The 2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, proved to once again be a deeply satisfying experience. After going to more festivals than I can count, I thought I was going to break a personal record by crying at three films in a row but it didn’t quite happen (misty eyes don’t count). There was a lot of raw emotion up there on those screens and I think that’s my biggest takeaway this year: documentary honesty.

I’ve got to start with Life, Animated, the documentary by Roger Ross Williams about Owen Suskind, an autistic kid who was lost to his parents until he found a connection to the world through Disney movies. This film, which was the number two film in my personal cryfest (Newtown was number one), has Oscar® written all over it. I know it might seem early to raise such things but the film, which won the Audience Award at Full Frame, has the following Oscar® magnets going for it:

  • It’s an emotional, crowd-pleasing film about an underdog character.
  • It’s got strong connections to Disney and therefore Hollywood, which can be huge with Oscar® voters.
  • It’s directed by Williams, who has already been supported by voters who gave him the Oscar® for the short, Music by Prudence.

Williams won the Best Documentary Director award at Sundance — and docs that tend to be lauded there end up getting nominated.

The film so wholly embraces Suskind’s story, you can feel the honest connection between subject and filmmaker. I felt similarly about the cinéma vérité filmmaking in Raising Bertie, a faithful depiction of three young black men growing up in rural North Carolina. After the premiere of the film, the subjects came on stage and one of the men said that that moment was “the happiest day of my life.” Real honest emotions from real subjects, real people, real experiences.

The fantastic Primary and Crisis, two seminal Robert Drew documentaries that are over 50 years old, also reminded me of this theme of honesty. Drew and his filmmaking crew, which included Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, got such incredible access to John F. Kennedy when he ran for president and as he dealt with the crisis of integrating the South, that it’s a shocking reminder of the innocence of that era. Although JFK was a little guarded, I found the moments with a jocular, confident yet thoughtful Robert Kennedy revelatory.

I bumped into Pennebaker and asked how influential the French New Wave was to him, after seeing the camera work in Primary. He said that it was, noting that he was a friend of Truffaut’s, but that it was really a symbiotic relationship. “We were all just trying to do something new. Everything had been the same. Like hotel furniture,” he said.

Two very different kinds of honesty could be seen in Tony Robbins: I’m Not Your Guru and Kate Plays Christine. In the former, director Joe Berlinger effectively represents a Robbins seminar. It’s a totally uncynical depiction of an experience that Berlinger himself was helped by. He just wants to spread the good word. As for Robert Greene’s film, Kate Plays Christine; it’s a more cerebral affair, the telling of a story about the telling of a story. How to depict the on-air suicide of television newswoman Christine Chubbuck is an artistic quandary of objectification and fetishization. Greene keeps things honest by revealing his own process in a Möbius strip film that doesn’t let you escape but instead gets you thinking.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen