The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is held annually in Durham, North Carolina, which you don’t need me to tell you is a university town. It’s not surprising then that a trio of films from this year’s festival look at universities. Documentaries are often about the act of self-examination. So why not documentary film festivals?
Kenneth Price’s The Hip-Hop Fellow gets its title from the fact that its subject, 9th Wonder, is invited to apply to be a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University. As much a celebration of Harvard for having him as it is of 9th Wonder for going, the film divides its time between descriptions of 9th Wonder’s research project and testimonials from Harvard personnel about why its Hip-Hop Archives are important.
I appreciated the film’s discussion of canon-formation, and it’s always a pleasure to hear Henry Louis Gates speak about literary criticism and academic issues. I suspect those who already know Hip-Hop will get more out of it than novices like myself. I understood that 9th Wonder’s project was about tracking down sources for sampling in seminal albums, but I never quite got what made those albums better or more important than others. Also 9th Wonder comments briefly on the irony of his teaching at Harvard when he himself does not have a degree. I kept waiting for the film to reflect on this point, but the emphasis was much more on “Hip-Hop” than “Fellow.”
Amir Bar-Lev introduced Happy Valley, his portrait of Penn State’s home town in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial, by informing the Full Frame audience that he had re-edited the film in response to criticism at Sundance that it had “dribs and drabs of new information.” Bar-Lev said he sought to take out that new information rather than add to it, proclaiming that his ideal film would be one in which there was “no new information” and where the audience “learned nothing” but saw the material in a new light.
Happy Valley has interesting passages, but I felt it relied a little too much on summation. Bar-Lev likes to let competing voices speak, which is normally a strength. But Happy Valley lacks the presence of someone like Michael Kimmelman in My Kid Could Pain That (still his best film in my opinion) who comes across as detached enough to help the audience (and the filmmaker) adopt a point of view from which to process the multiple perspectives. The closest we get is Joe Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski who opines that attempts to rewrite or expurgate history have never succeeded in the past.
The film’s second half focuses so heavily on responses to Joe Paterno’s firing that it risks losing sight of Sandusky’s crimes and its victims. That could well have been Bar-Lev’s point, but if so I think the film really needed more of a directorial voice either in its editing or perhaps in some sort of voice-over to help synthesize the material. It was a well researched film, but I could not find its thesis.
Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower, by contrast, has a clear thesis: the structure, cost, and governance of postgraduate education in the United States is unsustainable. Ivory Tower supports that claim with less bombastic politicized rhetoric than I feared it would, acknowledging the complexity and enmeshment of causes rather than simply scaping the usual goats.
At the core of the film is a concern over student debt, but it rightly also expresses concern over institutional debt accrued as the result of a building “arms race” as institutions forget their core mission and invest higher and higher percentages of their budget into tools for recruitment rather than the education itself.
Nobody comes off well in Ivory Tower. Not students (who are represented as more interested in partying than learning), not faculty (who are incentivized to be be popular/easy rather than challenging), and certainly not administrators (who are compensated like CEOs). The film may not be incendiary, but like An Inconvenient Truth it is depressing in exact proportion to how convincing the viewer finds it. It doesn’t offer a lot of solutions–any, really. It’s more of a wake up call for those involved in the industry. Cooper Union, a formerly free college that was sustained by its founder’s endowment is depicted less as a case study than as a canary in a coal mine. If the school cannot make ends meet given its endowment, how feasible is it for tuition driven schools to continue expansion funded almost exclusively by student debt?
I work as a university professor, so the challenges facing educational institutions were not news to me. It was daunting to see them laid out in one place. I suspect many in my industry may not like the film, but we ignore it at our peril.