I am never happier than at a film festival--so right now I'm pretty darn happy. It's time again for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. My two years of blogging have paid off, and I'm here on a press pass (which hilariously dubs me "Darleen Ortega, Opinionated Judge")--and after two hours standing in line for my 15 tickets (which, under the circumstances, did not even make me cranky), I'm officially in hog heaven.
So here's the line-up of day one:
My favorite movie of the day was "Last Train Home" (9) which already won the award for best feature-length documentary at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It actually could be a companion film to the gorgeous "Up the Yangtze" which I saw two years ago at this festival and put on my top-ten list for 2008. Like that film (whose director was a co-editor here), the film conveys important things about life in modern China, writ large, by means of painstaking observation of the life of one family.
Each year, 130 million Chinese workers make one annual trip hundreds of miles to their homes in the rural provinces to celebrate the New Year, having spent the entire rest of the year in industrialized cities which offer them the only real hope of earning enough to support their families. The journey is arduous--not least because so many Chinese are making the trip at one time, in the world's largest migration. How the filmmakers managed to capture the crowds of frustrated and beleagered workers jammed onto trains after spending sometimes days waiting to board I can't imagine--yet this journey is depicted as merely one in an endless series of unendurable trials that are the stuff of daily life for these workers, who labor long hours in factories to make just enough to support the children they rarely see.
The film focuses on a couple who have lived this life since their oldest daughter, now 17, was a baby. The wife, the more expressive of the two, explains in a remarkably matter-of-fact way how it pained her to make that choice, necessitated by desperate poverty--and her husband's expression, while always laconic, nevertheless conveys that her description probably doesn't do justice to her actual suffering. Over the course of the film, one sees how the two endure unending hardship, all for the sake of their two children, in the hopes that their children will have access to better opportunities than they had. Yet, on the rare occasions when they see the children, the parents come so burdened with the weight of those hopes that they immediately begin inquiring about their school performance and lecturing them about the need to study harder. Their children, like children all over the world, resent the parental pressure--and feel especially aggrieved because it comes from people who, in their minds, have never been available enough to have earned the right to criticize them.
The family conflicts that play out feel utterly universal despite the distinctly Chinese character of the situation. The daughter devastates her parents by dropping out of school, and her barely contained resentment of them begins to find more overt expression as she samples what feels to her like freedom. The only work available to her is extremely arduous, but somehow the fact that she is doing the choosing makes those hardships seem more endurable; she just wants to have fun and to forge her own identity. Yet, like all children, she lacks the ability to understand her parent's choices in their larger context, and wounds them terribly with her increasing disdain for their concern about her future. The filmmakers, as in "Yangtze," gained incredible access to this family--so much so that a climactic argument feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. Yet, assuming the family agreed to its inclusion, it seems utterly truthful and earned after the many scenes of understated but extraordinarly perceptive observation that preceded it. The distance between these generations, first evident in body language, the disappointment in the parents' eyes, and the resentment hardened in the daughter's face, erupts believably in the mother's overreaction to a moment of callousness. The extreme display of disrespect that finally causes the father to lose his temper comes after 5000 stressful moments that he has borne resolutely.
I also admired "Enemies of the People" (8), which won a Special Jury Prize and a nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It depicts the remarkable and heroic work of reporter Thet Sambath, who spent a decade traveling to the site of the killing fields of Cambodia and building trust not only with several men who did the actual killing (and who describe their methods in detail on camera) but also with Nuon Che, Pol Pot's right-hand man. Sambath does this without revealing (until very late in the film) how personal the subject is to him: his own parents and brother were murdered in the killing fields.
His interviews with the actual killers are especially compelling, as the toll their actions took on these men is evident in their faces. The film searches for who gave them their orders and what motivated those orders--but the reality appears to be that the Khmer Rouge during their five-years in power escalated a regime of such paranoia about "enemies of the people" that, for the peasants, their choices were virtually to kill or be killed. I found the scenes with Nuon Che to be somewhat less compelling, though; I wasn't convinced that he ever really grappled with the truth of what happened, though the filmmakers seem to read him differently than I did. I was more struck by how complex Sambath's own reaction was to these killers, after spending so many years building their trust.
Although I'm not sure that the film totally lives up to its claim to illuminate the reasons for the Khmer Rouge killings, perhaps such a thing ultimately cannot really be explained.
The last program of the day reaped fewer rewards. "The Poodle Trainer" (6) is a colorful 7-minute portrait of a Russian circus performer who has built her entire identity around what she experiences as a profound connection to the animals to whom she cultivates a striking resemblance. It played with "The Thorn In the Heart" (5), Michel Gondry's film about his aunt Suzette, who taught school in rural France for 30 years. I frequently admire his work ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is one of my all-time favorite films), but this one seemed too unfocused to hold the interest of most of the audience (myself included). Suzette's relationship to her son was the most interesting thing about the film--though she is quite likable, the disappointment evident in all her interactions with him seems to set him up for failures that might or might not actually be inevitable. But even that aspect of the film seemed underdeveloped--and then the film is laced with other focuses (like visits to her old schools and an outdoor evening at the movies) that seem entirely too diffuse to held the film together.