Wednesday, May 6, 2015


[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

I see a lot of feature-length documentaries throughout the year, and the few that achieve wide release are not necessarily the best; some are overly slick or don't reflect the careful editing that enables the best docs to make plain a complex story.

The last 11 docs that I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., this month represent a range of quality, too. None are in theaters or online yet, but several are worth watching for. My brief reviews rank them from best to least successful.

My favorite film of the entire festival was "Peace Officer," which I understand will be widely available sometime this summer. The picture won awards at both Full Frame and last month’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas addressing complex issues around the increased militarization of police.

Its co-directors, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, weren't originally attracted to that topic, but rather to William "Dub" Lawrence, the relentless former sheriff who forms the backbone of the film. When Lawrence's own son-in-law was killed in a brutal show-down with the same SWAT team that Lawrence himself founded back in the 1970s, Lawrence's own investigation into the incident caused a major shift in his thinking about law enforcement, from trust to alarm.

Calling on his long years of experience as a sheriff and his particularly dogged skills as an investigator, Lawrence became concerned about the increasingly violent responses of police in making arrests and serving warrants. For him, it's a matter of the sacred trust officers owe to the public, which he sees getting lost in the escalation of assault weaponry and military gear that has become so prevalent.

Lawrence does indeed make for a compelling figure around which to build this film; he understands and respects law enforcement and appreciates the real dangers they face. He also credibly analyzes several incidents in which members of the public were killed or injured as a result of police conduct and presents convincing alternatives to the justifying narratives put forth by police.

Barber and Christopherson did not rest on the fact that they found a compelling spokesperson; rather they build a skillful narrative around Lawrence's concerns, filling in details of specific stories he has investigated and panning out to the larger issues around police conduct. They also give meaningful air time to the views of law enforcement. They have assembled an extremely compelling and nuanced approach to a topic that demands but rarely gets that kind of care. It's a first-rate piece of documentary filmmaking that I hope will attain a larger audience.

Another award winner that deserves a broader audience is "(T)ERROR." Also a co-directed first feature, it won prizes at Full Frame and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and provides a gutsy look inside an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe follow the story through the perspective of "Shariff," a former Black Panther turned FBI informant who irascibly narrates his justifications for and perceptions of the government's counterterrorism tactics. It would be hard to imagine more treacherous terrain to attempt to capture, and these filmmakers illuminate plenty of reasons for concern about how the war on terror is being conducted. The film will air on PBS's "Independent Lens" and on the BBC later this year.

On a lighter and quite delightful note, "Mavis!" explores the life and music of legendary vocalist Mavis Staples. Director Jessica Edwards was inspired after seeing Mavis perform and, taking her own advice to "make the films you want to see," cold-called Mavis's manager to begin the project, her first feature. Though the treatment here is standard, Edwards has assembled a wealth of wonderful footage of the performances of the Staples Singers and Mavis's continuing work with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and the film features artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan (who "smooched" with Mavis when they were both young) discussing Mavis's influence.

Mavis and the Staples Singers have long deserved a documentary celebration of their astonishing range of gospel, soul, and R&B and the inspiration they offered to the civil rights movement, and HBO recently picked up the U.S. TV rights to this film.

I saw "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon" late in the festival and, frankly, it was my last choice in its time slot; this brand of raunchy dominant-culture humor is not really my thing. But actually the film is a very smartly assembled history of the humor magazine that presaged "Saturday Night Live" and such feature films as "Animal House," "Caddyshack," and "National Lampoon's Vacation." It cleverly uses clips from the mag's own art to illustrate much of the history, and assembles interviews from a cast of mostly privileged white male contributors who are now in their 60s. It’s a worthwhile window into the history of American humor and culture -- though for all its wistful nostalgia, the film lacks any awareness that whole segments of American society (like, uh, women and ethnic minorities) never had a heyday in which their raunchiest humor found a dominant culture audience, and aren't likely to experience that heyday.

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" really is more my cup of tea, and this film directed by venerable documentarian Stanley Nelson delivers a comprehensive look at the controversial organization's origins and legacy. I learned a lot, as I expected to, but I have to say that the National Lampoon film juggled its various story lines a bit more successfully; I got lost at times in Nelson's assemblage of stories and left with lots more questions, even after two hours. However, that would have been particularly hard to avoid in telling this piece of history; as the film points out in its opening scenes, each participant has his or her own history of the Black Panther party that they were part of -- and that doesn't even account for the popular culture perceptions of the group. Anyone interested in furthering her education on this important piece of American culture won't want to miss this film.

"How to Dance in Ohio" won an audience award, which surprised me a little, but the film is well worth a look. In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teens and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an American rite of passage that is the setting for untold agonies even for those of us not on the spectrum: a Spring Formal. They are all working with a kind and quite brave psychologist who prepares them for and stages the event as part of their work to practice social skills. The film particularly follows three young women in their journey of preparation for the dance, and its tender exploration of their ups and downs in experiencing this event that might otherwise have been inaccessible to them is not only illuminating about autism, but is also achingly familiar terrain for anyone. The film's subjects and particularly their relationships with their caring parents are often quite moving and this depiction gently affirms common experiences that we don't always perceive so accurately.

"Tocando la Luz" took home an award for the best first-time documentary feature, though I think others outshone it. It follows the stories of three blind women in Havana, Cuba and their parallel stories of struggling for the independence. Though each individual story contained interesting features, the film needed further shaping to establish a more defined link or purpose between them.

"3 and 1/2 Minutes" probes the story of Jordan Davis, an African American teen who was gunned down by a middle-aged white man who had confronted Davis and his three friends about their loud music. I so wanted this film to be better than it is, given the importance of its subject matter, but it seems the filmmakers were so intent on releasing a film about the trial of Davis's killer that they didn't take the time assemble a very careful analysis of the larger issues. They benefit from their compelling subjects, particularly Davis’s repellant assailant, but I am still wishing for a more nuanced examination of the escalating problem of gun violence against young black men.

The final three films are worth seeing for their specialized subjects. "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year" documents the experiences of one inexperienced and ill-equipped unit of the Afghan National Army charged with maintaining security after the departure of international forces. The filmmakers embedded with the unit and captured heartbreaking scenes of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by young men with few real other options. "Devil's Rope" artfully captures a sense of the legacy of barbed wire fences in the American West, including long, silent tracking shots and laconic commentary from barbed wire enthusiasts. Finally, "Love Marriage in Kabul" follows the efforts of a dynamic Afghan woman who runs several orphanages and seeks to help a young couple accomplish a love marriage against relentless social odds in an unyielding society.

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