The last day of Full Frame is always a little challenging for planners like me because most of the screenings are not scheduled until that day; the festival uses it as an opportunity to rescreen films that won awards and/or sold out on their first scheduled run. The timing is always dicey--but generally my determination pays off and I end up seeing some of my favorites on the last day, as I did this year.
I started the day with "FIRST POSITION" (7); I had missed it at PIFF, where it won an audience award. The film follows a half dozen young dancers who are preparing to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix. They range in age from 11 to 17, and come from quite different backgrounds--one was adopted from an orphanage in Sierra Leone and is determined to improve the image of black dancers; one is a disciplined young man from Colombia, training in New York far away from his family; another is a blonde, all-American princess who seems to have it all; there is a Japanese-American girl whose mother seems to have the same ambitions for her extremely mature and motivated daughter and her plainly disinterested younger son; and finally there is a Navy doctor's son in Italy who clearly lives to dance. All are engaging in their way, and the first-time director, a former dancer herself, clearly understands this world and knows how to tell these stories well. Her simple premise surely was not simple to pull off, and the result is an entertaining film that will get a theatrical release.
One of my surprise favorites of the day was "BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING" (7.5), a joyous look at the art and life of Wayne White, best known as one of the designers of the '80's TV hit "Pee Wee's Playhouse." Now in his 50s, and after a few soul-sapping years working in the television industry, White has reinvented himself as an artist with "word paintings" involving words imposed on thrift-store art. A few art critics interviewed in the film recall their initial skepticism but speak admiringly of a certain genius behind White's work. That may be a matter of opinion--but White won me over as a person engaged in a struggle for creative and personal authenticity. His personal history involves some challenges (as is true for most of us), but his essential buoyancy finds expression in so many delightful ways that I smiled through the whole film. This is an especially good film for those of us who are creative and/or who don't feel like we exactly fit anywhere; though it hasn't been easy, White presents an inspiring example of following one's bliss wherever it leads you.
"SPECIAL FLIGHT" (8), which won the festival's Grand Jury Prize, left me quite undone. With no voiceover, the film simply observes life inside a Swiss detention facility where illegal immigrants are held under "surveilled freedom" awaiting decision from the Swiss authorities on their status. Some are asylum seekers fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries; others have spent decades as contributing members of Swiss society but without papers. They can be held for up to 18 months without any further legal process, and many will leave on enormously expensive "special flights" that are chartered for the sole purpose of sending them back to their original countries (relentlessly called "home" by their captors). On those flights, they will be stripped and chained for up to forty hours as if they were dangerous criminals. Though we are not allowed onto a special flight, the subject comes up with the prisoners and the film's website fills in the detail that the Swiss Medical Association urges medical professionals to refuse to participate in them for ethical reasons. The film simply captures daily life at the detention center, as the prisoners struggle to keep their spirits up only to have them dashed at a moment's notice with the next deportation. This film picks up the part of the story that Thomas McCarthy's milder film "The Visitor" gave short shrift, showing how the Western world actually treats undocumented immigrants. The varying efforts of their captors to treat them humanely keep butting up against the inhumanity of their situation, prompting reflection on what participation in such a process does to the souls of the captors. Director Fernand Melgar, himself the son of immigrants, has done a masterful job of obtaining the access and trust needed to shine a light on a piece of the truth that has up to now been well hidden from view.
"THE IMPOSTER" (7) plays like a true crime story--but the outcome is revealed in the beginning. A 13-year-old boy disappears without a trace fom his neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, and then reappears three years later in Spain, sporting a French accent, different coloring, and a beard pattern well beyond his expected age. The 23-year-old con man who stepped into this boy's identity narrates much of the story, often grinning at its absurdity and even making bids for our sympathy as he relates the challenges he faced in pulling off such a scam. But the real mystery here is why anyone, particularly the family but also the FBI, believed him at all. Were the family members understandably anxious to recover their lost boy? Stupid and gullible? Guilty? This film plays a lot like last year's Errol Morris flick, "Tabloid," with a stranger-than-fiction cast of characters (including a private investigator who narrates his amazement that no one smelled the rat and an astonishingly foolish FBI agent).