I am a sucker for a good documentary. In my humble opinion, “The Times of Harvey Milk” was way better than the Sean Penn-fest, “Milk.” I find that real life is just too terrible and wonderful all on its own to need fictionalizing. And so, I was hyped to go to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year, which took place last weekend in Durham, North Carolina. This was Full Frame’s 13th year. In addition to the usual programming of great new documentaries from all over the world, there was a series on labor (apropos, huh?), curated by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (of “The Last Truck: Closing of the GM Plant”).
Of the 17 films I saw in those blurry-eyed three days, here are my favorites.
“12th & Delaware”
Those who saw “Jesus Camp” know that filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing are sort of the anti-Michael Moore. They take wildly controversial topics—in this case abortion—and treat them with the utmost restraint. This time, Grady and Ewing turned their cameras (with the help of HBO funding) on two seemingly innocuous buildings situated across the street from one another in Fort Pierce, Florida—one a crisis pregnancy center, the other an abortion clinic. Essentially, the Pregnancy Care Center lures confused, pregnant, and mostly poor young women into their clinic for free pregnancy tests, and then bombards them with propaganda about abortion. The pro-life zealot who runs the center buys pregnant women McDonald’s, hoping to lure them to her side of the debate. He also has them hold little plastic fetuses and does ultrasounds—all in the name of life. On the other side of the street at A Woman’s World, workers give women a range of information about their options and make sure they’re making the choices they want and need to make. The personal has never been so political.
“Casino Jack and the United States of Money”
If the health care process didn’t make you sufficiently depressed about the state of our government, then don’t miss this polemic by Alex Gibney of “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” This time, Gibney and crew are dead-set on revealing just how completely ridiculous and immoral lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and more largely, campaign finance in general, really is. Abramoff was convicted in 2006 for defrauding American Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. His closest allies, including Tom DeLay, remain at-large and on “Dancing with the Stars.” Huh? Private jets to golf resorts in Scotland, deals made by two schlubs over a mean game of racket ball, a lifeguard-turned-puppet Executive Director of a fake foundation: If it wasn’t your own government representation that was being corrupted, it might almost be funny.
Let’s face it, a lot of great documentaries are seriously depressing. You don’t want to be the guy at the party talking about arsenic poisoning, or the Holocaust, or incest (all real topics of some of Full Frame’s best docs this year). But you can get your film on and keep your cool points at the party by talking about this funkadelic doc about the Kashmere High School jazz and funk band from 1968. The afros are huge, the skirts are short, and the instruments are shiny in this totally enjoyable, truly inspirational look at the power of music to transform lives and strengthen communities. Composer Conrad O. Johnson is the central figure in this film—a man who manages to get off his death bed to see his old band reunite 30 years later in Houston, Texas. As if the music weren’t incentive enough, I promise you’ll leave this one convinced that one person actually can make a difference just by doing what they love and bringing others along for the oh-so-funky ride.
And some other films not to be missed: “Wasteland,” “Restrepo,” “The Divine Pig,” “Family Affair,” and “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Happy watching!