsi”. The best way I can describe this is imagine a time lapse of nature, the violent destructive forces of humans (such as atomic weapons and large scale industrial mining), and all aspects of major city life, all to the background of a soundtrack which sounds like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings. The film starts with a violent volcanic and fiery scene with some ancient cave drawings, and ends with the same scene. I know that this film was probably supposed to spark questions of our existence and purpose, but I found myself just wondering about what I was actually watching. I thought the the videography and some of the scenes were quite beautiful and interesting, so for that reason and the uniqueness of the film, I would put it on a must watch list for documentary goers.
The last film that I saw was a more traditional documentary called Decade of Fire. It focused on the phenomenon of universal fire during the 1960s in the South Bronx of New York. It was your classic documentary, following the directors pursuit of the truth and the telling of the history of this event and of the people and neighborhood that it effected. I especially liked it because it focused on an event that I had no previous knowledge of, and the music and choices of the director made a very well organized and shot story. It zoomed in-depth on the different people of the neighborhood, sometimes including interviews and stories of those people who were still alive and living in the South Bronx today. It was similar to Ressaca in the face that the entirety of the Bronx were fighting against unfair government action and policy. I actually found it to be motivational, because the people of South Bronx got creative to win this fight and sacrificed so much just to have something that everyone deserves, a home. Beautifully told story and a must watch for anyone that would enjoy learning about a unique part of history in our nation.
Although all the documentaries I viewed at Full Frame varied greatly in their own approaches to filmmaking, they all shed light on a topic that I otherwise would’ve had very little exposure to. This experience broadened my idea of what a documentary really is, and helped me understand how many different ways there are to tell a story. Beginning with talking to Jacqueline Olive, the filmmaker behind Always in Season, I gained insight into the extremely time-consuming task of creating a documentary. From this discussion, I learned how a strong bond of trust between the filmmaker and interviewees yields the most vulnerable, and raw moments for the camera to capture. Mrs. Olive also explained how the soundtrack influences our emotions and the powerful effect of selectively enhancing audio. Having this behind-the-scenes understanding of the filmmaking process helped me better understand the documentaries to come, starting with The Ambassador’s Wife. While this certainly wasn’t my favorite of the films I saw, I was still able to appreciate it for its unique portrayal of the life of the French ambassador’s wife. The seemingly observational shots intentionally lacking music showed moments of her daily life, in contrast to the lack of privilege around her. Although the story itself wasn’t quite as entertaining as I would’ve liked, and quite uncomfortable at times, it was somewhat redeemed by the interesting composition of the shots. In contrast, the poignant score and likable figures in Ressaca made it a much more interesting film for me. This documentary followed the struggle of the Municipal Theatre in Rio de Janeiro against the government, and the overall fight to preserve culture and art. Deliberate choices to lay out the film in three acts and in black and white only heightened the drama and tension of Ressaca. Although not quite as visually unique, the stories of Moment to Moment, following how Carl and his wife Susan cope with his worsening Alzheimer’s, and Exit Music, following Ethan Rice’s experience preparing for the end of his fight with cystic fibrosis, resonated powerfully through their emotional content. Additionally, Only the Moon and Irene’s Ghost both utilized animation to add to the stories they were trying to tell. Because it was completely told this way, Only the Moon, a short about a Peruvian Man’s life after immigration to the U.S., went against my preconception of a documentary format. Although all these films were excellent and exposed me to new ideas, my favorite by far was 3 Days 2 Nights. This documentary followed the conversations that finally happened between sole survivors Mark and Andy Godfrey about the plane crash 40 years prior. When the brothers were 11 and 8, they experienced the most defining moment of their lives, yet waited to discuss it for decades. Going into this film, I expected the focus of the narrative to be on the events of the plane crash. Instead, the documentary served a more cathartic purpose, for reconciliation and breaking the silence that had been cast for so long. Sometimes when watching something like this it’s easy to forget these are the stories of real people. However, I was adamantly reminded of this when Mark and Andy Godfrey walked on stage at the end and explained how their enduring friendship with the director, John Breen, yielded such raw and unguarded moments. Seeing how this connection of trust positively impacted the film just like Jacqueline Olive told us, it truly brought my 2019 experience at Full Frame full circle.
When All is Ruin Once Again is about a small town called Gort in rural Ireland. Maybe it’s not the film that grabs your eye. There is no gripping hook, no murder mystery, Ponzi scheme or insurrection. And yet despite the film’s absence of a grand plot or narrative arch, the film draws the viewer into a world where the little things count, captivating audiences by skillfully weaving humor with profound sentiments — all against a backdrop of the Irish countryside. When All is Ruin Once Again takes the notion of an idealistic Irish town and turns it on its head. Without dismissing the famous Irish charm or soothing, lilting accent, the film adds nuance and further facets to the perceived character of Irish towns and their inhabitants. The men nursing a pint in local pubs have thoughts to share about life — why it exists, why they are there, the origins of the human race — or climate change. Continue reading
The film that I found most impactful at Full Frame was Exit Music which I saw on Friday and at the end was shedding tears. I’ve only ever cried in one other documentary but nothing could have prepared me for this film and how it would make me feel. It followed Ethan Rice who has Cystic Fibrosis in his last year of life. All of the film’s music was made by him and the stop motion animation also was his creation. Through the film we see the decay of his body and his thoughts and the reactions of his family with and emphasis on his dad. The film is about death but also how to live life while dying and the people who love you. Continue reading
On Thursday and Friday, I attended Full Frame Film Festival with Durham Academy’s seminar program. On Thursday, we all went to see a group of two films. The first was called The Ambassador’s Wife, which was a twenty minute short film about the life of Burkina Faso’s French ambassador’s wife. However, the second film we saw is called Ressaca, and we saw it as its North American premiere. Ressaca is one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen. It is about Brazil’s Municipal theater, and the financial crisis that it’s shutting it down. The camera work was exquisite, and the sound design was incredible. Ressaca followed the stories of 3 artists living in Brazil. Continue reading
While the goal of documentary filmmaking is to depict a true story with an authentic message, so much meticulous planning and careful decisions go into the creation of these films. Between the stylistic choices and the specific technical conventions of a film, directors have the power to emphasize their message beyond the characters’ physical actions by creating a specific mood. My experience this year at Full Frame unexpectedly taught me so much about the technical aspects and compositional elements of filmmaking. Continue reading
This year I was able to attend around 7 films which include some short films. A reoccurring theme that I noticed was how people cope with traumatic experiences. While most documentaries follow a character through a journey to self-realization, documentaries also allow filmmakers to do the same. Some films that follow this notion are Irene’s Ghost, 3 Days 2 Nights, and Exit Music. Irene’s Ghost is about the filmmaker’s journey to understanding who his mother was and the circumstances around her death. Continue reading