THE TRUTHS flickered into visible expression at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival are, minute-for-minute, usually among the cinematic highlights of the year.
The line between documentary and fiction movies has blurred: On the one hand, even a Hollywood package as huge as The Dark Knight has its share of verite-style intimate handheld camerawork (and thoughtful politics—Batman is presented as nothing less than the necessary sacrifice for a community that has to kill someone to stay “pure”). On the other, the top 10 grossing documentaries of all time were each released in the past decade: Audiences are attracted by the fusion of social engagement and entertainment like never before.
Michael Moore’s appearance at the festival reminded me how common it is for activists to want to make films just because it’s cool (which usually makes for bad films), or for filmmakers to inject a dose of socially “relevant” messaging into their movie because they think it will increase the box office. (Think of when churches jumped on the bandwagon for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Mel got rich. Jesus, I aver, stayed 99 percent poor.) Moore’s point is that you should make documentaries because you want to make films—you can be an activist without being a filmmaker.
But if you’ve got the heart and the talent, it should rise to the surface, and if it does, you’ll usually end up at Full Frame, where this year’s highlights were three films that mingle mature cinematic craft with ethical depth.
Under African Skies relates Paul Simon’s controversial recording of the 1986 album Graceland in a South Africa whose anti-apartheid movement was supporting a cultural boycott. Simon emerges a humble man, willing to correct himself, to hear feedback, and to balance ideological purity with the assertion that artists must be beholden to no political party.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington demands attention from those who hope for bipartisan politics in the U.S.: Mr. Anh “Joseph” Cao is an immigrant, an open-minded Catholic, a Republican representing a majority Democrat district, and the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress. The paradox of Cao’s desire to serve people, while allied to issues of conscience with which his constituents may disagree, is the heart of this vignette of hopeful lament about the current political system.
Above all these stood the magisterial Samsara, a film about everything on earth, it seems, photographed to appear as if the audience were aliens seeing the planet and her people for the first time. It’s the 2001: A Space Odyssey of documentaries—it tells the truth about our interdependence, offers heartbreaking beauty, and is as stirring as an epic Western, as moving as a tragic romance, and as thrilling as the feeling I had the last time we scapegoated Batman for our sins.
Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.