Confronting Reality From Home and Abroad; the 2003 Full Frame Doc Fest
by David Fellerath
The motto of the 2003 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was the same as last year's: "How much reality can you handle?" This year, the question was more than catchy rhetoric. The event (formerly the Doubletake Documentary Film Festival), which ran April 10-13 in Durham, N.C., saw a slew of audience and critical sensations that often generated doubt about truth and objectivity. Furthermore, the event's organizers found themselves having to confront their own motto when they withdrew a Lebanese documentary called "Thabh-ul-Azim" (Noble Sacrifice) the night before the festival began.
"Noble Sacrifice," a 40-minute film from Vatche Boulghourjian, is an experimental exploration of links between an unusual version of the Ashura ceremony practiced by some Shiite Muslim men in Lebanon and subsequent martyrdom operations. The festival's abandonment of the film is puzzling, since Full Frame rep Connie DeCicco had approached Boulghourjian and his film at last November's International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam, according to the filmmaker. During the run-up to the Durham festival, "Noble Sacrifice" had been mentioned prominently in interviews by Nancy Buirski, the festival's founder and executive director, in the context of a group of films that grappled with Middle Eastern conflict and terrorism. But, on the eve of the festival, Buirski decided to pull the film. A flyer was inserted into the programs, explaining that the film had been withdrawn out of respect for wartime sensitivities. Last Friday night, Buirski elaborated further during Jonathan Demme's Q&A session for his work-in-progress, "The Agronomist," a film about the slain Haitian human rights activist Jean Dominique. "Noble Sacrifice," Buirski said, "concerned a small number of Shiite Muslims, and there were questions of sensitivity and tolerance in a time of war. The film will be shown at another time in the right context."
After the festival, I obtained a videotape of "Noble Sacrifice." The film turns out to be a graphic, bloody document that recalls the political urgency and sophisticated montage techniques of filmmakers ranging from Eisenstein to Pontecorvo to Costa-Gavras. The 27-year-old Boulghourjian, reached by telephone and email in Damascus, Syria, expressed disappointment that his film was withdrawn but averred that there were no hard feelings. "All of [the Full Frame staff] were nothing less than courteous," he said. "It's unfortunate that it had to work out this way, but that's their prerogative."
Fortunately, the festival was loaded with an incredible array of accomplished work. With 64 films in competition and dozens of special screenings, the festival provided a thrilling weekend for the locals who have grown to relish this annual invasion of filmmakers from New York and elsewhere. And Durham was good to the filmmakers: several films left town with a fresh sheen of stardom. Chief among them was "Flag Wars," a film from Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras that claimed the $5000 Center for Documentary Studies filmmaker award. This film, which also snagged top honors at its SXSW premiere last month, is a riveting study of the conflicts that emerge when white gays and lesbians begin gentrifying a black working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. With its vivid characters and polarizing conflicts, "Flag Wars" was a popular and critical hit, and it will air on PBS' "P.O.V." in June. However, co-director Bryant allowed that the film is generating controversy back in Columbus. "There's an Internet campaign against the film," she said, citing one of "Flag Wars"' less flattered characters as a principal source of the enmity. "Just do a Google search for 'Flag Wars,' and you'll find it."
Perhaps inadvertently, Bryant was acknowledging the troubling issues that can arise with the popularization of the documentary form. "Flag Wars" is undeniably entertaining and provocative but if the complaints found on the Internet are to be taken seriously, it is possible that the film's spectacularly successful narrative was achieved at the expense of doing justice to the messy complexity of the situation in Columbus.
The Full Frame jury award went to Nicolas Philibert's "Etre et Avoir" (To Be and To Have), a charming study of a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. This selection was something of a surprise, and could have been a calculated rebuke by the features jury -- which consisted of director Buirski, Alan Berliner, Laurence Kardish and Marco Williams -- against the usual documentary emphasis on sensationalism, conflict, and quirkiness. Indeed, Berliner said after the awards ceremony that "Etre et Avoir" demands and rewards commitment. "You really have to watch the whole thing, and give it space and time to grow on you," he said.
"Etre et Avoir" portrays a changeless society located in a gorgeous, bountiful countryside, complete with an only-in-France schoolmaster who wears designer clothes and a well-maintained goatee and looks like Roy Scheider. The exquisite expressiveness of this New Yorker Films property could represent a return to the idealized anthropological excursions of Robert Flaherty, whose not dissimilar "Man of Aran" was largely staged for the sake of the director's thematic interests. (The serene and nostalgic "Etre et Avoir" should be shown on a double-bill with Bertrand Tavernier's underappreciated "It All Starts Today," a fictional film about a heroic kindergarten teacher in the bleak French equivalent of West Virginia. Audiences may subsequently find it difficult to determine which of the two films is "real.")
In an unusual move, the jury was moved enough by the strength of this year's offerings to award an honorable mention to the much tougher "Wedding in Ramallah," a film from the Australian filmmaker Sherine Salama that looks at two Palestinian women who are separated from their husbands in America by the intifada. This was one of several films that examined the immigrant experience. Chantal Akerman's "De l'autre cote" (From the Other Side) visits the U.S.-Mexico border with her usual severe technical formalism. Elsewhere, Yvette Pita, an NYU student, brought a class project called "Pan y Libertad" (Bread and Liberty) to the festival. This film, a thumbnail portrait of a Cuban in New York, comes off as a sketch from "Balseros," a Spanish gem from this year's Sundance fest that unfortunately was not at Full Frame.
For those who were present for the tumultuous screening of "Speedo," it came as no surprise when Jesse Moss' portrait of a Long Island demolition derby driver captured the audience award. To the delight of the crowd, Speedo (a.k.a Ed Jager) himself was in attendance with his wife. Reminiscent of such fare as "Breaking Away," "Rocky" and countless 1970s drive-ins, Moss' film is a great underdog story that begs the question of whether documentaries can be adapted into Hollywood movies. [Editor's note: Moss is a former contributor to indieWIRE.]
From Brazil, the gripping, appalling and journalistically rigorous "Onibus 174" (Bus 174) garnered director Jose Padilha the inaugural Charles E. Guggenheim emerging artist award. (The award's namesake died last fall, shortly after finishing "Berga: Soldiers of Another War," a film about Jewish-American POWs in Germany that received its world premiere in Durham.) Meanwhile, Jennifer Dworkin's celebrated "Love and Diane" continued its triumphant ride through the festival circuit by claiming the MTV>News:Docs:Prize, fending off stiff challenges from Robb Moss' wistful and elegiac "The Same River Twice" and Sergio Goes' enthusiastically received "Black Picket Fence," a study of a young rapper in a Brooklyn housing project. Rounding out the awards, Travis Wilkerson's "An Injury to One" picked up the Roland House editing prize while Emily James' "The Luckiest Nut in the World" delighted audiences and snared the Camera Planet/Full Frame jury award for best short. The jury also awarded an honorable mention in the latter category to Vance Malone's glass eyeball study "Ocularist."
On a less positive note, the backlash against Steve James' wrenching but controversial "Stevie" continued at this festival, where it won no awards. Though "Stevie" won prizes in Amsterdam and Park City, the film has lately run into critical hostility best exemplified by the Village Voice's normally reserved J. Hoberman, who has attacked it in two recent columns.
The Full Frame festival is perennially graced by the presence of documentary masters D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who brought their latest effort, "Only the Strong Survive," to the fest. With this flick, the couple's well-known love for American R&B takes the form of an embrace of the artists of Stax Records, including Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Picket, and Mary Wilson. As an added treat, the First Couple of Full Frame dusted off "Town Bloody Hall," their cheerfully haphazard record of Norman Mailer's notorious 1971 women's lib debate with the likes of Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Cynthia Ozick, and Susan Sontag.
Pennebaker, Hegedus and other vets must have been heartened by the hordes of youngsters present in Durham to promote their films. New York filmmaker Faye Lederman delighted audiences with "A Good Uplift," an amusing and slyly empowering portrait of a Lower East Side brassiere merchant. At least two young filmmakers brought their love for Mom to the screen. George Kachadorian's crowd-pleasing "Divining Mom" explored the ancient practice of dowsing for water, as practiced by his mother and dozens of other interview subjects. Kachadorian also brought some amusing hucksterism to the fest, giving away copies of his film to volunteers who could locate hidden miniature pennies with his dowsing rods. Another cinematic maternal tribute came courtesy of Marc Ostrick and his lively and touching "Open Hearted," a video diary of a heart-valve operation he had when he was 27 years old. In his hour-long film, Ostrick is frequently and agreeably upstaged by his feisty and loving mother who, true to form, also accompanied him to the festival. Elsewhere, veteran documentary filmmaker and teacher Paul Stekler ("Vote for Me: Politics in America"), a ubiquitous presence through the weekend as a guest curator, watched two of his University of Texas students unveil films at the fest. Diane Zander's "Girl Wrestler" was an empathetic and subtle portrait of a young teenaged girl's athletic passion. Ted Gesing, another young Austinite, checked into town with "Nutria," a lively short that explained why Louisiana officials are promoting the consumption of a rodent that looks like a cross between a possum and a beaver.
As usual, Full Frame made sure to showcase noteworthy work by North Carolina filmmakers. One bright point was "Bright Leaves," Ross McElwee's droll and ironic work-in-progress about the "agricultural pathological trust fund" he has inherited from his tobacco baron ancestors. Rebecca Cerese's "February One" explored the continuing legacy of the civil-rights watershed that occurred at Greensboro lunch counters in 1960. And, at a coffee-and-doughnuts confab early Sunday morning, a large crowd assembled to see works-in-progress by Charlotte's Curtis Gaston and Durham's Brett Ingram and Jim Haverkamp. The event began with Ingram and Haverkamp's "Monster Road," a film about underground animator Bruce Bickford that is something of a cross between "American Movie" and "Crumb," with Chris Hegedus moderating the discussion afterward. Gaston's "Rebels," an examination of the Confederate flag in Southern life, generated a fascinating range of responses from New Yorkers, Southerners, and moderator D.A. Pennebaker. Though both films generated considerable enthusiasm afterward, the filmmakers also had to endure some occasionally brutal commentary.
A relatively under-explored area in this festival is the avant-garde documentary. One high-profile experimental feature was "Decasia," but audiences were unprepared for Bill Morrison's feature-length montage of deteriorating celluloid images. The walkout rate was said to be about 50 percent, but one at least one who stayed until the end, Francesca Talenti, a Chapel Hill filmmaker and recent Sundance honoree for her experimental short "The Planets," was a fervent admirer.
With another year of consistently powerful programming, the Full Frame fest's place on the festival map seems more and more secure. The diversity of the films was frequently breathtaking, and to one juror, Alan Berliner, presented something of a dilemma. "The films were so good and so different that it's hard to judge them," he said. Berliner agreed that it might be time to devise prizes that reward "different dimensions" of the documentary art, but cautioned against creating genres.
Another issue that may confront the festival as it continues to grow in influence is the role of corporate sponsorship. One longstanding attendee, a local production veteran named Caroline Scott complained midway through the weekend that the festival had become overstuffed with well-funded mainstream product. "I always check funding credits at the beginning and end to see if there is sponsorship from institutions like American Experience," she confided. "If there is, I don't submit an audience award ballot."
But such were the riches of this year's Full Frame fest that Scott was seen beaming in the plaza outside the Carolina Theater during the awards ceremony. She had just found her ultimate DIY documentary, "the one that made the whole weekend worthwhile." It was a film called "Missing Allen: The Man Who Became a Camera," a film from German director Christian Bauer that, from her description, seemed to be a sort of Paul Auster-meets-"The Vanishing" experience. Scott then launched into a happy reverie about the film as hundreds of sated documentary lovers munched on barbecue and cornbread, while waiting patiently for the awards ceremony to begin.
[David Fellerath is a reviewer and columnist for the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C.]