Film festivals are strange places. There is usually an opportunity to see miraculous images that have the potential to transform us, but often there are also a few obstacles: red carpets get in the way of true connection, and the hustle of crowds can create stress. That, of course, can become an invitation to mindfulness, which is what the best films lead to anyway. This past weekend, I was at one of my favorite such events, North Carolina’s amazing and diverse Full Frame Festival, which often transcends the elitism of other festivals, and at which you can feel the thrill of audiences tuning in to—well, I guess we could just call it more life. Documentary has a way of both conveying information and illuminating the inner lives of its subjects that, at its best, becomes a powerful mirror to the audience. Fiction can do the same, of course, but there’s something about nonfiction storytelling that is more immediate, and perhaps speaks to a different part of the viewer’s mind and heart.
This weekend, I was filled with hope, moved to tears, scared, educated, and inspired. I witnessed three blind Cuban women navigate their lives with courage and kindness Tocando la Luz. I saw an eccentric man jump a motorcycle over 14 buses, then rail at the world, blaming everyone else for his problems before eventually seeking to make amends Being Evel. I observed two smart guys try to crush each other in television debates Best of Enemies. I heard the voice of an actor I have been listening to my entire life—only this time he was having a private conversation with himself, revealing the struggle at the heart of celebrity and the inner journey of someone trying to make his work count Listen to Me Marlon. And I followed a retired sheriff in Utah seeking to transcend aggression in the way we organize our communities Peace Officer.
The three standout films for me—Tocando la Luz, Listen to Me Marlon, and Peace Officer—couldn’t be more different in their approaches, but they are unified in their strong and loving assertion that life is what you make of it, and that true courage starts with a decision to take responsibility. The three Cuban women in Tocando la Luz are gorgeous reminders that what matters more than money or status or even the ability to see is a kind word, friendship, openness. (There’s also a glorious scene of a blind baseball league game, which creates one of those wonderful moments when laughter and courage kiss each other.)
Listen to Me Marlon is one of the most imaginative films I’ve ever seen about a celebrity. Marlon Brando’s personal recordings become the soundtrack to a reflection on the complexities of trying to be human when millions of people are projecting you with almost superhuman power. (It’s no wonder we call famous people “stars”—they’re treated as if they come from another planet.) We develop asymmetrical relationships with stars—watching their films over and over may convince us that we “know” them, but of course we don’t. Brando’s strenuous efforts to maintain his privacy mean that it is a huge surprise to find this film inviting us into his inner world. It’s also a huge act of generosity on the part of his family to give us this gift, which illuminates the question of what it is to be human, and how to work with our own gifts to make a contribution to the common good.
Finally, Peace Officer is the thoughtfully crafted story of an ordinary man who deserves to be called a hero. Sheriff Dub Lawrence set up Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975, only to see his own son-in-law killed by that same team in 2008. Dub is turning his grief into concern for how aggression has become a matter of habit and even policy in policing and community leadership. His willingness to stand up to misguided power without demonizing his opponents makes him a spiritual leader who deserves attention. He’s part of the transformative moment in which we are now living, when people are not only unwilling to tolerate injustice against others, but looking for solutions that allow everyone to benefit.