Ten years ago when the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, then called Doubletake, had its freshman outing few could have predicted not only how much the festival would grow, but how much the documentary form would grow along with it. For ten years, the festival has served as an incubator and a barometer, both nurturing documentaries and documentary filmmakers and serving as a gauge for the state of documentary. To judge by this years 123 offerings culled from over 1100 submissions, the documentary has never been in finer shape; with more diversity of stories and filmmakers, higher quality of craft, and greater stylistic expression than ever before.
Ten years ago, the festival drew 1000 people to its screenings. This year over 26,000 audience members filled seven venues continuously over the four-day run of the festival. The festival has also spawned a phalanx of filmmaker devotees who are almost Flaherty-esque in their devotion. Like the flocks of geese in "Winged Migration," come a certain weekend in April, documentary filmmakers from across the U.S., as well as internationally, are drawn to Durham, North Carolina, an oasis which this year brought back filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Ric Burns, Jehane Noujaim, Marco Williams, Liz Garbus, Jessica Yu, Michael Moore, Ross McElwee, writers Walter Mosley and Ariel Dorfman, and a slew of others.
Even festival founder and director Nancy Buirski seems (pleasantly) surprised at how much the festival has grown and how much of a gathering place it has become within the documentary community. Buirski says "I never expected it to blossom this way. You just don't know how people will respond when you start something like this." Buirski hopes the festival will continue to evolve and expand its mission through the Full Frame Institute which hopes to nurture future generations of documentary filmmakers through initiatives such as its fellows program and the just announced partnership with Mira Nair's Maisha film lab, which will support four documentary film labs in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya for promising young African filmmakers.
A few photos from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival are available in indieWIRE's iPOP section.
Gereon Wetzel's opening night film "Castells" is an intimately shot portrait of the Catalonian town Colla Jovas human pyramid building team as they compete against neighboring towns. The film's competition sequences were surreal, visceral, Busby Berkeley-esque and left the audience audibly cheering or gasping at the intricate human pyramids built and the painful looking human avalanches created by their collapse. Warmly received by the audience, Wetzel's film could have benefited with a little more context for the audience. Also on opening night, D.A. Pennebaker screened the theatrical premiere of "Dylan: 65 Revisited," assembled from over twenty hours of out-takes from his classic "Don't Look Back." Many in attendance were drawn by curiosity as well as the chance to see a half dozen complete Dylan performances from the '65 tour, and left feeling that rather than a historical footnote, the new film is as good as the original. Projected from a virgin film print, the beautiful black and white graininess of the film and the enthusiastic response of the audience left one hoping that more audiences get the chance to see it on the big screen rather than as a supplemental DVD extra.
Among the highlights of this year's festival was a retrospective of the films of Ross McElwee who received this year's Full Frame Career Award. The award was presented to McElwee by Michael Moore and writer Allan Gurganus. "As a native North Carolinian, I never expected that Durham would become the site for a festival that celebrates documentaries in this way, and I am particularly proud to be receiving this award in my home state," said McElwee during his acceptance speech. McElwee presented pieces of two new "possible" works in progress or as he preferred to call them "home movies" which whetted the appetite of the audience for more work from this truly unique filmmaker. Among the best received films by audiences at this year's festival was fellow North Carolina native son and film critic Godfrey Cheshire's "Moving Midway," the story of how Cheshire's cousin Charlie makes the momentous decision to move the Midway Plantation house, the family ancestral home, to a new location removed from the strip malls that now surround it. Like a Chinese box, Cheshire's film begins with the simple premise of documenting the families reaction to the transplantation of the ancestral home, and unfolds into a variety of stories and subplots as Cheshire examines the myth of the plantation disseminated by Hollywood, the way in which development is fast wiping away and changing the fabric of the South, and dealing with the legacy of slavery and the possibility of reconciliation when Cheshire discovers first a cousin and then a slew of new cousins whose ancestors were slaves on the Midway Plantation. Cheshire's moving tale drew a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
A number of recent festival favorites played over the weekend including Dan Klores truly 'stranger than fiction' "Crazy Love" and Jason Kahn's Sundance award-winning "Manda Bala," which somehow manages to weave together frog farms, bullet-proof cars, and the surgical reconstruction of ears into an examination of the culture of corruption and violence which envelops Brazilian society today. Jessica Yu's "Protagonist" asks us to examine the lives of four exceptionally different men through the lens of Euripides concept of protagonists and the stages they go through as they change. With beautifully enacted mask/puppet scenes from Euripides work as a connecting thread and a broad range within the four stories that encompasses both the humorous Mark Saltzman and the dark Hans Klein, Yu crafts an engaging and thought provoking meditation on how we all have the potential to be protagonists in our own lives. Macky Alston's "The Killer Within" tells the story of another memorable protagonist, Bob Bechtel, a prominent psychologist who reveals to family, friends, and colleagues that fifty years ago as an undergraduate at Swarthmore he killed a fellow student making him one of the first "school shooters." What starts off as a straightforward story ultimately opens up into a broader rumination on how an everyday person can be driven to murder and whether forgiveness and redemption are ultimately possible. It is a story that, given this week's shootings at Virginia Tech, is an important and timely one.
One of the more intriguing offerings at this years festival was a work in progress screening of sequences from Alex Gibney's upcoming "Gonzo: The Life and Death of Hunter S. Thompson." Even in its current rough-cut stage, it is clear that this film will appeal to more than just the fans of Thompson. By focusing on the man behind the larger -than-life persona of "Dr. Gonzo", the film reveals a courageous and principled man who also spoke truth to power through his fearlessness and his scabrous prose indictments of politicians and wealth-mongers. Another writer who dared to walk where angels fear to tread is the focus of Peter Raymont's "A Promise to the Dead" (a work in progress), a portrait of Ariel Dorfman, best known for "Death and the Maiden," that poignantly brings to life the rise and fall of Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile and evokes the memories of all those who were 'disappeared' during that period.
Worked into the mix of this year's festival were a number of quirky and often humorous films. Simon Chambers close relationship with a Bangladeshi family in London led him to make "Every Good Marriage Begins With Tears" an intimate and often charming film which follows two sisters as they determine whether or not they will go through with their arranged marriages. The film is refreshingly free of affectations, and makes you a participant in the story through Chambers close friendship with his subjects. Peter Goodman's charming "Seeing Sally: A Psychic's Tale" follows British psychic Sally Goodman as she comes to the United States to seek a greater audience for her talents. Jesse Epstein's witty and visually engaging short "The Guarantee" uses the innovative technique of comic strip panels that are drawn before your eyes (through time-lapse photography) to tell the story of a male ballerina who is asked by his ballet company to have his nose reduced in size for the good of his career. One of the most comic films at the festival was Aaron Lubarsky's "Sportsfan." If the creators of the TV show "The Office" had created a mockumentary about Minnesota Vikings fans this is what it would have looked like. The film plays out a little too long, but there are many laugh out loud moments to make up for that fact.
An important new aspect of this year's festival is the inaugural Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant presented to commemorate the life and work of Scott who passed away at the age of 37 in 2005. The grants were presented by Toronto programmer and Scott's friend Thom Powers to promising young filmmakers Robin Hessman, for her work in progress "Russia's Pepsi Generation," and Lee Lynch, for his film "The Last Buffalo Hunt." The intention of the grant is to help filmmakers at the beginning of their careers when they most need support.
On Sunday morning, as the Northeaster of '07 bore down on the Eastern seaboard, the gathered filmmakers bellied up to the buffet at the traditional awards barbecue. Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's transcendent "The Monastery" described by one audience member as a Dutch 'Grey Gardens' won both the grand jury award and the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award. Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's "The Devil Came on Horseback" also won two prizes, including the Working Films Award and the Seeds of War prize, sponsored by Walter Mosley. Moving many in the audience to tears, this story of one American's experience of the genocide in Darfur is a gut-wrenching and significant film. Also winning the Seeds of War prize was Jesse James Miller and Pete McCormack's "Uganda Uprising."
The festival's audience award went to Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's "War/Dance." The Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award was presented to Kaoru Ikeya's "The Ants" a haunting tale of an 80 year old Japanese war veteran's efforts to expose the truth about Japan's campaign in China at the end of World War II. The Full Frame Spectrum Award for a filmmaker of color went to Marco Williams for "Banished" the untold story of African American communities who were violently forced to flee their land by their white neighbors as recently at 28 years ago. Heddy Honigman's "Forever" won the Full Frame Inspiration Award with an honorable mention going to Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire." Mohammed Naqvi's "Shame" won the Full Frame Women in Leadership Award and Daniel Karslake's "For The Bible Tells Me So" won the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights. The jury award for best short was given to Elizabeth Salgado's "Cross Your Eyes Keep Them Wide" with Honotable Mention going to Elizabeth Salgado's 'Zo is Dat.' Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's "Lumo" won the Full Frame President's award.
As the festival wound to a close, the northeaster stranded (but did not dampen the enthusiasm of) many a filmmaker in Durham for an additional night of watching documentaries and continuing the conversations begun over the weekend. As of this writing, a few filmmakers are still wending their way home in a caravan of rental cars heading to New York City. One group is passing the time on the roadtrip by re-enacting their favorite documentaries for their cell-phone cameras (perhaps soon to be seen on Youtube). Come wind, come rain, come hurricane, documentary filmmakers will continue to make their yearly pilgrimage to Durham.