Documentaries Worth Watching

Scoping out the best at Full Frame

Darleen Ortega | 4/12/2016, 5:57 p.m.
A terrific slate of films, all worth seeing
Samantha Montgomery in “Presenting Princess Shaw,” in inspired film about a talented singer who became an Internet sensation after toiling in obscurity for years. Magnolia Pictures

I just made my annual sojourn to Durham, North Carolina for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the premier documentary film festival in the U.S. It's a highlight of my year and gives me a chance to scope out some of the best documentaries to watch out for. I saw a terrific slate of films, all worth seeing. Here's what I saw, in order of my preferences--and where I can, I've noted distribution information.

  1. "Two Trains Runnin'" blew me away with its melding of several musical and civil rights' stories, all culminating in the events of June 1964. During the very time period that hundreds of college students traveled to Mississippi for what came to be known as Freedom Summer, a critical turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, two groups of young white men--musicians, college students, and record collectors--also separately traveled to Mississippi, but their interest was music, not activism. They came in search of Skip James and Son House, obscure country blues singers who had recorded magnificent music 30 years before and then disappeared. Through a deftly assembled collection of interviews, remarkable archive footage, and brilliant animated sequences, the film captures what a foolish thing this was for young whites to do at the time--only thinkable because most whites outside the South could not really comprehend the extent of the racial divide that severed their own country. And the thrill and danger of the search for musicians who had captured their imaginations (very much in the manner of "Searching for Sugarman") becomes a touchstone for the awakening of white Americans to the importance of the struggle of their black brothers and sisters and the beauty and truth that has long fought for expression in their music. The very summer--indeed, the very weekend--that Andrew Goodwin, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the police and the Ku Klux Klan, these other young men made a similar journey, discovered these two forgotten voices, and brought them to play at the Newport Folk Festival a month later to a thunderstruck audience of privileged folk fans. Watching their faces as they listen to James' gorgeous falsetto is like watching a spiritual awakening. This remarkable film captures the way in which music holds and carries the truths we are not yet ready to recognize in full, and the confluence of forces that came together at that time in our history through the voices of black Americans and birthed social action that we still desperately need today. The film had its premiere at Full Frame and features music from James and House as well as some of the greats who have covered them. You can follow the film on its website (twotrainsrunnin.com) and on Facebook to look for screenings; I am really hoping it will find a broad audience.
  2. "Presenting Princess Shaw" was my favorite film at the Portland International Film Festival this year, under its former title, "Thru You Princess." It holds up well on second screening, and at Full Frame Princess Shaw herself came on stage afterwards and performed a couple of songs and took questions (plus I caught her in the halls for a hug the day before). This genuine, open-hearted, and talented singer toiled in obscurity for so many years, posting songs and a video diary on YouTube (that is, into the void)--until a visionary Israeli musician and composer, Kutiman, built arrangements around her original acapella music and she became an internet sensation. In the meantime, the director of this film found her while making a doc about "YouTubers" and connected with Kutiman and found he had struck gold with this performer. This inspired film will get a theatrical release in late May--expect a longer review from me then. In the meantime, follow the film on its website (magpictures.com/presentingprincessshaw/) and on Facebook.
  3. "Weiner" is a surprisingly illuminating window into the political career of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who famously resigned his House seat after an embarrassing "sexting" scandal in 2011, and made a bid for mayor of New York City in 2013. One of the film's directors, Josh Kriegman, served as Weiner's congressional chief of staff before becoming a filmmaker, and the film benefits both from his perspective on Weiner--much more nuanced than the feeding frenzy around his stupidest mistakes--and also from the more distanced perspective of his co-director, Elyse Steinberg. They began filming their documentary when Weiner launched his mayoral bid and were along for the ride when new revelations about Weiner's former behavior restarted the media frenzy and derailed what had been a promising return to politics. What emerges is a very insightful portrait of a smart politician with good ideas that may well threaten those at the top of the power structure, whose failings bring out the worst in everyone else. If only the media were as relentless in investigating leaders who lie to Congress about the basis for war as they are about investigating salacious and stupid behavior like Weiner’s. He certainly suffers from the kind of hubris and narcissistic tendencies common to politicians, but actually also seems more self-aware and willing to own up to his mistakes. In the end, it seemed to me that this film, without ever directly saying it, reveals more about what is wrong with American politics and the media--including how much we love to have someone to judge--than it does about Weiner's well-documented failings. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and will have a limited theatrical release beginning in May.
  4. "Sherpa" focuses on the experience of the Himalayan locals who for decades have jeopardized their lives in order to literally power the ambitions of wealthy adventure junkies from mostly Western countries who are intent on summiting Mount Everest. These guides glean a relatively small slice of the economic benefit but assume as much as 30 times more risk than the tourists they assist, who scarcely notice the effort that goes into bringing them creature comforts and transporting all their equipment to the various camps along the route. In 2014, a major avalanche which cost the lives of 16 Sherpas brought these dynamics to a head in surprising ways, and the way the Nepalese government and Westerner climbers and expedition heads responded to the concerns raised by the devastated community of Sherpas as a result is shocking and very telling. The perspective of this marginalized community turns out to be both a literally and metaphorically important window into the many ways in which privilege affects perception. It has won documentary film awards in Australia and will, I hope get a limited U.S. theatrical release, given the critical acclaim that it has justly garnered. Follow it on its website (sherpafilm.com) and on Facebook.
  5. "Kiki" won a Full Frame Human Rights award, and was my favorite of the films in competition that we saw. It sheds a long-overdue spotlight onto a particular New York underground expression of ballroom, a flamboyant performance-based art form that has long been popular and life-sustaining among LGBTQ people of color. The Kiki balls offer a safe and empowered space for LGBTQ youth of color to enact modes of gender expression that often have not been safe for them to express elsewhere, and the Kiki community provides a haven for a particularly vulnerable youth population disproportionably susceptible to homelessness, violence, and HIV. The film offers windows into the scene and especially into the stories of seven people--their hopes, their struggles, and the beauty they each express on the runway and in the world. It's not an art form that I know well, and a lot of the joy of the film comes with the opportunity to appreciate the courage and tenacity it takes for these young people to find a form of expression that feels authentically theirs. Hearing their stories is important and enriching, and motivated me to continue to shake loose of the ways in which norms of gender conformity blind me and all of us from seeing and appreciating real beauty in the world. Hopefully the positive notice the film is winning at film festivals will help it snag a distributor; for now you can follow it on its website (kikimovie.com).
  6. "Hooligan Sparrow" tells a story of political awakening with remarkable parallels to "Two Trains Runnin'." After coming to NYU for school, filmmaker Nanfu Wang returned to her native China intent on making a film about a maverick activist, Ye Haiyan (known as Hooligan Sparrow), who had made a name for herself on the internet advocating for sex workers' rights. In the post-show screening that I attended, Wang explained how, like most Chinese, she had not been particularly awake to the oppressive tactics employed by her own government--but soon she found herself a target of government surveillance and intimidation along with Sparrow and her band of activist colleagues as they pleaded for justice for six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their school principal. All the activists' actions (including Wang's actions in filming) are technically legal--but the response of police and hired thugs who intimidate them, assault them, arrest Sparrow and others, and hold them for days without due process reveals a government absolutely intent on preventing any real accountability for official actions, even deplorable ones. The struggle of Wang and her subjects to document their experience--including using secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses--and even to find places to shelter them in the face of black-listing and relentless surveillance is an important window into the stakes for the struggle for human rights in China--and, to my mind, a perhaps more visible look at the tactics used by the powerful everywhere to silence dissent. You can follow the film on its website (hooligansparrow.com) and on Facebook; it's currently making the festival circuit and hopefully will find a distributer.
  7. "Life, Animated" won the audience award at Full Frame and its director, Roger Ross Williams (who also directed the terrific "God Loves Uganda"), won a documentary directing award for this film at Sundance. It's a beautiful and moving depiction of a particular family's journey with autism. Owen Susskind was an apparently happy and normal child until, at age three, he stopped talking and began regressing in other ways. After years of unsuccessful attempts to reach him, Owen's parents discovered that they could converse with him through the Disney characters that he loved so well--and indeed, eventually they discovered that Owen had the entire Disney catalog memorized and, to a large degree, experienced life through the lessons he had learned from his beloved Disney films. Through a skillful blend of interviews and beautifully animated sequences, this inspiring film tells the Susskinds' story and illustrates an important breakthrough in recognizing that the passions of kids with autism can provide an important pathway to helping them make connections and build satisfying lives. The film will receive a theatrical release in July and, until then, you can follow it on its website (lifeanimateddoc.com) or on Facebook.
  8. "Kate Plays Christine" is a particularly fascinating Rubik's Cube of a film that wrestles with the complexity of finding a truthful vantage point for story investigation. Its writer-director, Robert Greene, who won a screenwriting award for the film at Sundance, builds it around actress Kate Lyn Sheil's preparation to play Christine Chubbock, a young news anchor who notoriously shot herself on the air in 1974, in a dramatic film about her life. We follow Sheil's attempts to transform her physical appearance and to learn more about Chubbock's life and relationships in order to try to understand her dramatic and inscrutable actions. As the film unfolds, both Chubbock's and Sheil's motivations remain elusive--even more so when you realize that there is no film actually being made except the one you are watching; the entire project is an inquiry into story-telling itself. We are being had--but, in a sense, we are always being had when someone tells us a story, including a true one. And what is a true point of view for telling a personal story, especially one like this one about a sensational act by a depressed person angry about, among other things, the sensational vantage point that makes television news inherently false? And how real are Sheil's struggles with playing her? This quirky film grapples productively with the craft of acting, the quandary of suicide, and the challenge of understanding another person's story.
  9. "The Bad Kids" is a moving cinema verite' examination of a Mojave Desert High School that serves "at risk" kids. The film, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, invites you to sit with the experience of these kids and the adults who try to help them--and without directly giving you much history, you get a sense of the social, emotional, and economic pressures that have pushed these kids to the edge. Indeed, their struggles often seem to be the fall-out from the struggles of their parents. The approach of this school and its principal is a moving example of love in action--of really dealing with these kids where they are, making genuine and concrete offers of help which sometimes can be accepted and sometimes, heartbreakingly, can't be. With these kids, a rigid approach just won't work--but loving limits and real investment in them as people offers hope that inspires. The film recently acquired a distributer and can be followed on its website (thebadkidsmovie.com) and on Facebook.
  10. "Trapped" explores the alarming effects of "TRAP" laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers), which since 2010 have achieved their aim of shutting down the majority of abortion clinics in southern states and have taken hold in other states as well. The regulations impose unworkable restrictions on abortion providers that have nothing to do with safe performance of the procedure and everything to do with forcing the shutdown of clinics and making abortions practically impossible for women by requiring them to travel expensive and unworkable distances, often for statutorily required extra visits. The film illustrates how a constitutional right has been essentially regulated out of existence in large swathes of the country, increasingly leading to an alarming return of dangerous attempts by women to end unwanted pregnancies. The treatment here is reasoned and comprehensive and focuses needed attention on a trend about which most people are not well-informed. It won a special jury prize at Sundance and is currently in limited release. It will also air on public broadcasting in June. You can follow it on its website (trappeddocumentary.com).
  11. "Starless Dreams" won the Grand Jury Prize and an Inspiration Award, and invites you to sit with the experience of young women living in an Iranian juvenile detention center. These teenagers have committed serious crimes like theft, drug trafficking, and even murder, but filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei (himself the father of a teenage girl) builds the space and trust necessary to gently coax from his subjects the stories of abuse and deprivation that appropriately broaden the picture of their actions. My own experience leads me to expect that one might hear similar stories from girls in detention here in the U.S; the filmmaker subtly raises questions about the world these girls can expect and the societal failures that have brought them to this place. I'm not sure it will get a U.S. theatrical release, but it is worth keeping an eye out for an opportunity to give these girls your ear.

12. "Sonita" won a filmmaker award at Full Frame and an audience award at the Portland International Film Festival. It follows the story of Sonita Alzadeh, an Afghan teenager living illegally in Iran and attending a school for refugees who desperately wants to be a rapper. Among the obstacles she faces? She lives in a culture that forbids women from singing publicly, that sees her as useful only for obtaining a valuable marriage contract that will help her desperate family, and that severely limits any kind of self-expression. The filmmaker ends up walking some interesting lines as Sonita enlists her for help in getting to the U.S. and in navigating her mother's disapproval--but it is a compelling window into Sonita's culture and into the ways that even the most oppressed teenagers struggle to find their voices. It is slated for a theatrical release in late May.

13. "Behemoth" has garnered awards internationally and is a devastating depiction of environmental degradation wrought by coal mining in Inner Mongolia. The director takes a poetic approach to the subject, drawing a parallel to Dante's Inferno, and I must say, I did feel as though I was watching hell for 90 minutes. The director lingers and finds the scope and angles for depicting what is happening to a formerly lush landscape in a way that makes your heart ache, as does his focus on the exertions of the people who perform the agonizing and hellish work of moving coal and doing other senseless acts. You can almost feel their bodies breaking down--and sure enough, many such workers become very ill and are not well-supported by industry or the Chinese government. The power of the images here is best experienced on the big screen, and there is no mistaking the importance of bearing witness to this scale of human folly.

14."Call Me Marianna" has achieved awards recognition in Europe and at Full Frame, where it won a new filmmaker award, and examines the sex reassignment journey of a woman in Poland. Although its pace drags a bit and the accompanying music is more annoying than effectively portentous, the film is nevertheless an interesting window into one woman's experience, which involves the loss of relationships and even a court battle, as well as a cascade of health problems. I appreciated the opportunity to witness how a non-famous person in central Europe navigates these particular treacherous waters.

15."Raising Bertie" is the fruit of the filmmaker's six-year journey with three young black men in rural Bertie County in North Carolina, trying to launch independent lives in the face of limited opportunities, economic hardship, and a paucity of inspiration and hope from adults around them. The film started as an exploration of an alternative high school founded by a determined powerhouse of a local woman, but the school closed early in the filming for lack of funding. The young men themselves are certainly worthy of the filmmaker's attention, and they do manage to survive, but I would not call it thriving. The film is an opportunity to fill out some details of your picture of the challenges faced by young men in communities like these; if you are paying attention at all, the legacy of slavery is hard to miss.

16."Gleason" follows the story of Steve Gleason, a Spokane native and popular former player for the New Orleans Saints who was diagnosed with ALS at age 34, just as he and his wife Michel were starting a family. The couple is as genuine, courageous, and good-hearted as any two young people who have faced such unthinkable challenges could possibly be, and Gleason has led significant advocacy on behalf of ALS patients--but I also think the film could have benefited from a more mature directorial perspective and perhaps with a bit more time for the story to unfold. ALS is as brutal as it gets; I suspect it would be an unusual human being who could do this story justice as a director. That said, it won special mention from the Grand Jury at Full Frame, and Gleason and his family are the most sympathetic subjects imaginable. The film will be released theatrically in July.

In addition to the feature-length films I saw, I caught excellent two shorts. "I, Destini" is an animated short co-directed by a Durham teenager who reflects on the differences between the experience of her African American family (including a brother accused of a serious crime) and her white classmates. Her parents helped her with the project, which began when she was 13, including by working on the animation itself. There is something profound about a family working through trauma by drawing together their response to what happened--and the film is quite powerful. If you're interested in screening the film, visit idestini.info, where you can also watch a clip of it. "The Black Belt" examines the after-effects of the Alabama legislature's decision in 2015 to close 31 DMV locations in predominantly black communities to save $100,000 for the state. Residents must now obtain voter ID cards from ramshackle mobile units that visit those communities very rarely. The film documents a particularly clear example of institutionalized oppression. Watch for it on the website for Field of Vision, theintercept.com/fieldofvision.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.