Get off your ass and make your work. That’s what I learned on the first day of Full Frame.
Thursday morning offered an unlikely double feature, Iris and War Photographer. On the surface, these two films could not be more opposite. For Iris, the late Albert Maysles followed the fabulous, hilarious, colorful fashion icon Iris Apfel as she goes about her days collecting clothing and accessories and working with gallery directors, photographers and fashion houses. War Photographer is Christian Frei’s profile of James Nachtwey as he shoots some of the world’s worst combat zones and most appalling scenes of poverty and desperation.
Maysles lets you fall in love with Apfel immediately—she’s loaded with charm and wit. But as the film progressed, I noticed how his low-key editing allowed Apfel’s unique fashion vision onto the screen. You could see her choosing objects and, more importantly, relating them to other objects in the collection. Another filmmaker might have used quick-cut pans and zooms to wow viewers with the sheer variety of her collection. But it’s not about the stuff—it’s about the exponentially larger network of possible outfits that Apfel has in her head.
Frei made the remarkable choice to place a GoPro on top of Nachtwey’s camera, essentially showing the viewer precisely what Nachtwey was looking at in the moment and how he was framing it for a shot. And then you see Nachtwey’s finger twitch and hear the shutter. Frei showed us Nachtwey’s choices of shots, similar to how Maysles showed us Apfel’s choices of necklaces with blouses.
The films had other resonant moments. Apfel’s uncanny knack for shopping boutiques and flea markets, scanning racks of blouses and tabletops of scarves and necklaces for the items that sparked her intuition, connected with Nachtwey’s footage of children picking through a mountainous trash heap outside Jakarta, Indonesia, scavenging anything with resale value or of use to their families. The connection wasn’t ironic, either—instead, I saw people scanning what their culture churns out, scrutinizing it for glimmers of aesthetic or practical worth.
Iris’ lesson was to live an interesting life at every possible moment, until the very last moment. Don’t be boring for a second. Nachtwey explicitly states his lesson toward the end of War Photographer—“We are required to look at it.” You are responsible for witnessing the atrocities of your times; otherwise you are choosing to be complicit with their perpetrators. Although these messages aren’t the same, they are powered by the same urgency or imperative. I walked away from those back-to-back films feeling breathlessly empowered.