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AMAZING GRACE: Even More Glorious Than I Expected

Opening today at a theater near me:
AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack, 2018) 
This Aretha Franklin concert film, finally released after 46 years of legal wrangling and technical issues, is even more glorious than I expected it to be.

I had more than an inkling of its wonder as I’ve heard the live recordings, released on the 1972 Grammy-winning album, Amazing Grace, many times, but actually seeing the Queen of Soul at the height of her power, performing her vocal gymnastics, backed by Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir is a mind-blowingly emotional experience for which I wasn’t quite prepared.

The audience I saw it with at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival a few weeks back definitely agreed as they acted like they were at a real live Franklin show. They rapturously applauded after every song, and sometimes even during songs when the passion of Franklin’s unbelievable belting was hard not to respond to with loud clapping.

The footage of the original real live Franklin show was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The shoot well wonderfully, as evidenced by the resulting we have here, but Pollack failed to use clapperboards, which assist in synching visuals with sound, so it took decades before the problem could be solved via digital technology.

Former Atlantic Records A&R man Alan Elliott, who bought the film rights in 2007, had the sound remastered, and, with editor Jeff Buchanan, cut this pleasing 90-minute concert movie out of 20 hours of raw footage.

Meanwhile, Franklin sued to block the film’s release multiple times for reasons that differ in just about everything you would read about the film but seem to all come down to money.

But all that background aside, the film, that was “produced and realized by” (that’s an actual credit) Elliot, is one of the most joyous musical movies I’ve ever seen. Above I’ve called this a concert film rather than a music documentary as it’s a straight-up collection of performances from two nights, with only the context of opening and ending sum-ups. In a documentary there would be interview segments, and explanations to things like how it is that Mick Jagger came to be in the back of the church, but in this live documentation, Jagger’s just there dancing along with the rest of the congregation.

Too many highlights to list here (just basically look at the song listing and see all the highlights listed), but I was particularly moved by the 29-year old Franklin’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” her leading the choir through the rousing AF gospel standard “Old Landmark” (this is the song that James Brown performs in THE BLUES BROTHERS with the same choir btw), and her sweet sequeing of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” All show-stopping stuff. 

Rev. Cleveland should be also be noted as he confidently conducts both evening’s programs and adds his baritone vocal throughout.

For me, AMAZING GRACE is already up there with such concert film classics as STOP MAKING SENSE, THE LAST WALTZ , and GIMME SHELTER. It’s a shame Franklin never made peace with the production before she passed last year, and that Pollack was never able to get the film together before he passed in 2007, and that it took almost half a century for it to see the light of day (or darkness of a movie theater), but it’s here now and it’s a glorious must see. Even if you’re not religious (I’m not), or don’t like gospel (I like some), it’s still powerful enough to make an atheist say “Amen.”

More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Four

The fourth and final day at this year’s Full Frame may have been my favorite. That’s largely because of the Closing Night film, but I’ll get to that below. Here’s some takes on the films leading up to that. 

Avi Belkins’ MIKE WALLACE IS HERE started off my day. It’s yet another biodoc (not that I’m complaining – I love biodocs) of a famous figure told through the testimonials of family, friends, and admirers, and a large supply of footage, video, and photos. This time, legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace gets the treatment and we are taken through six decades of the man’s work, taking us beyond his best known work as the co-host on 60 Minutes.

I was unaware that Wallace, before he became one of the most feared TV journalists, had been an actor, a game and variety show host, and a commercial spokesman for many products including Parliament Cigarettes, something that came back to haunt him. I also didn’t know about the mid ‘50s late night interview show, Night Beat, which, from the clips shown here, looks like a ginormous influence on every hard-hitting interview shows.

I enjoyed all the bits from the many famous interviews he conducted throughout his career, the most notable being Salvador Dalí, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, Malcolm X, the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), and the eight U.S. Presidents he interviewed from J.F.K. to Bill Clinton – there’s even a snippet of a piece with a young Donald Trump, who says he’s not going into politics.

I would’ve liked Belkins to have gone deeper into Wallace’s suicidal dark period, touched on THE INSIDER, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about a controversial 60 Minutes segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower (Wallace wasn’t happy with how he was portrayed), and maybe a little something about his son, Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace, who is only mentioned in passing. Nevertheless, it’s a fine primer to the life of a television icon with a lot of choice cuts from his illustrious career. I can’t really say it’s another RBG or WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, but there should still be an audience out there for it.

Following that was Kenny Dalsheimer’s YOU GAVE ME A SONG: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALICE GERRARD, a portrait (yep, another biodoc) of the Durham-based folk singer Alice Gerrard. 

The lovingly crafted film takes us through the multi-instrumentalist’s history and love of traditional music largely through interviews with Gerrard, her family, a score of fellow musicians, and mostly photos as precious little footage exists from her early years.

Gerrard’s marriages to Jeremy Foster and Mike Seeger (both musicians) are explored, but it’s partnership with Hazel Dickens, who performed with her in the Black Creek Buddies, that is focused on the most. The duo battled sexism, and injustice while carrying the folk/country/bluegrass torch forward. In the ‘80s, Gerarrd extolled the values of her musical loves by becoming the editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald, a magazine devoted to trad tunes. 


YOU GAVE ME A SONG is a touching tribute to an extremely talented lady, whose name, and music I’ve heard often but never knew her background. It’s as insightful as it is a toe-tapper, but more importantly it’s a film festival crowd pleaser. Even if you don’t like this kind of music, it’s must see. 

Finally, the Closing Night Film that I mentioned above was Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s AMAZING GRACE, about Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972. More a straight-up concert film than a probing doc, the movie is even more glorious than I had expected. 

Since the film will be released in my area next week, I’ll wait until then to post a review, so I’ll just leave you with the trailer right now. Watch it and I bet you’ll want to see it. If you don’t, I’ll just assume you don’t possess two ears and a heart. 

So that’s Full Frame 2019. I had a great time and saw some great docs. Of course, I always do at this Festival – that’s why I have gone every year for over a decade. I’m already looking forward to next year.

More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Three


There’s a lot to cover from my third day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year so let’s get right to them. These entries are more blurb-y than usual because it’s a long roster, and I’m exhausted from the onslaught of docs.

First up, David Hambridge’s KIFARU, which concerns James Mwenda & Joseph ‘JoJo’ Wachira, two Kenyan rhino caretakers, and one of their herd, Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world. 

At first KIFARU was killing me as it was drawn out and had a skimpy storyline mainly involving watching James and JoJo walk around with rhinos, but a compelling narrative forms, and I really began to feel for the 45-year old Sedan.

James tells us that when Sedan was born, “thousands of northern white rhinos roamed Africa,” but “violent wars and intense poaching drove these rhinos towards extinction.” Later in the film he concludes that “extinction is the definition of human extremes of greed.” But as heartbreaking at Sudan’s death as the caretakers and the audience, there is a silver lining in that the rhino’s DNA can be used by scientists to possibly clone the species. KIFARU * may have moments that make it the saddest doc I’ve seen at this year’s festival but it’s also among the most endearing. 


In Kiswahili, Kifaru means Rhino.


Following that was François Verster and Simon Wood’s SCENES FROM A DRY CITY, a 12 and half minute short about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Massive drought hit the region in 2015, and continued in the years since forcing residents to pay for very limited quantities or seek elsewhere for water. But this fine film is more about imagery than information as gives us stirring shots of people struggling to find water by even dancing with flags to make it rain, bleak landscapes with dried up lakes, and police trying to enforce water regulations. 

Alexander Glustrom’s MOSSVILLE: WHEN GREAT TREES FALL, which came next, is about the town of Mossville, Louisiana, a community founded by former slaves that is threatened by a high concentration of industrial plants and their toxic emissions. 
One resident, Stacey Ryan, refuses to pack up and move from his house which is in the way of a large factory’s expansion. “Welcome to beautiful downtown Mossville – population: one,” Ryan sarcastically says at one point.

While security from the South African-based chemical company Sasol that’s creeping closer to his property harass him, Ryan also has to deal with sickness, no doubt caused by the chemical exposure from the nearby plant. Many moments in MOSSVILLE are rich with poignancy as residents lament about the history of their area, but overall it’s an angering portrait of how uncaring corporations can cause fence-line communities to crumble. Another devastating doc in a festival full of them. 


Stanley Nelson, who directed the day’s last film, MILES DAVIS: THE BIRTH OF THE COOL, is no stranger to Full Frame, having had several of his docs, including JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE, THE FREEDOM RIDERS, and THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF A REVOLOUTION, screen at the festival over the years (Nelson also won Full Frame’s Tribute Award in 2012).

Nelson’s latest is a musical biodoc of the jazz legend Miles Davis, which by its title made me think it was specifically about Davis’ work in the ‘50s as there was a compilation covering that period by the same name, Birth of the Cool. But, no, it’s a career overview that traces Davis’ history from his birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926 to his death in Santa Monica in 1991, via scores of engrossing performance footage, little seen photos, and testimonials by folks like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter,

This material is decorated by narration provided by actor Carl Lumbly reading in a familiar rasp from transcripts of 55 hours of Davis interviews. There are also intriguing bits of studio outtakes from such as the master trumpeter’s iconic work, Kind of Blue. The film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ darkness – his drug use, and spousal abuse * are touched upon as much as his jazz innovations.


From the ‘40s bebop era to his electric period of the ‘70s, which was highlighted by one of his most successful albums, Bitch’s Brew, this doc provides a non flashy straight forward portrait of Davis for the uninitiated. It may be too formulaic a doc for the hardcore, but I bet even they will dig some of the rare treats within.

* Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor Davis, one of the most touching interview subjects here, sadly passed away late last year.


More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Two


The second day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was really rainy this year. One or more days during the event usually are stormy obviously because of the time of year, and I’m sure that I’ve made this observation before, but I’m not gonna Google myself to see. I’m going to just jump right into the films I saw at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center on Day Two.

First up, Mike Attie’s MOMENT TO MOMENT, a 14-minute short about Carl Duzen and Susan Jewett, a long-married couple who first met as teachers – he was a physics teacher; she taught art. 

In 2014, Duzen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and one way he deals with it is to take apart old electronics to get to the copper within. Duzen then delivers it to his wife, who then makes art out of the twisted rolls of the red-brown metal.

The short has its share of sad moments like when Susan says of her husband’s dementia, “It’s pretty awful, and especially for a man I married especially for his mind,” but it has a good bit of happiness in it to as we watch the couple dance, reminisce about their first date, and open an exhibit entitled “Carl Duzen: Copper. Denying Dementia Its Due.” Of course, it has to end on a sad note but it’s also a poetic one that I’m sure will stay with me. 


Next up, Cameron Mullenneaux’s EXIT MUSIC about 28-year old Ethan Rice, who we are told up front was born with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease that leads to severe lung damage and eventually respiratory failure. Rice, who lives with his family in Upstate New York, is a talented, appropriately cynical artist who composes music on his electric guitar and makes really cool-looking stop motion movies with his toys – excerpts of which are shown throughout the doc. Rice’s dad is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, who speaks about his family’s disease prone history. It’s not as depressing as it sounds, but, yeah, it is pretty depressing.

While EXIT MUSIC often plays like a sloppily stitched together collection of home movies, it builds to its inevitable conclusion with purpose. You probably guessed that Ethan is no longer with us, but from all the work we get glimpses of, it looks like he made the most of his time here. Seriously, those stop motion clips are awesome – the stuff he did with toy soldiers is so much cooler than the likewise toy soldier stuff in last year’s floptacular, WELCOME TO MARZEN.

One of my most anticipated docs of the fest followed, Janice Engel’s RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, about the late, great legendary Texan columnist, humorist, and political commentator who certainly had quite the mouth on her.

  
The outspoken liberal scribe, who when working for the Minneapolis Tribune became the first woman police reporter in the city, was a hilarious woman with a very quick wit and there’s lots of it on display here from interviews she did on C-Span (lots of C-Span here), Late Night with David Letterman, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a number of speaking engagements. The woman’s work was often controversial and got her a lot of hate mail, but she appeared not to care or be scared. That also seemed to be her reaction to being diagnosed with cancer in 2000. During this period she wrote or co-wrote a a handful of well received books including two scathing books about her nemesis, George W. (“Dubya”) Bush.

RAISE HELL is a delightfully biting biodoc about a woman whose voice probably resonates now more than it did when she was alive (she passed at age 62 in 2007). My only disappointment with the film is that Ms. Ivins wasn’t there to come out for a Q & A at the end. 


I knew she had to be popular, but I didn’t know how much of a rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to Full Frame’s largely liberal audience before seeing the opening of Rachel Lears’ KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. We see Ocasio-Cortez putting on makeup before going onstage at an event, and the crowd around went crazy and applauded. She hadn’t even said anything yet. Anyway, the film follows the 2018 congressional campaigns of New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, and three other progressive female candidates – Missouri’s Cori Bush, Nevada’s Amy Vilela and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin.

This poli-doc is very entertaining and has an undeniably inspirational spirit, but it’s a bit fluffy and can feel like reality TV at times. It’s so packed with the passion of these driven women that I’m going to let those quibbles slide. As expected, Ocasio-Cortez gets the bulk of screen-time, but the shit-kicking Vilela gets to steal the show a few times with such comments as “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming!”

Finally, I ended Day Two with Penny Lane’s HAIL SATAN?, which is obviously about Satanism – the Satanic Temple particularly and their ongoing fight for separation of church and state. 

The Church’s co-founder Lucien Greaves is the dominant voice here telling us about the religion’s mission – all very informative to me as I was unaware that the Satanic Temple existed (it founded in 2013 so I can be forgiven for not being up to date), and that there was any kind of movement.

One amusing thread (they’re all pretty amusing) in this film involves the Satanic Temple’s attempts to erect a statue of the horned demon Baphomet on Oklahoma and Arkansas state grounds. As you can see from the picture above, they succeeded. While the doc is very funny with a lot of lines that land, director Lane (NUTS, OUR NIXON), obviously gets where these people are coming from and gets us there too. She gives us enough insight into the ideology that when one of her interview subjects says, “As a Satanist, I believe that confronting injustice is an expression of my satanic faith,” it doesn’t come across as ironic at all.

Coming soon: Full Frame 2019 Days Three & Four. Also check out Day One if you haven’t already.


More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day One


It’s that time of year again. That’s right, once again it’s time for The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, four days of non-fiction fun in Durham, N.C., at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center. Now, since I’ve been covering Full Frame for Film Babble Blog for over a decade, I feel like I’ve said it all before in these intros to my mini-reviews of the docs I saw daily. Like, for instance, using phrases like “non-fiction fun,” or mentions of the weather – it was nice today, not that that mattered to the hundreds of people watching films indoors – and, of course, the use of pictures just like that one above.

So let’s get right to the helpings of primo infotainment (yes, I’ve used that phrase before too) that I indulged in on Day One: 


First up, North Carolina-based, first-time filmmaker Jethro Waters’ F/11 AND BE THERE, which is one of those docs whose subject, in this case photojournalist Burk Uzzle (a Raleigh native!), is someone I didn’t think I knew anything about, but while watching it I realize that I’m well familiar with the man’s work.


You see, Uzzle shot the iconic image of the blanket-clad hippy couple which graced the cover of the soundtrack album for the Woodstock film in 1969, his photo coverage of Martin Luther King’s funeral contains many recognizable photos, and many of his pictures depicting Cambodian war refugees in the late ‘70s that I’ve seen in many a magazine over the years.

Tons of Uzzle’s eye-popping pictures, beautifully augment his life tales, with animations by Cable Hardin filling in the spaces in his stories in which there are no photos or footage of, like a great, gripping anecdote about covering a KKK rally. Almost as gorgeous as Uzzle’s photography is Water’s cinematography which crisply captures his subject at work, whether in his studio or out on the road. F11 AND BE THERE (a camera setting, and a quote about being at the right place at the right time) is striking biodoc that will likely give folks insights into many famous pictures that they’ve seen before, but never thought about who or what was behind them. 

Next up. Bill Haney’s JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH, another biodoc of a great guy behind the scenes. That would be Noble prize-winning immunologist Texan Jim Allison, who with his long grey hair and scraggly beard is a Jerry Garcia-ish looking scientist. Since his mother died from lymphoma, and his brother from prostate cancer, Dr. Allison has long been obsessed with curing cancer, and this film shows him getting damn close. But his struggles with getting funding from pharmaceutical companies get in the way.

In this informative film which is narrated by Woody Harrelson, we also see another side of Dr. Allison as a blues-loving harmonica player who makes friends with Willie Nelson, and even plays with him at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2016. But mostly we learn, via dark animation, about the T cell receptor, which fights cancer cells, and other infected cells, in order to help the body to fight these diseases. Dr. Allison is an inspiring figure, and now he’s got an inspiring film portrait to boot. 


The next doc, Heddy Honigmann’s BUDDY, is less heavy than the previous film yet it deals with some emotional material. It concerns the world of service dogs – you know, dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities – and follows six different individuals who have been paired with smart, capable canines that they repeatedly say that they can’t live without.

So the cast is made up of Mister and his human Trevor, an Afghanistan veteran, who Mister helps get through flashbacks; Makker and his human, Edith, whose blindness is aided immensely by Makker; Utah, and his human, the young autistic Zeb, who plays with Utah from behind a comforter; Missy and her also blind human Hans, who loves Missy more than anybody he knows; Kay and her human Annebel, who are inseparable; and Kaiko, and her wheelchair-bound human, Erna, who we watch in awe as Kaiko pulls off her socks by command.

BUDDY may be a bit formless, and disjointed, but it’s such a touching crowd pleaser that folks will look right past that, and into the eyes of these talented and devoted guide dogs. There are too many amusing, and touching scenes to pick a favorite but the one that shows one of the dogs retrieving a piece of paper from a printer, and taking it, by mouth, of course, to their respective human is definitely up there.


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 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…