The 5 Best Films We Saw at the 2014 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

By Jesse Paddock

Roosevelt Harris in The Great Invisible

In addition to its normal slate of invited and in-competition docs, as well as a tribute to the work of Steve James, this year the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival invited filmmaker Lucy Walker to curate a thematic program of her choosing. Walker built her sidebar around memorable characters, and how they both enrich and sometimes problematize documentary storytelling. It was a choice that resonated not only in the films she chose, such as the Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture and Marcel Ophüls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, and her own 2002 effort Devil’s Playground, but also in the new docs screening throughout the weekend.

Many of my favorites from the fest were those that fit well with Walker’s program, as you can see below. From topical and historical stories that are most effective when focused on individual subjects to strictly character-driven narratives, the following five titles represent the best of what the 2014 Full Frame had to offer as well as some of the best docs of the year so far.

The Great Invisible

One of the new memorable characters joining those highlighted by Walker was Roosevelt Harris, a resident of Bayou de Batre, Alabama, who appears in this powerful documentary directed by Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths). The film, which took home a richly deserved Environmental Award on Sunday, considers the ongoing struggles of the seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP oil spill in 2010.

Brown features interviews with survivors of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon (the massive offshore drilling rig that caused the oil leak), as well as with shrimpers and oystermen, and she even infiltrates a few late-night cigar and whiskey bull sessions among oil industry executives. Harris works in a church food pantry, delivering food to bayou residents who are unable to find work. He patiently encourages folks in his community to sign on with BP’s government-mandated compensation plan, despite their deep distrust. His help-thy-neighbor ethos stands in sharp relief with Big Oil’s venality, and Brown’s documentary is stronger for it.

The Hip-Hop Fellow

Another documentary that thrives on the charisma of its lead character is this one from director Kenneth Price. It follows 9th Wonder, a producer and rapper formerly of the North Carolina-based group Little Brother, as he heads off to Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute to lecture on hip hop. Despite his anxiety at the prospect (9th Wonder, aka Patrick Douthit, doesn’t hold a college degree) he proves a gifted speaker. His focus, both as a producer and academic, is on the aesthetics of beat-making, the ways in which producers find hooks deep in old soul and R&B records and reinvent them as hip hop.

As Dr. Henry Louis Gates, his colloquium advisor, puts it in the film, it’s a similar approach to the one the New Critics brought to poetry in the 1940s. In this way the film manages to dispense with questions of race and authenticity, at least within the space of the classroom. It is, ultimately, a full-throated argument for the inclusion of hip-hop studies in the academy alongside literature and jazz studies.

Happy Valley

Not all documentaries need to rely on strong characters for effect. Some need only to reconstruct the circumstances that incited their creation in the first place. The new film from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story; My Kid Could Paint That) does just that for the sordid revelations about Jerry Sandusky’s horrific sex abuse crimes and the implicit cover provided by Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and others in the university’s highest offices.

Appearing at Full Frame with a “re-tooled” version of the film he screened at Sundance, where he was criticized for not bringing any new information to a story that dominated the news cycle a few years back, Bar-Lev seems to have doubled down on that lack of new information. As he said in a post-screening Q&A, this is the third film in a loosely conceived trilogy of ‘symbolic association.’

In this framework, My Kid Could Paint That deals with our culture’s need to anoint geniuses, The Tillman Story our need for heroes, and Happy Valley our desire for father figures. Thus for the citizens of State College, Pennsylvania, Sandusky and Paterno were both seen as father figures for the community. Their criminality and lack of moral courage, respectively, leave the citizens of State College bereft and searching for scapegoats, answers and hope, in the form of a newly promoted football coach.

Private Violence

Cynthia Hill’s new film bears certain hallmarks of the ‘issues-oriented’ documentary, although it transcends that often-condescending rubric. Private Violence follows the work of Kit Gruelle, an advocate for victims of domestic violence in North Carolina and a former victim herself, as she bears witness for those victims, helps train police officers to be more observant on domestic violence calls and lobbies for better legal protections (among other things, the film provides an urgent rebuke to North Carolina’s antiquated domestic violence statute that treats assault with a deadly weapon as a misdemeanor).

Kit helps a young woman named Deanna build a federal case against her former boyfriend, who kidnapped her and their daughter and dragged them across the country in his tractor-trailer, beating Deanna hideously with a flashlight until she was removed to a hospital in Oklahoma. Hill does not spare the viewer the photos from these beatings; we are meant to become more vigilant ourselves in the face of such everyday danger. The film challenges us all to stop asking the default question of why didn’t the abused just up and leave. Perhaps, in so doing, we can change the conversation around domestic violence.

Last Days in Vietnam

Lastly, there’s the latest from Rory Kennedy (Ethel; Ghosts of Abu Ghraib), which takes an exhaustive look at the fall of Saigon and what it would have been like to be struggling to get on that famous last helicopter. Kennedy masterfully sets up the chessboard: the Paris Peace Accord stipulated that America would return to military action should the North Vietnamese make any hostile incursions into South Vietnam. With Nixon’s disgrace over Watergate and subsequent resignation, the North Vietnamese army decided to test that promise, and began marching south.

The film is expertly produced in the American Experience house style and fairly hums along toward its endgame, but it was not until a sequence late in the film that it worked for me emotionally. Kennedy hones in on the story of one heroic Vietnamese helicopter pilot who commandeered a Chinook helicopter, gathered up his family and neighbors and set out over the South China Sea. Running low on fuel and options, he spied the USS Kirk, which was too small to accommodate the massive helicopter.

As narrated by the pilot’s son and crewmembers of the Kirk, this harrowing story of the safe delivery of the families onboard, as well as the pilot, who dives off the helicopter at the same moment it crashes into the sea, snaps the film into focus. Suddenly the claustrophobic terror of those weeks in April 1975 becomes palpable. It’s one of those unbelievable stories that make documentaries, not to mention festivals like Full Frame, so indispensable. Here’s to storytelling!