A festival in full frame: Select coverage of the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

DURHAM
Over the last four days, film lovers converged in Durham for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

They came with their family and friends to find out more about the world.

And, of course, to watch some great independent documentaries.

Below you’ll find coverage of three of the titles screened at this year’s festival. Coverage includes a video film review from two patrons of “Hot Coffee,” a film review of the full-length documentary “Diary” and a film review of “An Encounter with Simone Weil.”

“Hot Coffee”
“Hot Coffee”
opens with an examination of Stella Liebeck’s watershed case against McDonald’s for burns that she received after she spilled coffee on herself.

Filmmaker Susan Saladoff, a former trial lawyer, offers up a hot cup of truth by looking at three other cases in which people struggled to access our court system. Look for the documentary on HBO later this year.

“Hot Coffee”: a film review from Jonathan Michels on Vimeo.

“Diary”
“Diary” is an intensely personal mosaic of footage collected by photojournalist Tim Hetherington from his 10 years as a war correspondent.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

The film begins with a surreal image of a whirring ceiling fan that melts into a bed curtain and then a helicopter window. In these and other scenes, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Apocalypse Now.” It might be that Captain Willard’s diary entries would have looked like this, had they been filled with pictures instead of words. Perhaps it’s the foreboding feeling I had during the film about the horrors that might lie in the next scene.

But the strength of photojournalist Tim Hetherington’s descent into hell lies in the fact that it actually happened.

“Diary” is a companion piece to Hetherington’s 2010 film, “Restrepo.” For that film, Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger embedded with an American platoon in Afghanistan for a year. “Restrepo” pulled viewers away from the stateside politics about the wars in the Middle East and into the minds of the young men fighting them. “Restrepo” is unvarnished, visually sparse war reporting.

And while “Diary” finds Hetherington experimenting with first-person perspective, dissolving and rewinding, the 20-minute film is a more powerful experience. Its tight focus refuses to let our minds wander away from war’s collateral damage.

Hetherington contrasts an image of a sunbaked corpse with that of a little girl picking flowers in the English countryside. These sharp contrasts aren’t lost to the viewer, but I suspect only war-hardened people like Hetherington can understand the skill of moving — and more importantly, living — among these different realities.

“An Encounter with Simone Weil”
The title of Julia Haslett’s new film suggests someone, either the filmmaker or the audience, will at some point personally engage with Simone Weil.

Weil is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated philosophers. According to the film, Weil’s life was fueled by empathy for the working poor and an intense opposition to war.

Her life’s passions were made more intense by the fact that her short life — she died at age 34 — spanned two World Wars and the Great Depression. As a result, she toiled alongside factory workers and refused to eat more food than was afforded to French soldiers on the front line.

Weil died from tuberculosis, worsened by her poor eating habits. Haslett called it an “ambiguous suicide.”

Although the details of Weil’s life are dispersed throughout the film, it’s as much about Haslett as it is about her hero.

In the midst of reconciling with the suicide of her father and her brother’s struggle with mental illness, Haslett is struck by this quote: “Attention is the greatest and purest form of generosity.”

Haslett becomes a believer in giving attention to the pain of our loved ones. She embarks on a quest to connect with Weil in ways not possible within the pages of a book. Perhaps, she believes, becoming closer to Weil will lead her to higher understanding about suffering in the world.

Haslett’s emotional story flows nicely from one idea and location to the next. Her narration adds authority, even when she’s unsure of where she’s taking us. I was particularly surprised at how her pictures described the immediate emotion and not the action, atypical for many documentaries.

At the end of the day, the film is about relationships: not with Simone Weil, but with the people we love and ourselves.

It’s my belief Haslett’s encounter with Simone Weil was really an encounter with herself. I hope she found it as satisfying and fulfilling as I did.

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