Docu-film fest at Island Theatre

By Brooks Robards - April 6, 2006

Calling itself "A Stalk-umentary," the film "Asparagus!" opens this weekend's festival.

A Providence, R.I., boxer seeks fame and fortune in "Sweet Dreams." Somalia refugees build new lives in Springfield, Mass. and Atlanta, Ga., in "Rain in a Dry Land." Women jailed in England write and perform music in "Songbirds." The killing of a Mexican immigrant reverberates across the border in "El Inmigrante."

These movies make up just a sampling of the 12 coming to the Island Theatre in Oak Bluffs this weekend - Thursday, April 6 through Sunday April 9 - as part of the 2006 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The Vineyard is one of 11 locations in the U.S. where the Durham, N.C.-based Festival will screen simultaneously, thanks to a new digital projection process. Sponsored by Duke University, the New York Times and Emerging Pictures, the Festival also features an Audience Award that will be voted on by the audiences at the various locations.

The festival opens at 7 pm on Thursday with the screening of "Asparagus!", about a Michigan farming community doing battle with the global economy. "Songbirds" and "Boy in the Bubble" follow in a double feature starting at 8:30 pm.

Imaginatively made and packing an unexpectedly powerful punch, "Songbirds" follows the life stories of female inmates in Sutton, England's Downview Prison. Interwoven with interviews are the women's performances of the music they have produced, ranging from rap songs to lullabies.

Charmaine tells how she was robbed and beaten by thugs in Jamaica when she refused to carry drugs for them. Mary got herself hooked on amphetamines at age 15 and has spent the rest of her life in and out of prison. She describes herself in a rap song, "Here Comes Scary Mary."

Theresa looks like any ordinary housewife, but she was driven over the edge by an abusive neighbor and stabbed her to death. Most poignant of all, perhaps, is Maggie, who is serving six years for burglary and misses her four children. "Sleep, little songbirds, go to sleep; you'll always be Mommy's in Mommy's dreams," she sings in a haunting alto.

"Boy in the Bubble" is about an immune-compromised boy, and the compromises he has to make to stay alive.

Friday's schedule begins at 7 pm with "The Refugee All-Stars," about six musicians from Sierra Leone eking out a living in Guinea. "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," which examines gender roles in hip-hop and rap, begins at 9 pm in a double bill with "Saz," about an Arab rapper.

An afternoon screening at 4 pm on Saturday is planned for "Sacco and Vanzetti," about the famous Boston anarchists who were railroaded to the electric chair by prejudice against Italian immigrants. "Sweet Dreams" follows at 7 pm and "Filthy Gorgeous, the Trannysack Story," examining the exploits of a group of performance-art drag queens and kings, at 9:30 pm

"Sweet Dreams" follows the career of boxer Gary Balletto who comes from the Italian section of Federal Hill in Providence, R.I., and his wise guy wannabe friend Derek Fleming. Balletto turns out to be a natural actor with an appealing camera presence, and as long as the documentary sticks with his story, it provides powerful and persuasive evidence for why fighters subject themselves to the brutality of boxing.

How do you open a tamper-proof cap if you've never seen one? How do you pay rent when you don't have a job yet? How do you cope with the depression caused by homesickness? "Rain in a Dry Land," playing in a 2 pm matinee Sunday, shows how two Somali women, Arbai and Marina, and their families fare when transplanted from a Kenya refugee camp to new homes in the U.S. This documentary demonstrates the ups and downs of adjusting to life in a new, unfamiliar America in effective and interesting ways.

The weakest Festival entry of those available for preview is "El Inmigrante," scheduled for 4 pm on Sunday. The story of Eusebio, a young Mexican who ends up dying after he asks a Texas rancher's wife for water, is not so much the problem. It provides stark evidence of the prejudice in this country against Mexican workers and their unfair treatment by the American legal system.

The problem with "El Inmigrante" is that this disorganized documentary is shot and edited without imagination. The viewer is barraged with repetitive interviews with the family members and principals in the case, unnecessary "scenic" footage and irrelevant background.

Closing the Festival Sunday night at 7 pm is "China Blue," which examines Chinese labor and its impact on the global economy through the eyes of a 16-year-old worker in a blue-jeans factory.

The Martha's Vineyard Movies chain, owned by Benjamin Hall of Edgartown, plans to partner with Emerging Pictures to bring other specially curated film festivals to the Island like the Latinbeat and Undiscovered Gems Festivals. The Island will show the documentary "Chain," the first in the Undiscovered Gems series, on Monday, April 17, and Tuesday, April 18.

Full Frame Documentary Festival passes are available at the Island box office for $30. Tickets for individual programs are $6.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.