Documentary films often do a better job delivering emotional truth than typical multiplex fare. Having just spent a long weekend at North Carolina’s Full Frame Festival, I’m pleased to say that coming your way over the next few months is a crop of nonfiction films that have the potential to both show us the world and change it.
Some deal with troubling political realities: Sun Come Up is the climate crisis story of Carteret Islanders looking for a new home because theirs is sinking. Promised Land shows the struggle for land reclamation in post-apartheid South Africa.
Others are biographical tales that grant insight to extraordinary lives. Genius Within examines the inner turmoil of the spectacular classical pianist Glenn Gould, an artist whose public pleasure comes at the cost of personal trauma. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers offers privileged access to a man who, echoing Thoreau, “cast his whole vote,” dedicating a life of integrity to resisting injustice and state oppression. Garbo: The Spy is a thrilling piece of reconstructed war history, revealing the role played by a (nearly) nonviolent trickster in wrong-footing Nazism.
And Everything is Going Fine, is Steven Soderbergh’s masterfully organized vision of the late actor and monologist Spalding Gray telling and retelling the story of his life. It reminds the audience of the transcendent moments that together evoke eternity: a meal with friends, a walk with an elderly parent, a silly mistake, dancing with the family as Chumbawamba’s anthem to extraordinary ordinariness, “Tubthumping,” plays.
The festival highlight was an amazing essay film about memory and identity, Generation Exile, Chilean expatriate Rodrigo Dorfman’s experience of trying to find stability when so much is out of his control. It’s a film about finding roots and meaning, and building a life of significance in a culture of transience. The trauma of Chilean dictator Pinochet’s violence shadows the narrative, and the troubling complexities of religious community are evident, but only because Dorfman wants to make an honest film. Life is lived, as Malcolm Muggeridge said, between the steeple and the gargoyle. I’m excited by this era of documentary cinema, when it is so easy to pick up a camera and shoot. Increased access to the means of production (literally) allows filmmakers to bypass the layers of bureaucracy that would otherwise prevent their movies getting made. To be human is to be a storyteller. Now anyone can make a film that has the potential to tell us who we are, and what we all want: love, peace, freedom, and something meaningful to live for. Generation Exile cost very little money, but it has an enormous heart. It made me grateful to be alive.
Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.