Case Number 07395: Small Claims Court


Docurama // 2004 // 114 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // August 16th, 2005

The Charge

Now entering Realitywood...

Facts of the Case

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is known for its intimacy and hospitality. Perhaps the nature of the documentary style invites this intimacy. Perhaps it is due to the professionalism of founder Nancy Buirski, festival director Robyn Yigit Smith, and the dedicated core staff. Maybe the backing of a board with Big Names helps. Whatever the reason, Full Frame is expansive, but fosters a pleasant, down-to-earth attitude.

Even so, there was a fair amount of adrenaline in the air at this year's festival. People talked in heated tones about the war in Iraq. Aspiring filmmakers found quiet corners to talk with studio reps. The buzz was palpable when Martin Scorsese and Ric Burns showed up. Excited fans asked Walter Mosley for his autograph, which he gave with aplomb. Everywhere you looked, people were talking about the films they'd seen, or wanted to see; had made, or wanted to make.

It is of course impossible to capture the energy of Full Frame on a lifeless disc. Documentaries are by nature personal; the experience is enriched by talking about how a film made you feel in the lobby with other festival goers, or even at the filmmaker party with the filmmaker herself. The problem is compounded by the limited space on a DVD: There simply isn't room for all of the stories. Film distribution plays its part as well. Is Murderball going to be on next year's Volume Four? Doubtful, not after the press it has generated.

For these reasons, the six short films below are not representative of the overall 2004 Full Frame experience. Six films cannot begin to represent all of the stories that screened at last year's festival. Nonetheless, they manage to suggest the emotional breadth of the documentary and give us a glimpse into what compels documentarians and their fans.

* A Thousand Words (Melba Williams, 9 minutes)
A Thousand Words won the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. I can see why, though it isn't my favorite film on this disc: Melba's father took a camera with him to Vietnam and covertly filmed what he saw. The gleaming path of tracer bullets is beautiful, until you figure out what you're seeing and where the bullets are landing. Helicopters haul nets full of bodies through the air. Furtive glimpses at Williams's fellow soldiers reveal dumfounded horror, fear, and resolve. The war has never been closer, or more real.

This footage is surrounded by a narrative about Melba's tardy attempts to learn about her father's traumatic past: He suffered a stroke and cannot fully communicate with her now about the images he took. The "too late to ask" theme obviously resonated with people at the festival, but I found it distasteful. He obviously does not want to relive those times, and I wanted her to leave him alone. Let people's reticence to speak speak for them.

* The Great Cheesesteak Debate (Scott Vosbury, 13 minutes)
As a native North Carolinian, I can only imagine how a similar documentary might depict North Carolinians and the war between Eastern, Western, and Lexington-style barbecue. That's the beauty of The Great Cheesesteak Debate; it probably isn't about your home town, but you can see in it the needling and "friendly" debate that might surround your local cuisine. Vosbury captures Philly's segregated camps of cheesesteak lovers with humor and insight. Be it drunk college kids hurling insults across the street as they stand in long lines at competing delis Pat's and Geno's, or grizzled veterans who have been patronizing their chosen joint for decades, the rivalry is vigorous in this amusing distillation of local strife.

* Rosalie's Journey (Warwick Thornton, 23 minutes)
Rosalie's Journey is more in line with what I'd hoped to find: a cohesive, meaningful look at someone else's life. In this case, that person is Ngarla Kunoth, the star of Chauvel's 1955 film Jedda. Ngarla, a.k.a. Rosalie, was perfectly happy to live in the Australian outback with her fellow Aborigines. When her father sent her to Catholic school, it began a strange journey to movie stardom. Thornton tells this tale with an eye toward cultural misunderstandings, how Western assumptions unknowingly forced a young girl to violate her tribal law. The raw beauty of the Outback is shown, but not dwelled upon. Likewise, Western cultural attitudes are condemned, but Westerners are not vilified. The end result is a balanced story that never strays too far from Rosalie's story.

* Texas Hospitality (Michael Pfaendtner, 4 minutes)
This short film resembles a fancy PowerPoint presentation set to ironic music. As a jaunty ditty plays in the background, pictures of ten death-row inmates march by, along with their crimes and what they ate for their last meals. Texas Hospitality is a succinct statement about capital punishment; it milks the gag for what it's worth, and lets go before it gets old.

* Journeys (Vinayan Kodoth, 39 minutes)
Journeys was harder for me to get into than the other documentaries because it feels like a dusty old National Geographic travelogue you might have watched in elementary school. Once Kodoth's point becomes clear, the documentary gets much more interesting. Through the universal experience of travel, Kodoth reveals what life in Bombay is like. Passengers literally fight each other to get on and off of trains that are full to bursting with human cargo. People near windows smile with relief; some choose the far more dangerous, but less crowded, option of sitting on the curved train roofs or straddling the junctions between cars. Boat travel and car travel are just as unappealing, especially when contrasted against the urban waste nearby. I found myself wondering what would compel a man to face death by sitting on top of a speeding train car.

* Foxhole (Franko Galoso, 26 minutes)
Foxhole is great on its own, but even more impressive as a student work. Galoso details the lives of two Vietnam vets who connected powerfully with each other in the midst of the chaos. As they tell their story, we learn something about our country and its values in a nonpreachy venue. Foxhole is not exactly lighthearted, but its warmth and honesty are most welcome.

The six short documentaries on this disc offer mixed visual styles and techniques, ranging from classic full-frame film to widescreen digital "mixed media," but they all get the job done. Each film has credits and a filmmaker biography. The focus of this year's festival was "Why War?" so I expect next year's crop of documentaries to have a harder edge than did these. If you prefer Realitywood to Hollywood, consider stopping by Durham next spring for the 2006 festival.

Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile
Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Filmmaker Bios

* IMDb: A Thousand Words

* IMDb: The Great Cheesesteak Debate

* IMDb: Foxhole

* IMDb: Jedda

* Full Frame Documentary Film Fesitval

* DVD Verdict review of Volume One

* DVD Verdict review of Volume Two