Thursday, April 2, 2009


What a treat to be back at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival! This is my third year attending this premier documentary festival, which, to my good fortune, happens to be in Durham, North Carolina, the home of one of my closest law school friends. We have a ball every year seeing as many films as we can cram into a day. I'll post about each day's largess, so stay tuned.

I began this morning with "Mechanical Love," a meditative look at what the development of therapeutic robotics has to teach us about love and relationships. The film cuts back and forth between two stories. First, Hiroshi Ishiguro's experimental duplication of himself, his wife, and his young daughter as "geminoids" yields some interesting observations regarding his staff's superior ability to shape his geminoid into a replica of him since he doesn't know how to act like himself, the contrasting reactions of his wife and daughter to his geminoid (the wife finds it easy to interact with the geminoid while the daughter finds it quite creepy), and the "uncanny" absence of "Sonzai-kan," translated as presence or aura, in the geminoids. Second, the film follows the introduction of Paro, a mechanical baby seal, as a pet in retirement homes in Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Japan. We see the mechanics of Paro's manufacture, contrasted with the intense attachment that many retirees (one in particular) seem to form with the robot, which makes responsive sounds in recognition of the voice of its primary owner and is manufactured to be the size of a human baby, perfect for cuddling. (The project began with a mechanical cat, but was switched to a seal because people were not so distracted by real-life experience with that animal.) The film gently suggests questions about what is real and necessary about love and connection. (7)

I had a fairly strongly negative reaction to "Rough Aunties," a depiction of an advocacy organization in South Africa, Operation Bobbi Bear, that is dedicated to bringing child abusers and rapists to justice and healing the victims. It's a subject right up my ally, as most of you know, but I thought the film's handling of its subjects was unfocused, clumsy, and even creepy. I can't imagine why it won a Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema/Documentary at Sundance this year. There are lots of interviews of child victims that seem pretty problematic in their approach and that should not be for public consumption, and the aunties themselves seem to be all too aware of the camera, robbing the film of any real sense of authenticity despite the intimacy of its subject matter. It seemed to me that the filmmaker had no real focus, other than an obvious admiration of the women--but I couldn't see that their work was even particularly effective, nor does the film put it into any context. For a vastly better treatment of a similar subject, check out "Lumo," a wonderful treatment of women who work to bring healing to gang rape victims in the Congo that I saw at Full Frame in 2007 ( (2)

My third outing, "Art & Copy," was a good deal lighter and more successful. Nominated for a Grand Jury prize for documentary at Sundance (though I'm not sure what that means after "Rough Aunties"), it is a loving look at the legendary creative minds behind the best and most memorable TV and print ads of the last 45 years. It features lots of very interesting interviews with advertising geniuses, including a couple of women who were well ahead of their time in the early '60s, and tells some interesting back stories of ads you'll recognize, like "Just Do It," "Where's the Beef?" and the campaign that sprung Tommy Hilfiger into super stardom as a designer. The ads that are featured offer a fascinating history of the evolution of American culture. Although the film doesn't seem inclined to do more than hint at more critical questions about the role that advertising plays in American thought, its celebration of the creativity behind the best ads is still worth a look. According to the film's producers, who hosted a Q&A session after the screening, the film will have a limited theatrical release and then will come out on DVD, including some worthwhile extras. (7)

The final film of the day, "We Live in Public," struck me as a good film (it won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, and that makes sense to me in a way that the "Rough Aunties" award doesn't), but was not my cup of tea. It was an examination of the life of Josh Harris, described as an internet pioneer, which I suppose he was but who also seemed to me to be quite disturbed. After making millions founding a couple of savvy internet businesses, he launched what he termed a social experiment in the weeks leading up to Y2K which involved transforming a New York City basement into a hotel in which he provided the food and lodging in exchange for permission to capture absolutely everything his hundred or so guests did on camera. He apparently attracted a bunch of performance artists and attention hounds, who quickly became accustomed to defecating and having sex on camera. (I'm not kidding.) After FEMA shut down the so-called "party"/"totalitarian experiment" (Harris felt the need to also film interrogations of his subjects--something I do not understand at all), he outfitted his own apartment with webcams, streaming his entire life with his then girlfriend for all to see. For some reason, again, he felt the need not only to stream them fighting and having sex but also defecating. What gives? This is all supposed to be a visionary anticipation of the erosion of privacy that now fuels reality TV and Facebook, and I understand that case can be made, but there also seems to me to be a lot of other disturbing stuff going on. I found it interesting, and the filmmaker definitely exercised some intention in her depiction, but I didn't find the film particularly illuminating. (6)

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