Two men at a desk together
[L-R]: George Stephanopoulos and James Carville watch results come in

THE WAR ROOM, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

THE WAR ROOM takes us behind the scenes as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos build an effective campaign that will make Governor Bill Clinton the 42nd President of the United States. These days, films about political figures are a dime and dozen, but at the time, such a project was rare. Pennebaker was not given much access to Clinton, but he could be present in this back room space. Considered a pioneer of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, Pennebaker insisted on pure observation without intervention. In cinéma vérité, filmmakers find the story as they go along. In the case of THE WAR ROOM, Pennebaker found the buddy comedy duo of Carville and Stephanopoulos, two opposites that complement each other perfectly when a project needs doing. They made a striking pair: Carville with his polo shirts and endless wisecracks, while Stephanopoulos always looking relaxed in a shirt and tie. They chose to run the campaign like the government they hoped to build, absent of the usual hierarchies. Everyone had a voice and a role to play.

When Stephanopoulos makes his famous speech that begins, "There's a simple doctrine: outside of a person's love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labor," you will wonder if you are in a strategy meeting or a call to arms moment in a Shakespearean play.

It's fascinating stuff, and even more so when you consider that Bill Clinton was not expected to win. During the live Q & A at Full Frame, Chris Hegedus shared that by all counts, George W. Bush was the front runner. Him winning surprised everyone, including the filmmakers, and they got to observe it all as it went down.

Release info: THE WAR ROOM streams on Max

Final score: 4 out of 5

A group of men in Eastern desert gear walk outside a bunker

HOLLYWOODGATE, directed by Ibrahim Nash'at

HOLLYWOODGATE captures a nation in chaos from the most unexpected perspective of all – behind enemy lines. In 2021, American forces pulled out all troops in Afghanistan, leaving $7.12 billion worth of equipment behind. Egyptian-German filmmaker Ibrahim Nash'at follows a Taliban regiment run by a high-ranking air force official named Malawai Mansour over the course of a year, as they take ownership of the recently abandoned CIA base in Kabul, nicknamed Hollywood Gate.

This documentary comes from that revered tradition of documentaries that seem too far-fetched to be true. As the camera tracks the group's efforts to inventory the vast supply of technologically superior aircraft, assault weapons, and military equipment, the subjects on camera just as often make the one holding the camera the topic of conversation. "If he has bad intentions, he will soon be dead," one soldier says to assure another that they are watching Nash'at closely for skullduggery of any kind.

That anyone not part of the group would be allowed access to observe these events is nothing but a miracle. The camera follows the regiment as they celebrate their victory, plan next steps, and try to root out any enemies that got left behind. At one point, the mean leave for nighttime errands of unknown purpose. He's allowed to follow until he's not. "You stay here," they tell him." Nash'at keeps the camera rolling, watching the taillights of the vehicle disappear as he keeps the camera rolling, letting the sounds of the night bear witness to an event he will never observe.

Nash'at gained this access by appealing to the ego of these officers, claiming he wanted to capture their story. During the year, he was often forced to stop. The men would change their mind or demand to see the footage before he continued. But eventually he would be allowed back, and Nash'at had to decide if he was willing to enter a situation that might mean his death any moment. Since he didn't speak the language, he didn't know how often he was being threatened until he was editing the film. Perhaps if he knew, Nash'at wouldn't have had the courage to stay.

HOLLYWOODGATE makes for a terrifying yet fascinating look at a despot on the rise. Nash'at won the Grand Jury Award at Full Frame Full Frame, and I expect he will earn a legion more for this bold film.

Release info: HOLLYWOODDATE is still in the festival circuit and not on streaming currently.

Final score: 5 out of 5

A girl with a wig asks question in a rehearsal
HALLE asks a question during rehearsal in THIS IS GOING TO BE BIG

THIS IS GOING TO BE BIG, directed by Thomas Charles Hyland

An upbeat and heartwarming slice of Australian goodness. Neurodivergent students at Sunbury and Macedon Ranges Specialist School in Bullengarook, Victoria, prepare for their high school musical. Director Thomas Charles Hyland follows the process from auditions to opening night, as Halle, Chelsea, Elyse, and Josh, get up the nerve to audition for a jukebox musical about Australian pop idol John Farnham called THE TIME-TRAVELLING TRIO. The musical features three students who travel back in time to witness Farnham's career from the 1960s to the 1990s, with the pinnacle moment being a performance of "You're The Voice," one of the land of Oz's top singles of all time.

Hyland partnered with Bus Stop Films, an advocacy group who wants to give a voice to people with disabilities, to ensure safety and respect for all featured persons. Throughout, the documentary takes care to portray the students as teenagers first, and people with autism spectrum disorder last. That's certainly the case for Halle, who decides from the start she wants to play John Farnham in the 1980s, so that she can sing "You're the Voice," her deceased aunt's favorite song. Chelsea, who ends up playing one of the time travelers, has an infectious personality and holds counsel with her best friend at the chainlink fence each day. She walks with a slight limp after being hit by a car as a child but loves performing and being at the center of attention. Aviation enthusiast Josh joined the Australian air force cadets and feels shy about getting on stage but believes in pushing himself to try new things. And Elyse, a quiet girl who enjoys finding insects, shares that after getting accepted at the Sunbury/Macedon Ranges school, her seizures have reduced from 8-10 a day to only one a day.

The months-long preparation comes with ups and downs for each student, but the show goes on, and a mighty fine one at that. Documentaries often get a reputation for being serious affairs, but THIS IS GOING TO BE BIG proves that slice-of-life stories can be just as compelling as political statements.

Release info: Should get a late 2024 release.

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Two women at a desk, one white, on Black
Two of the Whiteville citizens share their thoughts about how it's going

RED, WHITEVILLE, AND BLUE, directed by D.L. Anderson

When I chose RED, WHITEVILLE, AND BLUE as my final film of Full Frame, I anticipated a small crowd of stragglers would attend in the final hours of the festival. Imagine my surprise when I found a line wrapped around the bowels of the Durham Convention Center as if we were in line for the hottest new rollercoaster at King's Dominion. I realized my mistake when I finally gained admission to choose a seat and learned that the Whiteville in the title stood for Whiteville, North Carolina, less than 150 miles from the festival's location of Durham, NC. In attendance at the World Premier that evening were vocally proud citizens of Whiteville, including some of the main characters in the movie, as well as Tar Heels from all parts of the state.

Political fundraiser Erica Payne hosts a series of dinners at a local restaurant in Whiteville on behalf of The Patriotic Millionaires, a group of high-net individuals who want to address economic inequality in America. Payne and the organization chase what seems like an impossible dream: to encourage people who hold widely differing political views to set aside differences for a common purpose. Participants are asked to focus on the topic of gaining a living wage for all citizens in their area.

Such a plan has worked before in North Carolina when people focus on their common enemies. In 1971, a small group of Durham citizens, chaired by Black civil rights activist Ann Atwater and white Klu Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis, held a charrette to focus on their common dilemma of peacefully desegregating Durham schools. Everyone wants their kids to attend a good, safe school, and this focus allowed them to find common ground and co-create solutions.

The people from Whiteville begin to talk to one another, organize, and learn how the political machine operates. Seeing these salt of the earth citizens come together is the healing balm this country needs at such a time as this.

Release info: RED, WHITEVILLE, AND BLUE is currently taking requests to host a screening on their website

Final score: 3.5 out of 5