The 21st annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival took place from April 5 to April 8 in Durham, featuring new and old documentaries and sparking conversations about hope, despair, human rights, coming of age and the depths of life. I had the opportunity to participate in the festival April 7 and watched several films, none of which failed to make me cry.
Directed and edited by Juan Pablo González, “Las Nubes” is a 21-minute long documentary of González’s bumpy drive through a remote Mexican countryside with a local guide who has a connection with González’s family and knows his father’s ranch well. The opening shot focuses on the car’s rear-view mirror, from which only the guide’s eyes can be seen. Blurry in the background are the country roads and bushes on a slightly foggy, overcast day.
I accepted and appreciated this curious opening shot and then naturally expected the camera to switch angle and reveal the face of the subjects in a few seconds. But as it turned out, this opening shot is also the only shot in the entire film. For 20 minutes, the audience is forced to stare at the eyes of the local guide as he points out notable landmarks along the way for the director and, prompted by González, starts to recount his life in Mexico and how he sent his daughter away.
Once I understood that this would be a one-take shot, I gradually withdrew myself from the anxious waiting for “the next shot” and began to notice things. The flash of anger when he told us that his daughter became a target of the local cartel leader and that the cartel treated his convenience store like their home fridge, taking things without paying. The lowering of the eyelid — the resignation when he complained “the government is very incompetent and cannot do anything about it.” The sparks of wistfulness and fear when he recalled sneaking out of his house under the surveillance of the cartel and speeding crazily on the highway to lose the cartel’s truck that was chasing behind to send his daughter safely to the airport.
I also learned to listen more — the weight of every sigh fading into the air, the humidity of every silence and the shadow of every intonation. Just like the heaviness of this overcast day.
The meaning of “Las Nubes” is clouds. There could not be a more fitting title for this documentary.
"Thy Kingdom Come"
What if a priest has trouble with his own faith?
This is the original question that inspired Eugene Richards to create a project featuring a priest who goes around and listens to people, not only because they need him, but also because he needs them.
Richards picked Osage County, Oklahoma, whose residents live through the ups and downs of life. His subjects include a cancer patient, an ex-Ku Klux Klansman, mothers, fathers, an elderly woman in a nursing home and inmates. All searching. Searching for love, understanding, forgiveness, redemption, future. Searching for what to search for in life.
The cancer patient has also been subjected to sexual assault and sought out validation and comfort through skin and flesh. But she has a daughter who sings and plays guitar for her.
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The Ku Klux Klansman reflects on the suffering he had inflicted on others and looks for self-reconciliation and redemption.
One mother grieves the loss of a baby; the other raises two sons and teaches them that they belong to each other regardless of their skin color. Other young mothers and fathers are unsure about their future but love their babies very much.
Lying in bed and with tubes in her nose, the elderly woman has a 50-year happy marriage and does not remember not being in love.
One inmate waited for weeks for a letter. Another refused to open up his heart.
Through poetic close-ups, Dutch angles and a palette of melancholic blues, “Thy Kingdom Come” weaves its subjects’ personal accounts into a life statement, sometimes forcing the audience to be bystanders who could only stand and watch and other times allowing the viewers illusory access into the screen, only to find that they still could not help wipe away the painful past or present for these people.
Recently, I’ve been feeling a sense of loss too. Like I am searching for something. Something important and fundamental is missing from my “perfect” and privileged life.
My friend said, “You’re probably missing God. Who can give you unconditional love, understanding and forgiveness.”
Some of the subjects in the film are religious. Some are not. Some are even mad at God.
But almost all of them poured their heart out to the priest, an open-minded, non-judgmental presence that is willing to just listen.
The priest, who to my wonder has the face of an old Hollywood star, turned out to be a role played by Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem, as Richards revealed in the Q&A session following the screening.
The Osage County residents knew that he was just a fictional priest. But does that matter?