Full Frame Film Festival 2017 Preview

By Dilip Barman

As I described in the April issue, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (fullframefest.org) returns to Durham, NC on Thursday April 6th through Sunday April 9th, 2017. It is the country's largest documentary film festival with over a hundred films, panel discussions, some free films, parties, and events. We are posting this the week of the Festival as a preview of the May column and to help inform your choices at the Festival.

I have had the chance to preview about a dozen films and interview several filmmakers. Before I describe two that take place in India and present an interview, I wanted to share favorites of mine so far include:

The Botanist (to be shown on Saturday at 4:10p), set in gorgeous scenery of Tajikstan, relates the story of a humble man, accomplished in many areas such as cataloging and understanding local botanical medicines, as well as hydroelectric power. I saw this short twice, admiring both the biography and the filming.

The Last Pig (to be shown Saturday at 5pm) is a sensitive portrait of a pig farmer who has very strong misgivings about his profession. His strong empathy for the pigs runs drastically counter to the objective, bringing his animals to slaughter. Though the inevitable demise comes (in spite of the filmmaker's attempt to abstract this, as a vegan I had significant discomfort and had to avert my attention here, as well as in an earlier segment with a limping pig who won't make it), the ending is hopeful.

• There are films on so many themes, sweet, light, focused, broad, political, musical, and more. There are a number of films about social justice, and one that drew me because of recently teaching my eight-year-old daughter about immigration, migration, and refugees, was Zaatari Djinn (Friday, 10:30a). In fact, I saw the film with her to amplify on our lessons. Rather than being a glum and depressing film, it describes a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan from the perspective of the large number of children there who persist and make a life with some joy out of the situation. In email exchanges with Catherine van Campen, the filmmaker, she confirmed my daughter's intuitions about several aspects of the film, notably a “mysterious" character who often appears in silhouette as, as my daughter correctly guessed, a symbol of a “jinni". The serious aspects of the film lie not in the refugee crisis itself, but rather in considerations of male privilege, family dynamics, and, indeed, transcendence.

Austerlitz (Sunday, 10:10a) took a grim but well-worn theme, that of concentration camps, and gave it a surprising – and disturbing – twist, that of silently witnessing the masses of tourists visiting two camps. I've been to Dachau and have studied these unspeakable and unimaginable horrors. For me, and I would think most, it was a sobering and utterly serious undertaking. Yet, in long scenes with the camera not moving or not moving much, we witness casual and, dare I say, disrespectful actions of levity, “selfies" in front of a thankfully extinguished crematorium, and attitudes of families and individuals on a tourist trek checking off one more notable site.

• On a much lighter note, I enjoyed Donkeyote (Saturday, 7:20p), about an elderly man who loves to walk in his native Spain along with his dogs and his constant companion, a donkey. The filmmaking is enchanting with beautiful scenes that linger in the mind. The man decides that he wants to walk across the U.S.A. Can he overcome challenges in having the donkey transported to America, his cardiologist's cautions, and his family's concerns?

• Anybody enjoying ethnography will likely want to see Socotra, the Island of the Djinns (Saturday, 1:40p). Strikingly presented in black and white, the photography itself is remarkable in depicting nomadic herders on the Arabian Sea island of Socotra in Yemen. The filmmaker, Jordi Esteva, is also a subject matter expert, having written a book about these people. His film brings them to life while suggesting a number of questions about family structure, mythology, modernity, and isolation. It reminded me of the classic 1925 film Grass about Persian nomads.

• My friend Chapel Hill filmmaker Olympia Stone has a fun and engaging film about an artist that all of us should know about. In 2015 her Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck led me to seek out the Smithsonian exhibit of the artist she portrayed. In The Original Richard McMahan (Friday, 10:20a), she uses her particular gift of revealing both an artist's creations and her/his psyche in revealing a man who creates miniature replicas of famous works of art.

• It's the twentieth anniversary of Full Frame, and part of a curated track is favorites from the past. A film that sounds like it may be wonky but, to me and obviously as well for the large audience I saw it with, proved to be fascinating, is Helvetica (Saturday, 10:00a), about the famous font.

• Finally, I can't recommend enough The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Friday, 8:30p). This epic film tantalizes the senses as it weaves the story of renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the ensemble of musicians that he seeks out from many corners of the world. It charts their musical and personal journeys, edited together to form an at times explosively joyful and at other times meditatively deep experience. It was a highlight of the 2016 Festival for me and, this year, is being shown for free outdoors with no ticket required (yes, it's worth bundling up for the expected temperatures dropping to 40?F!).

I look forward to seeing a number of other films, such as Whose Streets? (Thursday, 10:10a), chronicling the Ferguson uprising, Through the Repellent Fence (Thursday, 8:10p) about the US-Mexican border, School Life (In Loco Parentis) (Friday, 1:30p) about the wonders at an Irish boarding school over the course of a year, One October (Saturday, 1:30p) that examines the tapestry of stories that define New York City, and much more. There is a 4 ½ hour film about the Grateful Dead (Long Strange Trip shown twice, Friday at 7p and Sunday at 1:30p) that I just can't figure out how I can get to!

I encourage readers to visit www.fullframefest.org to get screening details of the approximately 100 films, panel discussions, and much more. Tickets may no longer be available online for some films but, if a film is sold out, one can go to a “last minute line". I encourage folks who are trying this to arrive an hour or so early to maximize chances of getting a ticket.

As I mentioned, there are two films set in India. Below, I present below a detailed interview with Director/Producer of one of the two films, Shivani, a 21-minute film about a precocious 3-year-old girl in South India who excels at archery.

Unfortunately at press time, I did not get a chance to see the other film set in India, the feature-length invited film An Insignificant Man. It is about Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi who launched the Aam Aadmi (“common man's") party in 2012 to fight corruption.

Shivani is being shown at 1:10p on Friday April 7th, along with the film Two Worlds, about a daughter helping her two deaf parents in negotiating the world. An Insignificant Man is being shown on the last day of the Festival, Sunday April 9th, at 10:20a.

Shivani describes the highly improbably story of an elderly couple in India who have a 3-year-old daughter Shivani (or Dolly). Like her peers, she is still figuring out basics like social interaction, communication, and such. Yet, she excels at archery and her parents have Olympic visions. She had an older brother named Lenin, who did seem to have Olympic possibilities in his archery, but tragically passed away in a car accident.

It's hard to believe that the film is a short, as it seems to have such a history and trajectory of a sweet and talented young girl. The cinematography, natural editing, and soundtrack take an already fascinating story and gently immerse the viewer to take it all in.

I had an opportunity to interview Director Jamie Dobie. Here is an excerpt.

Jamie, how did you find out about the story?

I saw an image of Dolly setting the record when she was two years old. It went around the internet for about a day and it was around the same time as Hunger Games was out, so I think the idea of a real-life Katniss Everdeen was appealing. When I saw the image of this little girl with this intense look of concentration on her face, surrounded by all of these adults (in particular, all these men), I wondered what was happening. I forwarded the story to a few friends and said this would make a great subject for a documentary. But then I thought, wait, maybe I'm the one who's supposed to do this.

What drew you to the story?
My attraction was instinctive so I didn't really get to think about it until later when we actually started shooting. That probably sounds a little crazy, but it's true! I think for a lot of filmmakers the subjects choose you. There's a moment of crystallization where you see an image that makes you think that it would be worth the effort to actually try to make a film. And in the inevitable moments during a project when you lose faith in it, it's important to remember that that first image compelled you, and to trust in that. I also was struck by the very black and white coverage of her during her viral, online moment. And how eager people were in the articles that were published, and the comments, to make her a symbol of girls empowerment or parents' expectations. She's clearly being offered as a symbol by the coverage and, to some degree, by her family and the archery academy, but everything is, of course, more complex. I wanted to see what was underneath that veneer.

The main character is sometimes called Dolly and sometimes called Shivani. What is her proper name? Is Dolly a nickname?
She is called both "Dolly" and "Shivani" and sometimes "Dolly Shivani." (Her last name is Cherukuri). Her mother explained that the name Dolly was decided from her zodiac star, and then later their spiritual guru asked that she be named Shivani, since she was born on the Ekadashi (eleventh lunar day) and on Tuesday.

Why "Lenin"? Is there a Communist connection?
Dolly's father was a former member of the Communist party. They also had a daughter named Volga, whom Lenin named the archery academy for (Volga Archery Academy).

After Lenin's death, the parents seem very interested in having another child to continue in Lenin's footsteps. The film mentions that they become surrogate parents; how old are they?
They're both around 60.

Getting back to 3-year-old Dolly, where does she get the patience and discipline, working with others who appear to be 10-20 years or more her elder? She appears otherwise to be a shy little 3-year-old. She also doesn't seem to have neuroses from parental pressure to perform.
This is a good question! It's hard to say. There's not much to compare it to. Part of the reason that she is able to set records is that she is all alone in her category in archery. That's going to change as she grows older, and it will be interesting to see what happens.

I will say that her focus and concentration struck me as extraordinary. There is a presence about her … that makes you feel like you're witnessing something very unusual. Her father wants to qualify her for the 2020 Olympics, which I think is impossible under the current age restrictions. But I think it's not impossible that that's a possible future for Dolly.

Is Dolly's father retired? Her coach? The family appears to have money - e.g., there is a scene of drone photography.
Dolly's father owns and runs the archery academy. It was started by Lenin, and when Lenin died his father and mother moved onto the academy grounds to keep it going. There are dozens of students who train there throughout the week and compete throughout India, and there are a handful of students who live on the grounds, as well. Dolly's dad also runs Volga Archery Productions, which makes primarily promotional videos for the academy.

Dolly's father does coach many of the kids, but he's not Dolly's personal coach. Her Coach is a really lovely guy named Chandrashekar Lagori who lives on the grounds, and who you see working with Dolly in the film.

The camera drone was brought to that tournament by Dolly's father's former partner in Volga Archery Productions. My understanding is that they were working on a TV serial about Dolly at the time, and the drone footage was going to be used in that.

I liked the subtly beautiful music - classical with a bit of fusion, and then abrupt and reasonable transitions as the story's narration progresses. I'd like to know more about the music, please.
Because the dialogue is so sparse in the film, the music becomes really important to guide you through the story. The score was composed by Jonathan Meiburg (frontman of the acclaimed indie rock band Shearwater) and Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski of the ensemble CrossRecord.

We were all aware of not being Indian musicians so didn't want to pretend that we were. All the same, we thought it would be appropriate to use some sounds and textures that evoked India for us, and melodies that reflected the contrast between Dolly's childhood and the depth and grandeur (and pressure) of her parents' dream for her.

The textures that you hear in the foreground are a hammered dulcimer, a small upright piano (with a few strips of masking tape placed across the strings where they're struck by the hammers which gives it a bell or harp-like quality), a clarinet, and a 12-string guitar. In the background, there are a wide variety of tonal and percussive instruments, including cast iron skillets, a pump organ, and an old Arp Solina string synthesizer.

One great gift is that the theme song of Dolly that you hear at the end of the film already existed; it was produced by Dolly's father as a sort of anthem for her. We introduced the theme in a different arrangement earlier in the film, and we like the childlike music-box quality of it that seems to suit Dolly.

In a country known for its chaos, I enjoyed your editing to calm the ethos of India. It reminded me of a calmly curious observer, sticking with what's going on and then cutting quickly to scene to scene to learn more.
I knew that I wanted to make a quiet, subtle film about a very chaotic place and situation. It was important to me to show and not tell, and to let life play out in the frame - to linger over shots just a little longer than was comfortable.

At the time of filming, Dolly had just turned three years old. Obviously, three-year-olds have very little agency in their own lives. She did a lot of watching and absorbing, and I wanted to create that feeling with the film. I wanted to tell the story as much as I could from what I thought Dolly's perspective might be. It's also why there are so many shots that are at her eye-level. Our DP [Director of Photography] had the camera quite close to the ground most of the time.

Has her family seen the film?
I hope to show it to them in person soon. They've seen clips.

What are your plans with the film? Will it be widely shown in India?
The plan is to follow her story through childhood and release a second and third installment, and then re-cut them all into a feature, but that will depend on more than just what I want. How could the story of a 3-year old be anything but unfinished?

As far as this first film goes, right now I'm focused on the premiere at Full Frame, which has been very exciting. I think it's the perfect festival for this film. I've submitted to a number of other international festivals, including a few in India. After the festival run, I hope to have a U.S. and international broadcast, followed by community screenings and VOD and digital. I definitely hope that it will be widely shown in India!