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Sparking Social Impact at Full Frame Documentary Festival

2014 Full FrameFull Frame Documentary Film Festival earned its reputation as the “filmmakers’ festival” in part by becoming a showcase for powerfully intimate stories, most often about people. “Character-driven” can be a redundant quality when it comes to most modern documentaries, but Full Frame distinguishes both its films and its own character as “bold, personal and very brave.” This was how programming director Sadie Tillery introduced Darius Clark Monroe’s "Evolution of a Criminal," which went on to win both the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Awards.

A popular industry festival like Full Frame, with a number of prestigious awards available helps social issue documentary to achieve that crucial first stage of social impact: awareness. I'll be looking to see how do the following films move through public engagement into future stages of impact and social change. There's not a guarantee that they will or are designed to go beyond awareness. Most likely a documentary, however powerful, is likely to be one piece of the larger fabric of change, helping to build a movement as opposed to taking credit for it.

Criminality

"Evolution of a Criminal" didn’t stand out in originality as much as it did in the filmmaker’s willingness to face his demons. A recent NYU graduate, Monroe kept the story of his film from his own professors for fear of judgment. He turns the camera on himself and his family to challenge their collective remorse in his decision to rob a bank with two others at age 17. While engaging in his own moment of self-definition, Monroe succeeds in a much larger mission of challenging audience assumptions of what it means to be a convicted felon. 

Child Welfare

What do parents go through when child protective services remove children from their care? Our societal focus, and justifiably so, goes first to the immediate safety and care of a child. "Tough Love" questions when do parents deserve to get their kids back and who gets to decide. An expecting mother in New York rents a bedroom with her boyfriend from his mother, while she tries to regain custody of her two kids from a previous relationship. In the midst of that battle, the powers that be question whether her unborn child should also be placed under supervision or removed. Meanwhile, in Seattle, a single father struggles to live up to stringent expectations in family court, while his daughter is fostered by a loving couple of much greater means. The "Tough Love" narrative flourishes thanks to the laser sharp focus on these two characters. There are no breaks for graphics or numbers, and government, court system, or social services play supporting roles.

Student Debt Crisis

In 1859 Peter Cooper established Cooper Union for students in art, architecture and engineering, with the radical philosophy that students should have equal access and free education. In 2013 the school's administration, shouldering a major new construction debt and under the leadership of an unapologetic president, made the decision to charge tuition to incoming students for the first time in history. The student body protested vehmently and staged a 65 day sit-in in the president's office suite, one of them with a camera. This treasure trove of footage is the emotional backbone of Andrew Rossi's "Ivory Tower," a Participant Media documentary on the student-debt crisis and the future of higher education. The complicated conclusion is that the system works, in some cases, in others it's on the verge of collapse.

Undocumented Food Service Workers

Undocumented service workers have the right to unionize. That's the message loud and clear from "The Hand That Feeds." Filmmakers Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick follow the story of a group of workers in a Hot & Crusty franchise in New York City, who organize with the help of the Laundry Workers Center United. This is a story about workers' rights and the future relevancy of unions to successfully bargain and guarantee minimum wage, overtime and paid time off for otherwise exploited undocumented workers. But it's also a story about the groundwork, education, and training of activists like the Laundry Workers in order to get to the bargaining table. The film's central character, Mahoma, eventually became an outspoken advocate for the workers' rights movement in New York City at large, but he and is family started from a place of fear and disillusion.

Marriage Equality

Kris and Sandy are a same-sex couple who got married in 2004. After Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, on the eve of President Obama's election, they then received a letter declaring their marriage to no longer exist. Kris and Sandy became two of the four plaintiffs in the first federal lawsuit for marriage equality to reach the Supreme Court. Once again the power in the documnetary "The Case Against 8" is even more in the people than in the historic nature of the event. The couples in the film will tug at your heart strings as they challenge the marriage as a fundamental civil right and their steadfast resolve not to be dismissed as second-class citizens. But beyond the plaintiffs, the unlikely power couple that steals the screen is the pair of lawyers, David Boies and Ted Olson. Boies and Olson previously went head-to-head in front of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. These politically polaraized men became the impassioned dream team for marriage equality and threw any question of partisanship out the window.

Hiphop Culture

Patrick Douthit, more widely recognized as the Hiphop artist 9th Wonder, set out to relate Hiphop to the rest of our cultural history and Kenneth Price followed him with a camera. What better method than to become the first Hiphop Fellow at the venerable Harvard University chronicled in "The Hip-Hop Fellow." Rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scholars in black history and culture, namely Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 9th Wonder honed in on the game-changing use of sampling, identifying the ten most influential and innovative albums in Hiphop's history and tracing their evolution. Thanks to Harvard, 9th Wonder had at his disposal the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, whose mission closely relates to his own in "making Hiphop an institution and making sure I have my place in it." 9th Wonder demonstrates there's no better way to ensure cultural preservation than to assume the leading role.