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Full Frame 2018: Day Four

Since many music documentaries have been shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham over the years, I was disappointed by the lack of them on this years roster but at least there was Hugo Berkeley’s THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS, which screened at Cinema 4 at the Convention center Sunday morning.

The film, mostly made up of black and white photos, and archival footage, is about America
s greatest jazz artists including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington travelling the world as Cold War cultural ambassadors in the mid ’50s.

It began when African American congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced President Eisenhower, and top ranking Foreign policy officials that jazz played by black or mixed race bands could radically improve the U.S.A.’s image in the non-white countries of the world. So a tour taking Armstrong, Gillespie, Ellington and their mixed-race band members to such countries as Turkey, Pakistan, Demascus, and Iran was quickly put into motion.

Quincy Jones, described as a “rising young arranger” was hired to be music director, and play the trumpet. A recently filmed interview with Jones has him reflecting back in wonder on this appointment: “To think he have trusted me, 22-years old, to be in charge of his, my God’s band!”


But it wasnt all smooth sailing, as there were bumps like when Armstrong reacted to Dwight Eisenhower dragging his feet on school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 by saying that the U.S. Government can go to hell! 

Legendary pianist/composer Dave Brubeck later joined the project, and his son Darius is on hand to relay his experiences from when he was a 10-year old accompanying his father on tour. In later incarnations of the Jazz Ambassadors, Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1962 became the first  Big American Band ever permitted to play in Russia, and Duke Ellington toured the Middle East and India before the tour was cut short by the JFK assassination.

THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS plays all the right notes in being both a Cold War (or cool war” as congressman Powell called it) history lesson, and, with its classic clips of Armstrong et al, a sweeping overview of jazz 101. It may be just a footnote in the histories of these icons, but what a gloriously tuneful and still relevant footnote it is.

Next up, the last film I saw at this year’s Fest was Roopa Gogineni’s I AM BISHA, which earlier in the day won the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. 

The beautifully shot short concerns a puppeteer named
Ganja, whose forum is a viral web series for Bisha TV. Ganja seeks to ridicule President
Omar al-Bashir, who, opening titles tell us, seized power of Sudan in the 1989
military coup, and Ganja accomplishes this by voicing a puppet of the ruthless
dictator for a series of crude political spoofs that aired during the country’s
2015 elections.


Since these episodes were produced in region that’s often bombed, and unsurprisingly has no internet, they are shown to crowds in the small communities via Ganjas mobile cinema in which the videos are projected onto a large white sheet on the side of walls for the villagers. Its important because there are people who dont understand whats going on around them,” Ganja explains.

It may be only a 15-minute short, but it won the Jury Award for good reason as it says more in its brisk running time than many docs come close to in feature length.


So that’s Full Frame 2018. It was a doozy. If you haven’t already (or have – I need the clicks!), please check out the entries for Days One, Two, and Three of my exciting coverage.


More later…

Full Frame 2018: Day Four

Since many music documentaries have been shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham over the years, I was disappointed by the lack of them on this years roster but at least there was Hugo Berkeley’s THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS, which screened at Cinema 4 at the Convention center Sunday morning.

The film, mostly made up of black and white photos, and archival footage, is about America
s greatest jazz artists including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington travelling the world as Cold War cultural ambassadors in the mid ’50s.

It began when African American congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced President Eisenhower, and top ranking Foreign policy officials that jazz played by black or mixed race bands could radically improve the U.S.A.’s image in the non-white countries of the world. So a tour taking Armstrong, Gillespie, Ellington and their mixed-race band members to such countries as Turkey, Pakistan, Demascus, and Iran was quickly put into motion.

Quincy Jones, described as a “rising young arranger” was hired to be music director, and play the trumpet. A recently filmed interview with Jones has him reflecting back in wonder on this appointment: “To think he have trusted me, 22-years old, to be in charge of his, my God’s band!”


But it wasnt all smooth sailing, as there were bumps like when Armstrong reacted to Dwight Eisenhower dragging his feet on school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 by saying that the U.S. Government can go to hell! 

Legendary pianist/composer Dave Brubeck later joined the project, and his son Darius is on hand to relay his experiences from when he was a 10-year old accompanying his father on tour. In later incarnations of the Jazz Ambassadors, Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1962 became the first  Big American Band ever permitted to play in Russia, and Duke Ellington toured the Middle East and India before the tour was cut short by the JFK assassination.

THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS plays all the right notes in being both a Cold War (or cool war” as congressman Powell called it) history lesson, and, with its classic clips of Armstrong et al, a sweeping overview of jazz 101. It may be just a footnote in the histories of these icons, but what a gloriously tuneful and still relevant footnote it is.

Next up, the last film I saw at this year’s Fest was Roopa Gogineni’s I AM BISHA, which earlier in the day won the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. 

The beautifully shot short concerns a puppeteer named
Ganja, whose forum is a viral web series for Bisha TV. Ganja seeks to ridicule President
Omar al-Bashir, who, opening titles tell us, seized power of Sudan in the 1989
military coup, and Ganja accomplishes this by voicing a puppet of the ruthless
dictator for a series of crude political spoofs that aired during the country’s
2015 elections.


Since these episodes were produced in region that’s often bombed, and unsurprisingly has no internet, they are shown to crowds in the small communities via Ganjas mobile cinema in which the videos are projected onto a large white sheet on the side of walls for the villagers. Its important because there are people who dont understand whats going on around them,” Ganja explains.

It may be only a 15-minute short, but it won the Jury Award for good reason as it says more in its brisk running time than many docs come close to in feature length.


So that’s Full Frame 2018. It was a doozy. If you haven’t already (or have – I need the clicks!), please check out the entries for Days One, Two, and Three of my exciting coverage.


More later…

Full Frame 2018: Day Three

The third day of the Full Frame 2018 was a cold, and rainy mess but the first film I attended, Morgan Neville’s WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR warmed me and the sold out crowd in Fletcher Hall right up.

The biodoc lovingly lays out the life of the beloved children’s educator/entertainer Fred Rogers, with tons of clips from the long running (or runs since the show left and came back) PBS program, Mr. Rogers Nighborhood, and interviews with fellow cast members, family, and folks whose lives were shaped by the man’s teachings.


Mr. Rogers’ show, which started in 1968, may have had threadbare production values with cheap sets, and sock puppets, but it dealt with big issues like Vietnam, assassinations, and racism as filtered through the gentle sensibilities of the man, who was an ordained minister before going into children’s television programming.

One of the most stirring moments comes when Mr. Rogers appeared before the Senate to defend a proposed $20 million for PBS (Nixon wanted to cut the channel’s federal funding). Mr. Rogers heartfelt testimony, including the reading of the lyrics of his song “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?” wins over self described tough guy, Senator John Pastore, whose response I won’t spoil (you can look it up on Youtube).

A wonderful look at a sincerely dedicated man who helped many kids through the trials of childhood, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR is up there with RBG and HAL as being this Fest’s biggest crowd-pleasers.


I followed that with Hunter Baker and Jordan Fein’s THE BLESSING, about Lawrence, a Navajo coal miner, who is conflicted about working for Peabody Energy, because they are mining Black Mesa, a sacred mountain to his people. Lawrence is raising a teenage daughter named Caitlin, who has to keep it secret that she joined her school’s football team because her father would disapprove.

Lawrence struggles to stay spiritually strong after an accident on the job that fractured his vertebrae, and news that the company will close the mine in 2019. THE BLESSING is slowly paced, but that’s all the better to take in the beautiful cinematography, some of which was shot by Lawrence with a helmet-mounted camera. 


Baker and Fein’s film is a tale of hard times in the heartland that should be seen on the big screen. In one of his many poetic voice-overs, Lawrence reckons, “My job may go away, but my prayers for the mountain will always be there.” After watching the noble stoic bless everything from various household items to his new car, I don’t doubt him for a second.

Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski’s latest film, THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR, came next. 

Buirdki, whose previous docs include 2011’s THE LOVING STORY (basis for the 2016 drama LIVING), and 2015’s BY SIDNEY LUMET, uses “race films” (films made by mostly black filmmakers with black casts for black audiences), vintage footage, home movies, and old photographs to tell the tragic story of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old African American woman who was raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944. 

Despite the South’s “culture of silence,” she went to the police, but no arrests were made. The story spread through the black press, and was reported to the NAACP, who sent Rosa Parks to Abbeville to investigate what happened. A trial was held in Montgomery but the all-white, all-male jury dismissed the case. A disturbing cycle of cover-ups, one-sided examinations, and dangerously dark nights follows, but the light that comes in
the power of public push back provides hope.


THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR resonates greatly in the era of #METOO, as it pays tribute to a woman who spoke out at great risk and inspired a campaign against all injustices faced by women. Taylor, who died last December, is only featured briefly in video filmed shortly before her death, but her visage looms large throughout the film as an inspirational figure and hero. Every aspiring activist should see this film.


A very, very different subject is tackled in Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer’s RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZENarrator Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) relays the story that he calls crazier than hell, about nutria, that is, big swamp rats with web feet, and long orange teeth that are invading the Lousiana Coastal wetlands. We meet nutria hunters, nutria control workers,  nutria meat makers, nutria pet owners, nutria fur wholesalers, and nutria fur-wearing Pageant contestants like Lousiana Fur Queen, Haleigh Willis: You would never expect a rat to be elegant, yet here we are, and half of us wear it every single day.


As the Lost Bayou Ramblers contribute an appropriately swampy score, the film amusingly visits with these earthy folks whose lives are profoundly affected by these 20-pound rodents, and we get a good glimpse into how nutria became a big part of Cajun culture. Downside is that, yeah, this movie which takes its title from a PRINCESS BRIDE reference, can be pretty gross at times. – if you don’t want to see nutria stripped and their tails being cut off, this might not be the doc for you.

Coming soon: Day Four of Full Frame 2018, which will feature write-ups of JAZZ PASSENGERS, 12TH AND CLAIRMONT, and I AM MISHA.


More later…

Full Frame 2018: Day Two



I was looking forward to the second day of Full Frame this year because it offered my most anticipated doc at the festival: Amy Scott’s HAL, about the legendary filmmaker Hal Ashby who made some of the greatest movies, and personal favorites of mine, of the ‘70s including HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, COMING HOME, and BEING THERE.


The biodoc is the directorial debut of Amy Scott, whose many previous credits as an editor made me think that was one of the many factors that attracted her to Ashby as he started out the same way (even winning an Oscar for editing for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1968). 



HAL fittingly starts off with Cat Stevens on the soundtrack (singing Miles from Nowhere,” also fittingly), and goes on to tell the story of the great hippy director via lots of clips from his films, and testimonials by folks he worked with like Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, and Norman Jewison, and disciples like Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, and Adam McKay.



I teared up more than a few times because Ashbys movies are a large part of why I love movies. His comic yet simultaneously tragic depictions of such heavy subjects as love, race, and class spoke to me growing up, and I could tell I was among an audience full of people who could relate. 



Scotts choice is right to give the most screen time to recollections about the seven films Ashby made in the 70s (the five I listed above and THE LANDLORD, and BOUND FOR GLORY), what Payne calls an astonishing string of masterpieces,” then quickly breeze through his less successful run in the ‘80s before his untimely death at 59 in 1989 because even hardcore Ashby fans like me gloss over those sad years. I heard a woman in the row behind me at the screening say during the credits: I think I’ll have a Hal Ashby film fest of my own when I get home! I think I’ll be soon doing that too.



Not as big a crowd pleaser as last night’s RBG (how could it be?), but a moving, and highly amusing primer of one of the 20th centurys greatest filmmakers.



For the following film, I spent some more time in the 70s with Matt Tyrnauer’s STUDIO 54, which tells a tale that’s been told many times about the famous Manhattan nightclub that hosted scores of coked up A-listers enjoying a dance party/orgy-style atmosphere while doormen and bouncers kept the crowds outside at bay.





That is only for a little while as the place was horribly run with so much money skimmed that it was easy for the FBI to shut the establishment down shortly after its founder/co-owner, Steve Rubell, stupidly boasted only the Mafia made more money. 


I grew up hearing tales, and seeing tons of photos of celebrities like Mick Jagger (and his wives Bianca, and Jerry Hall), Truman Capote, Farrah Fawcett, Andy Warhol, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minneli, and just about everyone who was a star during the Carter era, so a lot of the content of the doc wasn’t new to me, but to folks who have not a clue about these infamously sordid going-ons it should satisfactorily sum up the what went down. 


All the expected disco hits, and rise and fall tropes of many a doc about a doomed prospect gave me a big case of déjà vu, but hey, I’m old and jaded. Maybe I’m just saying that because I heard some youngin say I’ve never even seen a Hal Ashbury movie,” on the way out.


Next up, a couple of short (or shorter as one is nearly featurre length) docs that are paired together because they both deal with fake news, albeit under very different circumstances. First up, there’s Charlie LynePERSONAL TRUTH, which deals with his obsession with “Pizzagate,” and a home, named Elmm Guest House, in his London neighborhood that’s rumored to be a former headquarters to a pedophile network. Lynes conspiracy theories about these subjects are tongue-in-cheek (I think), and he scores some solid laughs with his delivery and clever edits, so I found it to be a worthwhile 17 minutes.


Maxim PozdorovkinOUR NEW PRESIDENT, which followed, is a lot more ambitious at looking at the scope of how propaganda proliferates. It’s a 77 minute compilation of clips largely from the Russian television network, RT (Russia Today), which overwhelmingly display a pro-Trump, anti-Hillary agenda.




It’s funny then terrifying, then funny then terrifying again how these segments outline how fake news spreads with flashy graphics, and taglines like “The longer you watch, the more upset Hillary Clinton becomes.” Intersperse that stuff with a lot of video of a smug Putin claiming he had no influence in the 2016 American election, an you’ve got video essay gold, right? 


Well, not really. While initially the impact of how insane the lengths that such propaganda goes to convince the populous of whatever ridiculous stance is substantial, the effect diminishes upon every news cycle that follows. It ultimately felt like a YouTube rabbit hole playlist that one might mistakenly make a friend to watch. After 30 minutes or so, they’ll be like “Okay, I get it – Russian influence is bad and nobody is taking it seriously enough. So what should we get for dinner? Anyway, thats how I felt, and I could tell that’s how the people I saw leaving early probably felt too. I did stick it out until the end though.


So that was Day Two of Full Frame 2018. If you havent already, please check out Day One


Coming soon: Day Three, which kicks off with Morgan Nevilles Mr. Rogers biodoc WONT YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (another crowd pleasing biodoc, I bet).


More later…

Full Frame 2018: Day One

Its the beginning of 21st Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs Thursday, April 5, through Sunday, April 8, in Durham at the Carolina Theatre and a handful of other venues in downtown Durham. And its my 11th year covering the Festival for Film Babble Blog so Im pysched to yet again see what films I can out of the over 100 docs that are showing over the next four days.


So heres what I saw on Day One:



Erika CohnTHE JUDGE, a compelling biodoc of the first woman in Islamic history to become a judge, kicked off the Fest in Fletcher Hall (the biggest venue used by Full Frame as it has 1,048 seats).





The film introduces us to Palestinian Kholoud Al-Faqih, who was appointed to a Shari’a court in the Middle East in 2009, after working for nearly a decade as a lawyer fighting for womens rights. 


Early on, Al-Faqih stresses that the problem is that women don’t know their rights,” and we see her attempt to remedy that through how she rules on cases of domestic violence. Al-Faqih faces a lot of opposition as women are the marginalized parties in Shari’a courts, and men in power, like one who issues a Fatawa against her, and a Chief justice who temporarily suppresses her role by removing all litigation from the small courts, but she perseveres while opening the door for the appointments of more women to higher positions.



Al-Faqih’s father is proud, saying that, God willing, she could even be President of the State of Palestine someday. He exclaims, Look at Hillary Clinton! Okay, that’s a bad example, but one that says a lot because, yeah, it’s great that the Arab world is allowing women to take on more important roles, but we all still all have a long ass way to go.



My next film was Lauren Greenfields GENERATION WEALTH. 




Greenfield, a photojournalist/documentarian, previously got acclaim for her 2010 doc THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, which this film touches on as the same theme of the crazy indulgences of the rich are shared, but this time, Greenfield digs deeper into her examination of how the quest for money and fame can really screw people up.


The film, which is stuffed with hundreds of Greenfields stunning photographs, is also autobiographical as it covers the last 25 years of her career, in which she has extensively chronicled the lives of the one percent, and the people who desperately want to be in the one percent. Greenfield explores the stories of such subjects as former porn actress Kacey Jordan, who had a brush with fame via an expensive fling with Charlie Sheen, six-year-old “Toddlers and Tiaras” star Eden Wood, German hedge fund manager Florian Homm, plastic surgery addict Cathy Grant, as well as including some quality time with her husband and kids.



GENERATION WEALTH, a companion to Greenfields big coffee table book of the same name is a funny, bling-filled visual essay on excess that doesnt need images and footage of the Kardashians and Trump to make its points, but they so fall in line with her thesis on excess that it would be kind of weird of they were excluded.



The Opening Night film for Full Frame is usually a very prestigious production, and this years is not exception: Julie Cohen and Betsy Wests RBG, a biodoc of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 





The audience was primed for it, and when Ginsburg recited a quote by19th-century abolitionists/feminist Sarah Grimké: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” they applauded like they were watching a ROCKY movie. 


Justice Ginsburg allowed Cohen and West a lot of access, sitting down with them for extensive interviews, sharing her archives (her reading a letter from her husband, Marty, on his deathbed is one of many emotional moments here), and even letting them film her reaction to Kate McKinnon’s silly SNL impression (she has a giggle fit). 


We learn about the esteemed jurist’s landmark cases largely involving gender equality, her two bouts with cancer during which she didn’t miss a day on the bench, and what she thinks about her nickname The Notorious RBG” (she said that she didnt mind it as she and the rapper Notorious BIG are a lot a like; “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York”).

A powerful, uplifting, and terrifically insightful portrait of possibly one of the most influential women in modern history, one who definitely deserves her iconic status that millions of memes, t-shirts, and even tattoos can attest to, RBG is a bonafide crowd pleaser – judging from the copious amount of applause and laughter, it may be the biggest crowd pleaser Ive ever seen at Full Frame.

So with those fine films, all three made by women I might add, that was a great first day of Full Frame 2018. Tomorrow, I size up docs about legendary director Hal Ashby, Studio 54, and fake news, whatever that is.

More later…