By Marshall Shaffer
Greetings from Durham, NC! I am here covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of the premiere festivals for non-fiction film in the country. (Many thanks to Camel City Dispatch for syndicating my work so that I could score a press badge.) I have been to quite a few film festivals in my day, and almost all of them are devoted to programming films that meet some vague criterion of excellence. This one, however, keeps a narrower focus and thus plays some truly interesting titles.
Here are some documentary films that you should definitely look out for if they play at a festival or theater near you!
My knowledge and appreciation of fashion is, more or less, limited to what I learned from documentaries like “The September Issue” and “Bill Cunningham New York.” Nonetheless, I fully enjoyed the 80 minutes I got to spend with New York fashion maven Iris Apfel in Albert Maysles’ biographical documentary “Iris.”
The film is not unlike Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction” in the sense that the chief concern is not what they do but how they go about doing it. The nonagenarian icon, who gained notoriety for her unconventional accessorizing, articulates that it all comes down to spicing up life. At this point, she’s done with being boring or constricted by other people’s ideas of beauty.
Her wardrobe is a true postmodern canvas, mixing and matching the tawdry and the elegant. Iris brings her professional background in interior design to the closet when dressing herself, along with a keen awareness of fashion and art. If Joan Rivers were to ask her trademark “Who are you wearing?” question, Iris would be talking for minutes about all the creators’ work that converges in her outfit of choice.
Maysles, in what sadly marks his final documentary, achieves many different aims within “Iris.” He informs, entertains, and delights as he illuminates Iris Apfel as more than just the clothes she wears. The film exuberantly captures the wild spirit underneath.
The Look of Silence
In “The Look of Silence,” documentarian and humanitarian Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the subject of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that made him an Oscar nominee last year with “The Act of Killing.” That film, as profound an impact as it had upon release, rubbed me the wrong way as it allowed (at least in my audience) repeated instances of laughter at the excesses of men who took joy in murdering large quantities of people. “The Look of Silence,” its companion piece, thankfully operates under the appropriate sense of solemnity and reverence that is rightfully due to the victims of the extermination and their families.
The narrative journey Oppenheimer fashions in his second take on the subject is assuredly less flashy and entertaining. It moves slowly and episodically towards its conclusion, never quite signaling where it will eventually deposit us. “The Look of Silence” occasionally frustrates with its gentle, slow pacing, yet the periodically interspersed revelations more than redeem any plot sluggishness.
To elaborate on Adi’s travails in any great detail would only rob you of experiencing the intellectual and emotional impact of the film. With Oppenheimer’s help, he embarks on a dangerous and painful quest for answers about the killing of his brother, Ramli, at the guns of a death squad. What the two uncover is far more than just textbook examples of the social construction of morality or the banality of evil.
That the killers boast of their exploits is hardly news to anyone who saw “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” still finds new ways to explore how that past continues to loom large over the present in Indonesia. The perpetrators continue to perpetuate their revisionist narrative of history, not only by making ludicrous claims as “some of the communists wanted to be killed,” but also through more insidious means of controlling thought and expression.
Ultimately, the film is not about the killers, though; it is about Adi – and subsequently every other Indonesian citizen in his position. Oppenheimer frequently circles back to a scene of Adi watching a video of two military men detailing how they committed Ramli’s murder. The camera often lingers on his calm gaze, which contains so much more than merely the look of silence. The same subterranean power gives haunting resonance to every moment in “The Look of Silence” on the whole.
(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies
Like reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, but don’t like all the time it takes to get through one? Then check out Yael Melamede’s “(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies,” a documentary about social scientist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s work. At Duke University, he researches the way that humans make irrational and dishonest choices, even when it is ultimately to their own detriment.
In an hour and thirty minutes, Melamede provides a comprehensive overview of Ariely’s research. The film details when we tend to be dishonest, what factors influence our truthfulness, and how these experiments play out in the real world. Melamede takes us to the worlds of professional cycling, public relations, Wall Street, and cheating spouses. He also scores a high-profile interview with notorious NBA referee Tim Donaghy, whose knowledge of how officiating influences game outcomes wound up getting him involved with organized crime’s betting.
“(Dis)Honesty” flows remarkably well from topic to topic. The film is massively engaging, yet Melamede never sacrifices his aim of informing to make sure he is also entertaining. This is the documentary film at its most enlightening, showing immediate applicability to the dilemmas of daily life. Gladwell should just move away from the written word altogether if Melamede and Ariely continue collaborating in the cinema.
Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck
Never heard of artist David Beck? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either before sitting down for Olympia Stone’s documentary “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck.” According to a curator at the Smithsonian, that’s because Beck spends so much time creating new work that he hardly has the time to promote himself.
So, in that sense, Stone takes care of that for Beck by the creation of her film. “Curious Worlds” at once feels like a gallery walk and a retrospective series, providing an intimate look at his very deliberate intent and meticulous process. The film does not work as well when delving into his biography, which does feel somewhat tacked on for time. Nonetheless, Beck’s singular, peculiar works fascinate, just as the film does on the whole.
Beck serves as a problem-solver and a mechanic as much as a sculptor. Though his final products may seem kitschy, he constructs them with such precision and attention to detail and scale that they can hardly be dismissed. I would hardly call myself an art scholar, but David Beck seems like a hybrid of Alexander Calder’s interactive mobiles with Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media sculptures. Now I just need to experience one of his works myself!
(The Full Frame programming staff picked an excellent short film, “Crooked Candy,” to precede “Curious Worlds.” The doc short directed by RiverRun head Andrew Rodgers follows one of the most unusual international smuggling stories: a Bulgarian man obsessed with bringing the toys from Kinder eggs back to America, where they are illegal. Without the proper context or visuals, a viewer could easily assume the subject was talking about drug trafficking … therein lies the subversive humor of the piece.)
Ben Powell’s “Barge” details life on a shipping barge going down the Mississippi River. It eschews narrative principles, such as focusing on a single protagonist and following their development. Instead, it paints a vividly detailed portrait of what it takes to run such a massive vessel – the work it demands, the rivalries it instills, the animosity it inspires, and the loneliness it breeds.
Powell’s camera is well attuned to the many details of the boat, and he seemingly shows every inch of it in “Barge.” Half the film seems comprised of the B-roll footage that most filmmakers shoot to pad their main footage rather than seemingly constitute the backbone of the piece, as it does here.
This eye for the small stuff gives the film remarkable texture but leaves it somewhat lacking in substance and fulfillment. The brief 71 minutes fly by without leaving much of a mark, though time spent watching “Barge” is hardly time wasted. It’s just not necessarily time best spent.
Kingdom of Shadows
The drug violence that has ushered in a reign of terror along the border finally gets the profile it deserves in Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary “Kingdom of Shadows.” 23,000 innocent people have disappeared in Mexico since 2007, and that is just the official number – most estimate it is even higher. One of Ruiz’s subjects, Oscar Hagelsieb, states that he felt safer in the Middle East than he does in Monterrey, Mexico, a claim that seems entirely justified given what we see in the film.
What is not justified, however, is the senseless violence that gets perpetuated by a corrupt government and police force. Anyone with power in Mexico inevitably gets corrupted, and the supposed step forward by introducing a “Civil Force” of police in the country only resulted in the indiscriminate arrests of the youth. Civilians are more at risk than ever, and there seems to be no end to the madness.
Things are getting worse because both Mexican and American officials are devoted to treating the symptoms rather than the disease causing them. Drugs keep coming across the border because people in America are all too willing to consume them, and our justice system concerns itself more with locking up low-level dealers than the kingpins distributing the drugs or the people abusing the substances.
Ruiz briefly touches on the mandatory minimum sentences that are forced on petty offenders with small amounts of marijuana; perhaps the topic could have used a little more attention in the film. But he uses “Kingdom of Shadows” to explore subjects and stories with more visceral impact, like the families who lose a child and the valiant efforts of Sister Consuela Morales to bring perpetrators to justice. Ruiz also shows gruesome images from “narco kitchens” where the cartels attempt to disintegrate the bodies of the people they kill. One member confesses, hauntingly, that he cannot eat cooked chicken anymore because it smells just like human flesh.
Still, nothing lands with a more searing impact than Ruiz’s final montage in “Kingdom of Shadows.” The camera, fixated tightly and closely on the faces of those innocent Mexicans who are still missing a child, pleads for some dignity and fairness. Their eyes cry out for the humanity in all of us – a humanity starkly absent from the region today, it seems.
Judging from the stunned silence – I could hear every movement, discern every touch of fabric – everyone who sees “Kingdom of Shadows” ought to feel a deep duty to bring that much-deserved justice to them. Now the job is to get as many people as possible to see this documentary.
From This Day Forward
Sharon Shattuck’s intensely personal documentary “From This Day Forward” follows the unique ordeal that her family faced when her father decided to manifest her true identity as a woman. Sharon’s father, Trish, nonchalantly uttered, “When you get married, I hope you’ll let me wear a dress to walk you down the aisle,” thus beginning a long journey pondering the complexities of identity.
Each person in the family has their own set of issues coming to terms with the new reality. Sharon’s mother, Marcia, misses the man she married and adjusts to the different tenor of love she receives from Trish. Sharon and her sister have to come to terms with the fluidity of gender and sexuality at a time in their lives when the current rigid standards of society prove difficult enough. Trish herself has plenty of soul searching to do, not to mention the challenges dealing with a skeptical and unfriendly world. Yet in spite of everything, they find a way to make their unconventional family structure function.
In less than 75 minutes, Shattuck navigates these tough familial quandaries with thoroughness and ease. She never loses sight of the individual in “From This Day Forward,” focusing on the uniqueness of everyone’s path through life. And from that uniqueness comes beauty and understanding. If society wants to continue making forward progress socially, we could all take a few cues from Shattuck’s empathy and humanity.