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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

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.