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Fighting the Power at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary


Injustice seemed to be a running theme during the 20th anniversary edition of the always-stellar Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, NC.

Which seemed quite fitting since the state had recently repealed the morally and economically loathsome bathroom bill – while still leaving LGBTQ folks open to discrimination statewide. (And leaving cynical lawmakers to pat themselves on the back for making that NCAA deadline in the knick of time.) So if fighting the powers-that-be is your thing, here are four alternately inspiring and infuriating docs I caught – and you should keep an eye out for in 2017.

Opening night’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the latest from master documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself, etc., etc.), premieres theatrically in May (and later in the year on PBS). The film follows the plight of the Sung family, owners and operators of NYC’s Abacus Federal Savings, a mom-and-pop shop catering to the needs of their own (underserved) immigrant community in Chinatown. Abacus was also the sole bank to be indicted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – despite having one of the lowest default rates in the country! And the moral of the story is, indict some low-hanging fruit if you can’t get Citi or JP.

The Force is an iTVS flick from Emmy Award-winning director Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room), who also won the Best Directing, US Documentary prize for the film at this year’s Sundance. The doc’s a remarkable fly-on-the-wall look inside the Oakland Police Department starting in 2014, as it fights to reform its way out from under federal oversight – while simultaneously juggle post-Ferguson protests and an unforeseen scandal. A cinematic study of best laid plans going dangerously awry.

A film that would make for a great double bill with The Force, Whose Streets? (which also screened at Winston-Salem’s cozy RiverRun International Film Festival, where I’d stopped by on my way to Full Frame) was bought by Magnolia after its Sundance debut, and is set for a theatrical release this summer. First-time feature directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis have crafted an unflinching, all-encompassing portrait of Ferguson, Missouri – not just the death of Michael Brown and the protests that fired up communities fed up with police violence nationwide, but also the many average citizen activists who continue to fight, who call the city home long after the mainstream media have moved on.

Finally, Yance Ford’s Strong Island, acquired by Netflix and set for an upcoming release this fall, was perhaps my most thrilling find. Though the doc’s gotten strong buzz since Sundance (where it won the Special Jury Award for Storytelling) nothing could really prepare me for this unconventional and riveting flick, which uses the director’s (24-year-old, black teacher) brother’s 1992 murder at the hands of a 19-year-old white mechanic as a lens through which to explore race and (in)justice in the “peaceful” Long Island suburbs. As the brother’s friend puts it in the film, “It took the air out of me –and left me winded.”