A large part of what makes the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival so well curated is not just the quality of the films but the way they dialogue with one another. This year’s festival had over 1200 submissions (according to the introduction at the opening night film). If the sheer volume of submissions speaks to the quality of those accepted, the way the company enriches each film speaks to the thoughtfulness of the selectors.
Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam skillfully interweaves historical footage with retrospective interviews to present a narrative as gripping as any Hollywood action film. It’s hard to imagine a better, more useful documentary serving as an historical document. The problem with teaching history is always one of scope versus depth. This documentary focuses on a small piece of world history–the fall of Saigon–but it covers it extremely well. Kennedy provides enough background and testimony to give ample context for those new to the subject–remember these events were twenty years before most students in college today were born–without getting bogged down in so many details that we might get lost in them and miss the main point.
That main point is “the terrible moral dilemma” of who goes and who gets left behind. That the dilemma is terrible indeed is evidenced by the toll it took on those who grappled with it. Mike Sullivan and Juan Valdez, marines on the last helicopter in the evacuation of the American embassy, report looking down into the eyes of some of the 420 South Vietnamese left waiting for a rescue the marines knew would never come.
And yet, as with any loci of human suffering, episodes of remarkable courage and grace emerge. A Vietnamese man turns down the opportunity to get into what he is told will be the last truck taking refugees to the docks saying “my family is too big.” But he does not let the driver go before first saying “thank you for trying.” A helicopter pilot goes out to sea in the hopes of finding a ship before his fuel runs out. A White House witness tells the story of the only time he ever heard Gerald Ford utter a profanity.
Individuals caught up in historical storms is similarly a motif in Drew Taylor’s and Larry Weinstein’s Our Man in Tehran, a documentary that profiles many of the actual participants in the events that prompted the movie Argo. One of the houseguests (I believe it was Kathy Stafford) speaks towards the end of the film about how “very humbling” it is to have people put their own safety and security on the line for one’s own benefit. One of the most amazing things about this historical episode is not that so many did, but that they did so instinctively, as a matter of course. It is the paradoxical nature of heroism that those who exercise it rarely think they are doing something exceptional, much less singular. John Sheardown and Ken Taylor knew they were putting not only themselves but their countrymen at risk. Joe Clark (Prime Minister) and Flora MacDonald (Foreign Minister) knew of the immense political fallout that would ensue if such participation cost Canadian lives. Tony Mendez put his own life in danger to run the extraction. Yet the five of them combined speak with less self-satisfaction and pride than a cocky athlete who just scored a first quarter touchdown. William Daughtery, who tells of his own torture with a low key understated tone that puts most of our problems into bracing perspective says “people lose sight of what a hero really is.” Our Man in Tehran reminds us…and reminds us that heroes are all around us.
Cynthia Hill’s Private Violence is about a different kind of horror and a different kind of heroism. Deanna, one of the subjects, was not kidnapped by a foreign state but by her abusive husband. Over a four day ordeal he beat her repeatedly with his fists and a flashlight, refused food to their daughter as a means of manipulating her, and held her down while he urinated in her face. Yet when Kit Gruelle shows photos of Deanna’s injuries to a North Carolina district attorney she is asked whether or not Deanna suffered anything other than “soft tissue” injuries and whether Kit will be able to supply a doctor willing to testify that any of these injuries were “serious.” It seems assault with a deadly weapon and “assault of a woman” are misdemeanor charges in many counties. Plus, because Deanna was held in the back of a truck and transported across state lines, the local prosecutor doesn’t have jurisdiction.
What could have been a depressing litany of society’s failures actually turns into a surprisingly inspiring story documenting the resiliency of the human spirit. Why don’t they leave? Oftentimes abusers threaten family, including children. Sometimes, past attempts to leave have resulted only in restraining orders that are not enforced and escalating violence. Sometimes, as in Deanna’s case, the abuser simply won’t let them go. In such a landscape, survival is an act of courage.
The audience at the film was told that statistically, approximately three women in the United States are murdered by an intimate partner every day. As I contemplated that statistic, I thought again about Juan Valdez and Mike Sullivan, on that helicopter looking down into the eyes of those desperate for help who realize that no help is coming. I thought about the indescribable mixture of guilt, shame, and sorrow they felt at being unable to save those that the turnings of the world had made the most vulnerable. God willing, I will never be in the marines’ situation. But I think I may understand, just a little, what they were feeling. A good documentary can do that.