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For the Love of Non-Fiction Film: Full Frame Fetes Documentary in a Full Four Days

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire April 6, 2009 at 8:37AM

Downtown Durham, NC, played host once again to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 2-5, bringing four days packed with non-fiction programming to an enthusiastic audience of locals and visiting filmmakers and industry. Despite the loss of high-profile sponsor The New York Times only about a month before the fest's launch, the 12th edition of the highly-respected documentary event evidenced smooth operations, capacity screenings, and an estimated increase in ticket sales.
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Downtown Durham, NC, played host once again to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 2-5, bringing four days packed with non-fiction programming to an enthusiastic audience of locals and visiting filmmakers and industry. Despite the loss of high-profile sponsor The New York Times only about a month before the fest's launch, the 12th edition of the highly-respected documentary event evidenced smooth operations, capacity screenings, and an estimated increase in ticket sales.

Eschewing a concern with premieres, included in the festival's excellent selections this year were a number of recent standouts from Sundance ("The Cove," "The September Issue," "We Live in Public," "Art & Copy"), SXSW ("45365," "Objectified," "The Way We Get By"), IDFA ("Rough Aunties," "Burma VJ," "Love on Delivery"), and Toronto ("Unmistaken Child," "Youssou Ndour," "Food Inc") showcasing some of the best in recent non-fiction film to sate the voracious appetite of their audience, composed of the diverse mix of ages, gender, and race typical of the affluent Raleigh-Durham Triangle region and its high concentration of educational institutions and industrial research parks. Addressing this audience in her opening night remarks, Executive Director Peg Palmer reflected on the history of the festival founded by her friend, Nancy Buirski, who stepped down before last year's event, and commented on Durham's appropriateness as Full Frame's headquarters: "We have a history of art and storytelling of all types in the Triangle - it's a strong Southern tradition. Durham enjoys diversity - we welcome, embrace, and encourage it in our films." Palmer went on to say, despite changes in sponsorship, that "a superlative international documentary festival makes sense in trying economic times, and we will survive these times." Echoing these sentiments, newly instated Director of Programming Sadie Tillery reminded us that Full Frame "strips all else away to concentrate on films, filmmakers, and filmgoers," noting that "there is no better way to honor these films than for thousands of people to experience these works over a single weekend."

In addition to showcasing new work, Tillery noted the festival's special programming this year, which included a posthumous Career Award to St Clair Bourne (who passed away in December 2007), with an accompanying series of Bourne's films curated by filmmaker Sam Pollard. Steve James was also present throughout the weekend introducing a wide array of films that he curated about the intersection of documentary and sports, including among others, "The Red Race," a gripping behind-the-scenes exploration of how China turns grammar-school-aged children into Olympic gymnasts; Barbara Kopple's 1993 Tyson portrait, "Fallen Champ;" George Butler's work-in-progress, "The Good Fight;" and even, unusual for a documentary festival, but appropriate, three fiction films based on true stories: Lindsay Anderson's "This Sporting Life;" "Paper Lion," based on George Plimpton's book; and "Slap Shot." James' landmark "Hoop Dreams" was also presented as a special 15th anniversary free screening and panel.

Full Frame's opening night film, the world premiere of Andrew Lang's "Sons of Cuba," also fit James' sports theme, presenting an unprecedented and intimate look at the rigorous training of three aspiring 12-year old pugilists in the Havana Boxing Academy. Sporting knockout editing and cinematography, and perfectly-selected subjects, Lang's film provides a child's-eye-view on patriotism, personal sacrifice, masculinity, and family bonds with poignancy and moments of humor. Following the enthusiastically received screening, Steve James moderated a discussion with Lang and members of the production which hit on all of these themes.

While the festival's unique schedule, where each film screens just once (aside from a selection of award-winners that receive repeat screenings, see full list below), may prove a logistical hurdle for attendees, having to make difficult choices between which of the four or five concurrent programs to attend creates a palpable sense of excitement to each screening. Among the films premiering at the festival were Robert Greene's "Owning the Weather," a fascinating (if at times repetitive) look at those who would use scientific means to influence weather patterns, as well as their opponents; Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren's "The Swindler," a thoroughly entertaining investigation of an international con man who bilked scores of people of their life savings while impersonating, at various times, an Orthodox Jew, an Olympic swimming coach, and a Vatican bishop; Melis Birder's "The Visitors," a moving look at the loved ones of prisoners who travel hours each week to attend visiting hours; Oded Adomi Leshem's "Voices from El-Sayed," a sensitive and earnest portrait of a unique Bedouin village which is also home to the largest community of deaf persons in the world; and Faiza Ahmad Khan's "Supermen of Malegaon," a humorous, if ultimately slight, chronicle of a wedding videographer's efforts to remake "Superman" for his local Muslim-Indian community. Though I was unable to see many of the shorts screening, Andreas Koefoed's "12 Notes Down," the ultimate winner of the juried shorts award, impressed with its remarkable cinematography as it told the story of a 14-year-old making the decision to leave his beloved boy's choir as he feels his voice breaking.

Full Frame's casual atmosphere offered much room for discussion - beyond the often-lively post-screening Q&As were panel discussions looking at distribution options for documentary films (Eugene Hernandez will be offering his report on this panel separately); a practical consideration of making documentaries in conflict zones; a panel about sports documentaries; and a conversation about the state of non-fiction film criticism. The latter, inspired by Thom Powers' recent call for new documentary critics on his Stranger Than Fiction blog, was structured as a discussion between Powers, indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez, and Variety film reviewer Ronnie Scheib. While Hernandez often espoused a more optimistic outlook about the possibilities blogging affords for new voices to be heard in film criticism, Scheib at times expressed a more pessimistic view, noting that traditional sources for more widely-read non-fiction reviews such as Variety have had to scale back coverage of documentaries and smaller films due to economic pressures, and with no dedicated mainstream publications as yet stepping forward to fill this gap, the ability for larger audiences to find out about non-fiction films is greatly diminished.

Conversations such as these continued at the festival's special programs supporting new filmmakers and students. Full Frame's Fellows program brought over a hundred college film students and their advisors (composed of veteran filmmakers/educators such as Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, and Yvonne Welbon) to the festival to watch films and meet filmmakers. Two other programs supported emerging filmmakers - the Southern Documentary Fund screened three short works-in-progress by local North Carolina filmmakers, while the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant (named in memory of the director of "Cul De Sac" and "Occupation: Dreamland") provides funding for two first-time filmmakers to attend Full Frame with their projects and meet with industry advisors. Thom Powers, Scott's collaborator Ian Olds, and Scott's girlfriend Rachael Rakes introduced clips from grant recipients' films, Elinyisia Mosha's untitled Tanzania project and Cameron Yates' "The Canal Street Madam," and discussed their progress thus far. Both projects showed great promise and are sure to make the festival rounds once completed.

The festival wrapped on Sunday, which also saw the annual BBQ awards ceremony, where the big winners were "Burma VJ" and "Unmistaken Child," each claiming three nods; as well as "The Way We Get By" and "45365," both winners at SXSW; "Voices from El-Sayid;" "Love on Delivery;" and "Shouting Fire."

As many film festivals continue to struggle with issues of funding and general relevance, it's heartening to see an event honoring work that conventional wisdom deems largely "non-commercial" continue to succeed. Palmer and Tillery and the rest of their team have done an exceptional job in their stewardship of Full Frame in a terrible economic climate, managing to maintain the good will long fostered by founder Nancy Buirski to celebrate and debate non-fiction film in a welcoming community.

For a complete list of festival winners, see the next page.

A scene from Aron Gaudet's "The Way We Get By." Image courtesy of Full Frame.

COMPLETE LIST OF WINNERS:

Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award - "Burma VJ - Reporting from a Closed Country" directed by Andres Ostergaard Anne Dellinger Special Jury Award - "Unmistaken Child" directed by Nati Baratz

Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short - "12 Notes Down" directed by Andreas Koefoed Shorts Jury Honorable Mentions - "La Chirola" directed by Diego Mondaca and "The Flying Shepherd" directed by Catalin Musat

Full Frame Audience Award - "The Way We Get By" directed by Aron Gaudet

Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award - "Burma VJ - Reporting from a Closed Country" directed by Andres Ostergaard

The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award - "Voices from El-Sayed" Emerging Artist Honorable Mentions - "Unmistaken Child" directed by Nati Baratz and "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" directed by Sara Kunstler and Emily Kunstler

HBO Emerging Filmmaker Award - "Love on Delivery" directed by Janus Metz Emerging Filmmaker Honorable Mentions - "45365" directed by Bill Ross and Turner Ross and "California Company Town" directed by Lee Anne Schmitt

Full Frame Inspiration Award - "Unmistaken Child" directed by Nati Baratz

Full Frame President's Award - "Oil Blue" directed by Elli Rintala

Full Frame / Working Films Award - "Burma VJ - Reporting from a Closed Country" directed by Andres Ostergaard

The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights - "Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech" directed by Liz Garbus

[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival. He served as one of the jurors for the 2009 Full Frame HBO Emerging Filmmaker Award.]

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This article is related to: Documentary, Features, Festival Dispatch