As the landscape for documentaries in North America changes and expands, so, too, does the terrain for documentary film festivals.
Doc-specific festivals, which might have been an extremely specialized niche five years ago, are now blossoming: Relatively young events like True/False, DOC NYC and the Camden International Film Festival are rising in stature; more players are coming into the mix (the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series); and longstanding gatherings like Hot Docs (in late April) and Full Frame, which just wrapped, are going strong. (Meanwhile, the Washington D.C. area-based AFI Docs, formally known as Silverdocs, by all accounts, has yet to reestablish itself after its rebranding and losing its longtime steward Sky Sitney.)
Full Frame, one of the oldest U.S. documentary festivals (which was launched in 1998 as Double Take), remains as vibrant as ever, thanks to a host of factors: a dedicated documentary filmmaker and industry fan-base; strong support from local audiences and well-endowed sponsors (namely Duke University); and the burgeoning development of its host city, Durham, North Carolina, which has evolved over the last few years from downtrodden post-industrial town to hipster hub, complete with farm-to-table restaurants, local breweries and food trucks galore.
And set during early April, when much of the country is still thawing out, “It’s like spring break for documentary filmmakers,” as veteran attendee and nonfiction filmmaker Doug Block called it.
Block’s opening night film “112 Weddings” was one of the festival’s most noteworthy world premieres. After penetrating his own family life in “51 Birch Street” and “The Kids Grow Up,” Block turns his amicable camera outwards in this alternatingly funny and sobering examination of the institution of marriage. The film has a ready-made premise: As a part-time wedding videographer, Block goes back to some of the couples he photographed over the years and interviews them about the fickle ways of marital bliss (and misery). Some couples are doing just fine; others have been wrenched apart by parenthood, medical issues or the fact that after so many years they’ve grown into different people. “112 Weddings,” which will premiere on HBO, makes damningly clear that weddings and marriages are poles apart. As the film’s marital expert, a New York rabbi, notes: If you throw a bunch of money and liquor at a wedding, it’s destined to be a blast. But throw a bunch of money and liquor at a marriage? “It often gets worse,” he says.
Another world premiere crowd-pleaser marked by emotional highs and lows, “The Hand That Feeds” is a rousing chronicle of a group of undocumented Latino workers at a Hot & Crusty franchise in New York City who fight for better working conditions, such as a minimum wage, overtime, and above all, respect. Though the film’s exploration of its characters lacks depth, it is a well-plotted and captivating David & Goliath story, filled with plenty of narrative twists and turns and ups and downs, which will go down easy with viewers. The film received a standing ovation, which doubled in fervor when the film’s central protagonist, a soft-spoken immigrant named Mahoma López, was invited to speak after the screening. “The Hand that Feeds” deservingly won the festival’s Audience Award — which comes with a $3,000 cash prize.
The festival’s big winner, “Evolution of a Criminal,” which premiered at SXSW and won both the Grand Jury Prize and Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award (for a total of $17,500), tells the story of the filmmaker, Darius Clark Monroe, a Houston honors student who robbed a bank when he was 16. Through interviews with his friends, accomplices and family, a thoughtful portrait of Monroe emerges and what drove him to his crime. But as his teary-eyed mother astutely observes, “Even though you did a criminal act, you weren’t a criminal.” While the film relies too heavily on extended reenactments that distract from the heart of the story, the documentary’s intimate and candid interviews provide a probing account of one man’s attempt to redeem and ultimately re-define himself, not as a convict but as a filmmaker.
Full Frame’s venues — all centrally housed in a complex that combines a Marriott Hotel, convention center rooms, and the vintage 1,031-seat two-balconied Carolina Theatre — were well attended and bustling with receptive audiences. Attending filmmakers were likewise excited, eager to share their work with the crowds and moreover, each other. Indeed, the festival has become a key place for documentary filmmakers to network, exchange ideas and be inspired by each other. “We are at a filmmaker’s festival,” Kartemquin Film’s Gordon Quinn noted during a Q&A after a screening of the superbly crafted new documentary “E-Team.”
Indeed, at any given time in the lively hospitality area, with its ongoing supply of food from local eateries, filmmakers such as D. A. Pennabaker, Joe Berlinger, Steve James, Amir Bar-Lev, Lucy Walker, and others discussed the craft and industry changes impacting documentaries.
One such topic of conversation was the increasing use of festivals as the theatrical release for their films. While distribution outlets for documentaries appear to be growing on VOD and online platforms, the theatrical marketplace remains a very costly and crowded place. If filmmakers can bring their films to festivals like Full Frame and enjoy packed houses, free food and drinks, supportive communities and nearly $50,000 in cash prizes, the long slog and expense of a theatrical tour seems, by comparison, downright crazy.