This is the third of a series highlighting a few film shorts from the Full Frame Archive, a collection within the Archive of Documentary Arts, with the goal of preserving masters all past winners of Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The Full Frame Archive has acquired 75 films since 2007 and continues to grow; DVD use copies of these films can be viewed in the Rubenstein Libraryreading room. A complete list with descriptions, as well as titles of award-winners not yet acquired, can be found in the Full Frame Archive finding aid.
After highlighting an animated short and an aesthetic one, we’re showcasing a purely observational documentary. Laura Paglin’s No Umbrella: Election in the City, winner of the 2006 Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short, documents election day 2004 at one polling site in a poor, black, Cleveland neighborhood. Its fly-on-the-wall approach reveals voters’ frustration as they wait long hours in the rain for voting machines and ballots to arrive.
Though she could not have predicted what would happen, Cleveland filmmaker Paglin knew there might be something to record. After the voting controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election, concerns were high in 2004 over potential fraud at the polls, especially in large swing states like Ohio. “I had heard that Ohio could be the next Florida fiasco. Though I didn’t totally believe it, I thought I’d go to the inner city where they were anticipating problems—just in case,” Paglin wrote in her email interview with me last month.
“I felt a bit foolish at first—driving around looking for trouble—but then I found some. . . . When I got to the polling location, the scene was chaotic—a long line that wasn’t moving, tempers flaring. A young woman who invited me to come document the trouble was trying to reach someone on her cell phone. About ten minutes later, a tiny woman in her eighties covered in a yellow slicker showed up on the scene—and that was the first time I met Fannie Lewis.”
The indomitable Lewis, city councilwoman for the ward in question, becomes a central figure in the drama, a rock of competence amidst the confusion, holding a cellphone to each ear as she hounds election officials around the city and eventually persuades the mayor herself to make an appearance. Paglin’s favorite aspect of film in retrospect “is really the character of Fannie herself. You couldn’t make up a character like that!” Lewis passed away in 2008.
No Umbrella won honors at several film festivals in the U.S. and Australia in 2006, and later aired on Cinemax. “I think the film less was less shocking to locals who are used to decades of incompetence and corruption in Cleveland. But outside, people were really shocked I think. I don’t know if the film by itself has made and impact, but I think together with other documentaries, press attention, reports, a lot more attention and scrutiny is being paid to the whole voting process.”
Ultimately, for Paglin it is about the individual people. “While I’m interested in social issues, I’m much more interested in the characters who are affected by them. If these films help others to improve social policies, all the better. But I just want to make the films.”
Just this year, Paglin has completed her first feature length documentary, Facing Forward (http://www.facingforwardfilm.com/), following a charismatic but troubled teenager as he navigates a new, strict school in inner-city Cleveland. The central character “reminds me a bit of Fannie Lewis—of course very different—but temperamental, charming and not afraid to speak his mind.”
Post contributed by Tanya Lee, Full Frame Archive Intern.