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Full Frame Film Festival, Part 1: The Loving Story and Girls State

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival returns to Durham, NC, for the first time in five years for the 26th annual festival. This year, the festival pays tribute to the works of festival founder, Nancy Buirkski, and documentary pioneer, D. A. Pennebaker. Most films screen with a panel of filmmakers in attendance, who agreeably sit through Q & A's. I emphasize agreeably because going along with a Q & A opens up the immediate risk of suffering through ignorant or boring queries from thoughtless or self-important audience members. Thankfully, most questions I heard proved to be respectful and ones any filmmaker would be proud to answer. Below, find my reviews of my first two films.
A family plays together at home
One of the photos taken by Gray Villet used in THE LOVING STORY

The Loving Story, directed by Nancy Buirski

Nancy Buirski's documentary debut is a time capsule celebration of the interracial romance that would rock the judicial court system. Two gentle souls in love, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, had the gumption to defy the Racial Integrity Act and get married. They drove across the Virginia line for the elopement. After they returned to Virginia, the local sheriff visited in the dead of night to arrest the couple. Buirski curates this love story with a precise vision, combining both archival footage and live interviews.

Buirski allows the story to breathe, eschewing any third-person narration to let these lovebirds and their friends and family speak for themselves. The heart and soul of this film must be two key linchpins, both taken during the legal process: Life Magazine photographer Gray Villet's snapshots and Hope Ryden's 16 mm film strips. Both documentarians felt called to capture images of this couple and their children doing normal things, like playing, cooking dinner, and enjoying being together.

Ryden also follows the couple as they go about town, shopping or traveling to and from their various meetings with their legal counsel, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip H. Hirschkop. Cohen and Hirschkop provide much of the humor of this true tale, as they plan their legal strategy with an enthusiasm that only young idealistic men can exude. As the couple's story slides farther into the limelight, journalists clamor to interview the couple. Mildred answers most of the questions with her gentle voice, while Richard prefers to stay silent, normally standing just off to Mildred's shoulder.

A couple together on their front porch
One of the photos taken by Gray Villet used in The Loving Story
Their love stands like a beacon, especially when placed in comparison with the footage of pro-segregation folks that Buirski places alongside the Lovings. For example:: "I feel that God had a purpose in creating the races separately. And I'm proud of being white because I'm what my white race has made me. I'm white today because my parents practiced segregation. And I wouldn't be anything but white." Blessedly, the Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the Lovings, and the 16 states who still had anti-miscegenation laws had to reverse that barrier. While many civil rights battles happened with shouting and marches, the Loving case was won while the couple quietly lived together and minded their affairs at home.

Insider info: Elizabeth Haviland (editor) and Rex Miller (cinematographer) stayed after for a Q & A. They shared that Buirski chose to pair the audio recordings of the Supreme Court trial with video footage of the Supreme Court justices getting ready for their portraits to pay homage to this group of nine white men who ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings.

Release info: Available to stream on HBO Max

Final score: 4 out of 5

A group of girls takes a selfie
A group of girls takes a selfie in GIRLS STATE

Girls State, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss

GIRLS STATE, a sequel of sorts to the 2020 festival darling, BOYS STATE, documents teen girls in Missouri as they attend the immersive political experiment and form their own government. The directors focus on seven principal subjects, as they campaign, debate issues, and vote to form the world they would like to see.

About BOYS STATE, I said: "Part Lord of the Flies; part 1776 -- this documentary captures young teenage males grappling with the same decisions that plague all politicians: when to compromise, when to lie, when to smear, when to call a truce, and when to resign." GIRLS STATE manages to supersede its predecessor. It's funnier, more nuanced, and more raw. I expected to see Mean Girls or some level of drama, but at every step of the journey, these girls demonstrated empathy and solidarity: less chest thumping and more cheers of support for the common cause.

A girl stands up in an audience
NISHA's elated to hear she is in the running for Supreme Court judge
That doesn't mean these girls have any less drive. Emily, a teen who already knows she wants to run for President one day, immediately sets her sights on winning the highest position of governor. Nisha and Brooke, two girls who both want to be on the Supreme Court, end up getting pitted against one another for a seat. Neither backs down from this challenge. Of the seven main characters, two of my favorites lose their campaign, but both channel their energies into doing valuable work elsewhere. It's that type of resilience that makes me proud to be a girl.

The elections offer only half of the drama of this film. For the first time, Boys State and Girls State met at the same campus in Missouri, which revealed disparities between the two programs that the girls couldn't ignore. The girls learned chants, the boys had actual officials show up for their ceremonies. The girls had a strict dress code and couldn't walk about campus without a buddy. The boys didn't have these restrictions. Most importantly, the funding of Boys State equals more than twice that of Girls State. Emily investigates these inequalities, revealing yet one more way that the system is rigged.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss continue to demonstrate their ability to find the story through many lenses, examining all the facets of an issue like a gemologist. GIRLS STATE is another jewel in their crown. 

Insider info: The energy was palpable in the completely full Fletcher Theater for this screening. At the Q & A, the directors spoke about how they chose the leads, finding the perfect combo between confidence and vulnerability.

Release info: Coming to Apple TV on April 5, 2024

Final score: 5 out of 5