Full Frame Ramps Up Offerings in Seventh Year; Michael Moore Talks About His 9/11 Doc
by Hugo Perez
“I think the festival turned a corner this year,” said Nancy Biurski, executive director of the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, N.C., as the festival wound down after the awards ceremony on April 4th. “We have managed to strike a balance between the intimate screenings and conversations that filmmakers have come to expect from us on the one hand and the needs of the market on the other. Steve Rosenbaum of Camera Planet described Full Frame as a ‘non-market’ market and I think that’s right where we want to be.” With attendance up almost 50 percent over last year and almost a third of the screenings sold out, as well as a new fellows program which provided mentoring sessions and master classes with filmmakers for a group of 70 students, several new awards, and a pilot program through Emerging Pictures to simultaneously distribute selections from the festival to five other locations across the country, the festival experienced a dramatic ramping up from previous years. Filmmakers submitted more than 700 entries to this year’s festival (a new record), from which the fest selected 66 films to screen.
Among the members of the documentary community attending this year’s festival were D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Sheila Nevins, Michael Moore, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns, Jehane Noujaim, Morgan Spurlock, Laurin Lazin, and George Cutler. Full Frame’s stellar assembly of guests also included satirist Harry Shearer who was on hand to discuss his work on “mockumentaries” such as “This is Spinal Tap.” Shearer expressed his admiration for the documentary format, explaining “Reality is so much better than the imagination. When we made ‘Spinal Tap,’ our belief was that if you could get really close to the daffiness of real life, you’d have really good comedy.”
An opening night full house at the 1200-seat Carolina Theatre welcomed the world premiere of HBO‘s “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A Pennebaker. The film fused scenes from Stritch’s Broadway hit show and verité segments following Stritch as she created and performed it, creating a delightful documentary adaptation of the original piece. After the screening, an ecstatic standing ovation greeted the filmmakers, Stritch, and HBO’s Sheila Nevins, who were all on hand for a discussion of the film with the audience. The second half of the eclectic double bill was Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” a beautifully shot and highly intimate portrait of rock legends Metallica, following the band as they go through therapy to help keep them from breaking up as well as to help them rediscover why they wanted to make music in the first place. Following in the footsteps of both “Spinal Tap,” and the classic rockumentary “Don’t Look Back,” “Some Kind of Monster” taps into the zeitgeist of the rock star life in a 21st-century MTV world.
Berlinger expressed how important Full Frame was for a film like “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” “The very people who would get something out of this film would tend to avoid it because of the subject matter,” he said. “Full Frame gives our film a stamp of approval. It says to people this is more than just a fan film.” Guest filmmakers across the board were enthusiastic about their participation in the Full Frame festival as well as the increased importance of documentaries both in terms of their social relevance and commercial viability. “Documentaries have come into their own as an information medium as well as an entertaining medium,” said Morgan Spurlock whose film “Super Size Me,” a Quixote-esque tilting at the windmill of the McDonald’s corporation, will open theatrically in May. “There are so many buyers here, it’s awesome, and I think that’s really encouraging for documentary filmmakers. Today, you are getting documentaries playing in megaplexes. That would have been unheard of 10 years ago. It has become a mainstream, viable medium.”
Fellow subversive Michael Moore tipped his hat to Spurlock for “drawing blood from the McDonald’s corporation.” Moore was on hand throughout the weekend to participate in the Documentary as Swing Vote panel discussion as well as for “An Evening with Michael Moore,” which one festival staff-member described as “the biggest event the festival has ever done.” During his evening talk to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1000 people, Moore revealed that despite being one of the most commercially successful documentary directors of all time, he has found that American companies and distributors are so nervous about investing in his films, due to their political content, that almost all of his funding for the last decade has come from overseas.
When Mel Gibson‘s Icon Pictures pulled out of their financing agreement for Moore’s highly anticipated “Fahrenheit 9/11” which looks at the relationship between the Bush and bin Laden families, Moore was told that “someone from the White House” called to warn Icon against funding the film. Moore has made a career of turning obstacles to his advantage and came up with a creative solution to his funding problem, which he shared with the audience, “We decided to fund the film ourselves. We got the idea from Colin Powell saying that he was offering a $25 million reward for reward leading to the discovery of Osama bin Laden. We thought, ‘Why don’t we go find Osama bin Laden and we can fund the movie?'” Moore went on to give the audience a taste of what they would find in “Fahrenheit 9/11”: “One day we were sitting around the production offices and I said, ‘You know I bet even a blind man can find Osama bin Laden.’ So we said, ‘Why don’t we find a blind man?’ So we found a blind man in Kabul and we hired him to go into the hills to go find Osama bin Laden and we offered to split the reward with him. We have a month to go and we’ll see how this all unfolds.”
Throughout his visit to Full Frame, Moore went out of his way to persuade not just attendees but his fellow filmmakers as well to go out and fight for what the believe in. His message of “one man CAN make a difference” inspired even veteran filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebaker who said, “Michael Moore has become my conscience.”
Full Frame’s assortment of personalities included many who were less well known but no less colorful. If a prize had been given for the most excruciating experience a filmmaker had to go through to make a film, it would certainly have gone to Australian adventurer and filmmaker Jon Muir. Muir walked solo 1600 miles across the Australian continent, through some of the most unyielding terrain in the world and in the process shot a video diary of his odyssey that became the documentary “Alone Across Australia,” which had its world premiere at Full Frame this year. Muir’s film and the wide assortment of different stories and modes of storytelling on display over the weekend reinforced Biurski’s sentiment that “over the years I’ve run the festival, the craft has improved and people are learning to tell stories differently and more dramatically as well as for new ways to tell them.”
Other highlights of the festival included its examination of life in the South. Paul Stekler‘s “Last Man Standing” is a lively portrayal of Texas politics through the story of a 24-year-old Democratic contender seeking to unseat the Republican incumbent in a race for state representative. Cynthia Hill‘s “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family” is a highly moving and complex look at the impact of tobacco farming in North Carolina on the lives of the people that for generations have cultivated it.
One festival standout was Jessica Yu‘s “In the Realms of the Unreal,” which stunningly and creatively portrays the life of outsider artist Henry Darger, a man known only slightly by a few people and of whom only three photographs existed, through animated sequences adapting portions of Darger’s 15,000-page illustrated novel “In the Realms of the Unreal.” Many at the festival felt that Yu’s portrait of Darger broke new ground in its use of fiction to comment on and enhance documentary reality.
The weekend culminated in the traditional Southern barbecue and awards ceremony on the plaza outside of the historic Carolina Theatre. Jehane Noujaim‘s “Control Room” was the big winner of the day, receiving an unprecedented three awards from the festival including the grand jury award, the Center for Documentary Studies filmmaker award, and a second-place Seeds of War award presented by novelist Walter Mosley. With its timely behind-the-scenes look at how the Iraq War was covered by Arab journalists at the controversial Al Jazeera network as well as by American journalists at CentCom, the Pentagon’s media center in the desert outside of Qatar, “Control Room” is perhaps one of the most important films of the year.
Other winners included: a tied audience award going to Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski‘s “Born Into Brothels” as well as Julian Petrillo and Eric Chaikin‘s “Word Wars.” The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist award was presented to Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock‘s “A Certain Kind of Death,” a nuanced and entrancing look at what happens when someone dies with no next of kin. Filmmaker Macky Alston, a member of the selecting committee, praised the film for its mastery of the filmmaking medium. Honorable mention in this category was given to Phil Grabsky‘s “The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan,” an exquisitely shot portrait of a young boy refugee who lives amongst the ruins of Afghanistan’s famous stone Buddhas, torn down in 2001 by the Taliban.
The Full Frame/Emerging Pictures audience award was presented to Orlando Bagwell‘s “Citizen King,” an intimate and moving portrait of the last five years of King’s life. The Emerging Picture Audience Award, awarded for the first time this year, was determined by audience members at five remote locations. The MTV News Docs Prize for the film that best captures the essence of what it is to be a young adult was presented to Sundance winner Morgan Spurlock for “Super Size Me,” his initially irreverant and ultimately disturbing look at how food is marketed, distributed, and consumed in America. The Camera Planet/Full Frame Award for best short was given to Melba Williams‘ “A Thousand Words.”
Full Frame’s commitment to documentaries that spotlight social issues was reinforced this year by the Seeds of War Award, created by novelist Walter Mosley to support the films which best “lay bare the seeds and mechanisms that create war.” Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain‘s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was presented with the first prize, and Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room” was presented with the second prize.
Commenting on his motivation for creating the new award, Mosley said, “One of the biggest problems facing us today is war. Yet, we are completely ignorant of and helpless to find out why it’s happening. We want to talk about why war is happening and we want to put it in a language that can reach millions of people. One of the really good ways to do it is through documentaries.”