I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina this year and I had an absolute BLAST! The Festival takes place each year in the heart of historic downtown Durham and could not possibly be better organised or curated.
With my FANATIC pass, I saw a total of ten films, though I had the option to select up to 15 ticketed events. It was a busy weekend, 15 screenings across four days starting on Thursday would have been too much, so I’m very happy with my ten selections. The Festival offers a few free screenings and non-ticketed events as well, which I highly encourage everyone to check out next year!
My selections were: Breakthrough, Buddy, Meeting Gorbachev, Human Nature, Knock Down the House, Hail Satan?, Kifaru, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, Ask Dr. Ruth, The Apollo of Gaza, and The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.
While I encourage you to watch and support ALL of these films, I want to talk about my absolute, top favourites: Breakthrough, Buddy, Knock Down the House, Hail Satan?, and Ask Dr. Ruth. Warning: Spoilers May Be Ahead.
This was my first film of the festival and I was excited just to be in the theatre.
Breakthrough is about the passion and career of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine winner, Dr. James Allison, and his development of the groundbreaking immuno-oncology therapy drug Ipilimumab. As the tagline for the film states, “this is what a hero looks like.”
Dr. Allison was motivated towards his career goal of developing a successful cure for cancer by the loss of his mother early on, as well as the losses of multiple family members—including his brother—throughout his childhood and later life. He has also been diagnosed with cancer himself, three times. Throughout the film we see his personal connection to this fight and learn about his drive to find the cure as well as the hurdles and speedbumps in his way.
At a time when immunotherapy was considered “voodoo” by many and a waste of time by most, Dr. Allison maintained his focus on discovering the power and potential of the T-Cell, an essential and primary component of the immune system. From early in his career, Allison broke new ground regarding the understanding of the function(s) of the T-Cell including the 1977 discovery of cancer-produced antigens that blocked the functional operation of the T-Cell. In 1996, he showed the receptor CTLA-4 on the T-Cell was actually an inhibitor, which paved the way for his later work bringing Ipilimumab to the market with Brystol-Meyers Squibb.
Well shot, with introspective, touching interviews that illustrate the whole man, Breakthrough is an compelling film with a huge, uplifting payoff. It showcases the challenges and struggles Allison faced in the development of Ipilimumab, builds the story of the research and the market exploration as well as the later clinical trials, and introduces multiple characters who were not only touched by Dr. Allison’s research but also fundamental to the success of Ipilimumab’s development.
Buddy, a Dutch film about the deep, powerful bond between handlers and their service dogs as a discussion of the connection between humans and canines, is a touching, emotional film that had me close to tears multiple times.
If you don’t like subtitles, unfortunately, you’ll be out of luck with Buddy, as the film is entirely in Dutch. However, I did not find this distracting at all—but then again, I don’t dislike subtitles.
This extremely well made film follows six service dog teams, each with their own challenges and perspectives. I was highly excited to see psychiatric service dogs represented in the film!
While I felt the ending of the film took a little too long to resolve, I was, again, extremely impressed and touched by the story and the message of the film.
Knock Down the House
Look out for this one on Netflix, premiering on May first, you will definitely want to see it!
Knock Down the House, an absolutely stunning profile of four Brand New Congress primary candidates for the Democratic Party, was interesting, arresting, and compelling from beginning to end. The film received several applause from the audience throughout and a standing ovation at its conclusion.
The film takes us through the early process of just getting on the ballot, the issues which spurred each candidate to run, the challenges and hurdles they faced throughout the primary season, and concludes with primary election night where we see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez find out she won her primary challenge in real time.
As I said on Twitter immediately following the film, this is one to watch out for when it premieres on Netflix next month. Knock Down the House is a truthful and eye-opening film which shows the audience the bureaucracy of just challenging an incumbent politician and the swelling movement of citizen participation in Democratic Party politics.
Part of the invited programme at Full Frame this year, Hail Satan? proposes to lift the veil on the movement behind The Satanic Temple, not to be confused with the Church of Satan—the two are distinct entities with different goals, beliefs, and histories.
Profiling the early organisation of The Satanic Temple through its later development and solidification into a legitimate, international entity, Hail Satan? accomplishes a lot during its runtime. We meet Lucien Greaves, the spokesperson behind TST, as well as his cofounders and learn the motivation behind their founding of the organisation. We learn about the core tenents and beliefs of TST Satanists and their mission to remind the United States that it is, in fact, a pluralistic, secular society and not a “Christian nation.”
This film was an absolute JOY to watch! It was everything I hoped it would be and more. The Satanic Temple’s mission is well represented and explained, and the history of the organisation was well storied. Penny Lane, once again, hit one out of the park. It’s obvious that she, the film director, really got to know the members of TST and treated their message with objective fairness.
Ask Dr. Ruth
Now here’s a film that’s gotta make ya feel good. Ask Dr. Ruth is an uplifting profile of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist and world renouned radio and television personality. It shows her history and personal story to bring discussions of healthy sexual intercourse out of the shadows and into the open discourse.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel, she is a holocaust survivor and former Israele sniper, and, by all accounts, an amazing woman. Westheimer was born in Frankfurt and grew up until the age of ten in Germany, when the NAZIs came to power and she was moved via kindertransport to Switzerland. She grew up struggling to keep herself educated and eventually attended the Sorbonne in Paris, France after the war. After graduation, she moved to the United States, attended The New School in New York in 1959 where she earned her masters in sociology and later earned her EdD from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1970. From there she went to New York Presbyterian to study under Helen Singer Kaplan.
Along the way, Dr. Ruth worked for Planned Parenthood where she advocated for a woman’s right to choose, supported gay rights and education, and taught Family Planning social workers.
In 1980, Dr. Ruth’s media career began with her local radio show on WYNY-FM, Sexually Speaking. The show was taped at 30Rock on Thursday nights and aired for 15 minutes at midnight on Sundays, a time slot where it was “safe” to air contriversial and risky programming—especially as an experiment. Once the show proved to be a phenominal success, it went live in 1984—and nationally syndicated, as well, on NBC Radio.
Ask Dr. Ruth uses clever animation to recreate scenes from Westheimer’s youth and explain the experiences she had in Switzerland, Israel, and the United States. It highlights her crucial role during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s destigmatising the LGBT+ community and advocating for research and education surrounding the disease. The film is so good and tugs at the heart strings through interviews with Dr. Ruth, her family, and friends. It explains this complex individual in a beautiful portrait.