Martha Mitchell, wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, was once known as “the Mouth of the South” for her outspoken manner. Her life also gave rise to the term “the Martha Mitchell Effect,” in which someone’s accurate perception of events is classified as delusional (often with the collusion of medical professionals). It’s a near relative to gaslighting, so no surprise that the trope is named after a woman who refused to play by the boy’s rules and was punished for it. Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy’s short film “The Martha Mitchell Effect” (40 min.) provides context about Martha Mitchell and her relation to American society of the time, and will be particularly informative for viewers too young to remember the Nixon presidency and the Watergate Scandal which ended it. For us oldies, it’s a real stroll down memory lane, and a reminder that corruption in American politics is nothing new (nor is misogyny). It’s also a marvel of editing, composed as it is out of archival materials. Early in this film, Nixon himself pays Mitchell a high compliment: “I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate” (subtext: “and I’d still be in office.”).
Today’s winner in the “You can do anything in a documentary” contest is Alejandro Alonso’s short “Abyssal” (31 min.), which is about as far removed from the sort of docs shown in high-school history classes as it could be. It starts out as an abstract tone-poem observing a lone man ascending a staircase. Gradually the context is revealed: he’s one of several scrap metal workers living and working on a ship moored at Bahia Honda on Cuba’s northern coast. When the men discuss strange dreams, or seeing mysterious lights, it doesn’t seem any odder than what we see of their daily lives. Everything in this film is made strange, creating a study in shapes and shadows, bathing viewers in ambient sounds (there’s no dialogue for the first nine minutes) and immersing them in surroundings both grim and mysterious.
Princeville, North Carolina, was settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War, who called it Freedom Hill. It was incorporated in 1885, making it the oldest African American town in the United States. Resita Cox’s short film “Freedom Hill” (30 min.) explores the town’s history, and in particular how it has been affected by catastrophic flooding—not surprising when you realize the town is adjacent to the floodplain of the Tar River, on land available for African Americans to settle because white people considered it uninhabitable. This pattern is so common in the United States—higher ground is inhabited by white people, while lower, flood-prone ground is inhabited by African Americans—that there’s a name for it: racialized topography, which is one aspect of the long history of environmental racism. But “Freedom Hill” is not all bad news: it’s also a celebration of the town’s residents, who value their roots in Princeville and think the government should invest in the town’s flood defenses, as has been done elsewhere. | Sarah Boslaugh
The shorts in this review are available for home viewing (some may be available in the United States only) as part of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. Further information is available through the festival web site.