Sonita (★★★½)
Life, Animated (
Raising Bertie (
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Durham
Saturday, April 9, 2016

Perseverance is a common theme in documentaries, usually involving the tenacity of a film’s subject and occasionally the filmmakers. Three docs featured during day three of this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ply this premise, with decidedly different results.

Sundance sensation Sonita chronicles the story of Sonita Alizadeh, an undocumented Afghan teenager living in Iran. We first meet the 18-year-old Alizadeh rapping for fellow displaced children in their Tehran group home. Alizadeh harbors Western sensibilities and dreams of hitting it big like Rihanna and Justin Beiber, but her family wants to fetch her back to Afghanistan so they can sell her into marriage, a practice that informs Alizadeh’s pointed and controversial lyrics.

The power of Sonita stems from the real-time access afforded to Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami as Alizadeh grapples with the demands of her family, minders, and cultural mores. But that access also fosters some thorny ethical issues, as the boundary between filmmaker and subject is eventually obliterated when Rokhsareh inserts herself into Alizadeh’s life. Typically, such a breach of the documentary filmmaking code is irreparable from the audience’s critique. But Rokhsareh’s involvement propels Alizadeh’s life in directions that also further the film, thus making her actions more intriguing than ethically fatal. By the time Rokhsareh is filming Alizadeh’s YouTube music videos that become a worldwide sensation, her role as documentary director has morphed into something provocative.

Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams helms the touching Life, Animated, about Owen Suskind, the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, and his battle with autism. Spawned from Ron’s book of the same name, the film documents how the noncommunicative Owen reconnected with his well-heeled family using his love for classic and modern Disney animated films. By mimicking the exaggerated voices and gestures of the animated characters, Owen was also able to grasp the films’ broad moral themes.

Life, Animated is an informative window into the obstacles facing autistic people and their loved ones. But at the risk of dousing cold water on a heartwarming story, it also occasionally drifts into “Autistic People Say the Darnedest Things.” Moreover, a nagging sense of cynicism ran with the fact that the film never answers—and I couldn’t figure out—why Owen would gravitate only to Disney films, and not other seminal animated films with sweeping life lessons produced by other movie studios, such as the Pixar canon, or Shrek, or How To Train Your Dragon, or The Iron Giant. Only Disney films are mentioned by name, only Disney clips are shown in the film, only Disney posters adorn Owen’s bedroom walls, and Disney voice actors Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried show up at Owen’s Disney Club meeting of other autistic young people. The argument that Owen only connects with Disney animated films, for some unexplained reason, is undercut when the camera quickly pans at one point past Owen’s VHS movie collection, and I spied Dreamworks’ Chicken Run and few other non-Disney titles on his shelf.

The answer could be that filmmakers of Life, Animated were able to purchase licensing rights from Disney and not other studios—indeed, a post-screening Q&A session revealed that Disney was paid fees for the use of their characters. That still doesn’t explain why the film purposefully and repeatedly asserts that Owen’s affinity therapy encompasses only Disney films. Even if the ultimate explanation is benign, this is the sort of unanswered question that a good documentary shouldn’t raise.

Raising Bertie, enjoying its world premiere Saturday at Full Frame, follows the lives of three African-American youths over six years as they grow from high school into adulthood, and cope with life in rural Bertie County, North Carolina. Poverty, unemployment, absentee fathers, and the criminal justice system are everyday pressures. The film is directed by Margaret Byrne, who worked on American Promise, which won the Full Frame Grand Jury Prize in 2013, and produced through Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based home to filmmaker Steve James and other acclaimed documentaries.

Narrative and structural issues weigh down Raising Bertie, beginning with a 102-minute running time that’s at least 20 minutes too long. The precise passage of time is difficult to follow—you’re thankful for a banner late in the film that reveals one character is attending “Prom 2014.” A brawl that breaks out on a neighbor’s front lawn occurs absent context or explanation—you have little idea who is fighting, and no notion why.

The film also wallows in the isolation and “otherness” of its subjects, but little else. It’s akin to an African-American version of Rich Hill, a 2014 Full Frame entry that also trawled the familiar milieu of small-town squalor by following three white kids in Missouri. The difficulties facing the young men in Raising Bertie are systemic and daunting. But the film’s audience also needs its own perseverance.