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What to See (Virtually and Virtually for Free) at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Taming the Garden

After canceling last year’s festival Full Frame is back in virtual form this June (2-6) for its 24th edition. And because the Durham-based fest is probably as famous for its Southern hospitality and intimate atmosphere (that naturally leads to a wealth of networking opportunities) as it is for its stellar cinematic selections, I had to wonder if capturing the fest’s spirit online would even be remotely (no pun intended) possible. But then I realized “intimacy” also implies exclusivity. And Full Frame has always been on a parallel mission to expand access to documentary filmmaking and its tools to all.

To that end, this year’s Full Frame will feature not only 21 features and 15 shorts (19 available to US-based viewers only, unfortunately) but also quite a number of free online events. All the panels and filmmaker Q&As (with 30-plus teams) can be accessed simply by registering for a free Q&A Pass. Likewise gratis is The Creative Power of BIPOC Editors, the official launch of the BIPOC Documentary Editors Database. On June 3rd veteran editors such as Sam Pollard, Jean Tsien and Lillian Benson will be speaking on this crucial effort to upend a doc industry paradigm that has resulted in, according to one recent study, their 87%-white profession. (WTF?)

As for those stellar selections, a handful of films stand out simply because, after being overloaded with so many festivals and so little time over the past few months (plea to doc fest directors: Can you please coordinate your dates next year?), these five not only cut through the nonfiction noise but have continued to stay with me, right through the multi-fest pileup. 

All-In / Belgium, The Netherlands, France (Director: Volkan Üce; Producers: Emmy Oost, Magalie Dierick)

As someone who’s been ready to retire to a tropical island since I was a teenager, adding All-In to my queue during CPH:DOX was a no brainer. And while Volkan Üce’s look at an all-inclusive hotel on the Turkish Riviera does have some spectacular beach imagery, sadly there’s nothing luxurious about a self-centered mob of loud Russians and Brits on holiday. These entitled vacationers are the charges of young guys like Hakan and Ismail, the saintly patient stars of the doc, whose dreams are much bigger than their humble hospitality workers’ circumstances.

Exploring the lives of those on the bottom rung of the tourist industrial complex appears to be something of a running theme this year. (Miguel Ángel Blanca’s Magaluf Ghost Town, which I caught at Hot Docs, treads similar territory on the island of Majorca, albeit with a far more sinister vibe.) What’s so refreshing about All-In, however, is the deep respect the director affords his protagonists. Hakan and Ismail may be poor by Western standards, but they are far from trapped victims of slave labor. (That would be Roser Corella’s shocking, Lebanon-set, CPH:DOX and Hot Docs-selected Room Without a View. But I digress.) Like many low-wage earners here in the US – where both wouldn’t mind living someday – Hakan and Ismail put up with exhaustion and indignity because it’s the best of bad options. Until it isn’t. We each decide what price we’re willing to pay for financial freedom, which is what makes All-In all the more intriguing.

Faya Dayi / Ethiopia, United States, Qatar (Director: Jessica Beshir; Producer: Jessica Beshir)

Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, which I saw when it premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance (and was my personal pick to win), weaves a tapestry of nonlinear stories, addictive and ethereal. Ostensibly about the daily workings of the khat trade in Harar, the rural Ethiopian town where Beshir was raised, the film nearly defies description in its Maya Deren-like way. Disjointedly narrated in poetic voiceover, the Brooklyn-based director’s cinematic stunner employs both an intricate sound design and hallucinatory imagery – with the use of evocative B&W making visually clear the forces of darkness and light that are eternally at play.

Time seems to move in different directions and at varying speeds, as if the camera itself is under the influence of khat, the “water of eternal life.” Beshir takes us smack into another world, a place where this sacred tool of Sufi mysticism is exploited for profit, for basic survival – annihilating all in the blasphemy. Yet it’s also a film that absorbs and allows the viewer crucial breathing room to think. One impressionable young man says he’s heard that when people are high “they start watching films in their mind.” While a longtime elderly user responds, “Once you go in you won’t find your way out…The world we’ve carved for ourselves is an empty and lonely hideout, where no one can ever visit you.” This may be tragically so. Then again, it might just be a haunting dream.

It Is Not Over Yet / Denmark (Director: Louise Detlefsen; Producer: Malene Flindt Pedersen)

One of the highlights of Hot Docs, Louise Detlefsen’s It Is Not Over Yet — a feel-good film about end-of-life care for those whose minds have already departed — inspired me to reconnect with the Danish director (who I met, along with her producer Malene Flindt Pedersen, for a likewise inspiring lunch a few years back in Copenhagen). As I wrote in the preface to my recent interview, “With this latest project Detlefsen, whose last doc Fat Front delved into another unconventional subject, Scandinavia’s feminist body-positive movement, embeds, almost imperceptibly, in a female-founded, women-run facility. And one that covertly gives the finger to Big Pharma and corporate nursing homes by going back to basics and deploying “compassion as treatment.”

Indeed, far from depressing, the residents of this joyful haven spend their final days drinking fine wine and nibbling chocolate cake, visiting the chickens out back in the coop — even in the middle of the night if they so choose (though a helper will probably ask if they’d might like to put on a coat). Rather than dictate, to impose “acceptable behavior” or (our collective version of) reality on these folks with dementia, the caregivers simply listen intently and adjust “reality” to the residents’ version of it. It’s a process so gloriously humane – and sane – as to expose the true madness, that of drug-led geriatric capitalism.”

Radiograph of a Family / Iran, Switzerland, Norway (Director: Firouzeh Khosrovani; Producers: Fabien Greenberg, Bård Kjøge Rønning)

No surprise that this cinematic nonfiction gem won last year’s IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. As I wrote in my coverage at the time, “Though top prize winner Radiograph of a Family, which also nabbed Best Creative Use of Archive, is the fourth film from Firouzeh Khosrovani, it’s the first I’ve seen by this innovative Iranian director (though it certainly won’t be the last). Born in Tehran, Khosrovani was just seven when the 1979 revolution split apart society — and ultimately her own household. With Radiograph of a Family Khosrovani attempts to examine and understand, in the analytical and artistic manner of her secular, music-loving radiologist father, the dashed hopes and dreams of both. To do so she goes back to the beginning, to a time before she was born, when — in a twist that sounds far too strange to be true — her mother married a photo of her father. Too busy with his medical studies in Switzerland to return to Tehran, the wedding had to go on without the groom. And if that doesn’t portend a distant marriage to come I can’t imagine what would.

Through audio made up of letters and reminisces, and imagery culled from home movies and photos, alongside highly composed, still-life shots of the pointedly changing interior of the filmmaker’s childhood home, Khosrovani bread-crumb delivers a time capsule of clues. What happens when a Western culture-embracing progressive lives side by side with a conservative devout Muslim? Whose belief system is upended? Who doubles down? Or does an uneasy stalemate simply ensue? And how enlightened is a husband who coerces his protesting wife into removing her hijab for photos? How feminist is a woman who finally finds her voice in advocating for the policies of an Ayatollah? In the hands of Khosrovani, irreconcilable differences, tensions, and unanswered questions are the ingredients for some revolutionary cinema.”

Taming the Garden / Switzerland, Germany, Georgia (Director: Salomé Jashi; Producers: Vadim Jendreyko, Erik Winker, Martin Roelly, Salomé Jashi)

Another Sundance standout that spurred me to seek out the veteran talent behind the lens. From the intro to my interview with the Georgian director, “With her latest, Taming the Garden, a “cinematic environmental parable,” Jashi weaves together a series of perfectly composed shots, containing the lush magical nature on the Georgian coast, with a darker reality sometimes glimpsed only in fragments within the frame. It’s the tale of a wealthy and powerful man (tellingly, he’s never named), who has been traveling to impoverished villages for years to pursue the oddest of hobbies — collecting majestic trees, many of which have been part of their communities for over a century, silently bearing witness from as high as 15 feet above the land. In exchange for allowing (though one wonders if this is ultimately a matter of free will) the man to take away their towering giants and transplant them to his faraway walled-off garden, the residents are left with less foliage and meager payments. Also ripped up roads, massive empty holes, and the destruction of more ordinary trees that had the bad luck of standing in the way of machinery’s progress.”

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