When the 11th edition of the Full Frame Film Festival unspooled in Durham, North Carolina last Thursday, many were watching to see if the festival would be fundamentally changed by the departure of founder and artistic director Nancy Buirski, long the festival's heart and soul. Buirski, who stayed on as advisor and sidebar curator after a leadership swtich, was still a looming and smiling presence in Durham this year, but the venerable nonfiction film event that she began carried on without her leadership, much the same as it had in previous years.
Sporting a limited number of premieres -- and generally eschewing the premiere frenzy that marks a number of top festivals -- Full Frame concentrated on a line-up of some of the best nonfiction titles of the past year, including well-received Sundance films such as "Trouble the Water" (which would go on to win three awards at Sunday's annual awards BBQ, including the Grand Jury Prize), "Man on Wire" (which received a Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award), "Order of Myths" and "Up the Yangtze," SXSW favorites "Flying on One Engine" and "In a Dream" (which won the Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award) and the True/False breakout hit "Forbidden Lies."
Of those films making their premieres in Durham, perhaps the best received was Eric Daniel Metzgar's "Life. Support. Music.," a lyrical and emotional portrait of a family dealing with a devastating illness and subsequent recovery. Metzgar, who previously directed the Spirit Award nominated "The Chances of the World Changing," profiles the New York guitarist Jason Krigler, who, while performing onstage in the East Village, suffers a brain hemorrhage that plunges him into a vegetative state. Convinced that they see signs of the Jason that they knew, his family -- including his very pregnant wife and divorced parents -- begin a daily regimen of care and stimulation in an attempt to bring him back.
While the family is amazing, it's Metzgar's work that transforms the film from mere medical drama. Working nearly as a one-man band, Metzgar (who directs, produces, shoots, edits and narrates) uses interviews, footage shot by the family and by the rehabilitation team at a Boston hospital and his own material to artfully weave an inspiring and moving story of perseverance and familial love. Skillfully edited with remarkable restraint, "Life. Support. Music." transcends one's perceptions of medicine, music and even miracles.
At a Q&A following the film's Saturday morning premiere, Metzgar was joined onstage by the Krigler family, including subject Jason. After a lengthy standing ovation from the audience, many viewers felt compelled to talk of their own experiences with close family and friends who've suffered catastrophic brain injuries.
There was a great deal of anticipation for the world premiere of Stefan Forbes' "Boogie Man," an entertaining profile of Lee Atwater, the political operative-turned-GOP chair who may have given birth to much of today's politics of fear. Unfortunately, the cut that screened Saturday night wasn't quite finished, displaying time-code over archival footage, flash frames, black cut-outs and an uneven sound mix. It's too bad that the filmmakers didn't ask to screen as a work-in-progress or sneak preview considering "Boogie Man"'s rough cut state, because somewhere inside the film that screened Saturday is a leaner version that could draw interest from television and perhaps even theatrical distributors.
One of the film's chief attributes, particularly in the current documentary climate, is its evenhanded view of Atwater. Right and left alike could find their perspectives validated by the film's mix of commentators. "He had a certain wisdom of what was going on," director Forbes said in a Q&A after the film. "The Democrats were more skilled in knocking Lee down (personally) in the media than they were (battling) against his political tactics."
If the filmmakers get a chance to premiere their finished cut, they could reach that diverse audience, but the fact that they screened an incomplete film should serve as a cautionary to other filmmakers rushing to complete their projects for a film festival -- you only get one world premiere.
The state of the doc
The state of documentary film in spring 2008 was the subject of an informative panel discussion Saturday afternoon moderated by Docurama head of programming Liz Ogilvie and featuring a full compliment of industry leaders, including HBO's Nancy Abraham, Magnolia Pictures' Tom Quinn and Molly Thompson of A&E IndieFilms, among others. Their presence was a reminder of Full Frame founder Buirski's ability to bring much of New York's documentary community to North Carolina each spring.
Ogilvie attempted to keep the panel discussion mostly positive, trying to talk about what is succeeding, despite Magnolia's Quinn joking that "we're all generally screwed." In fact, Magnolia has remained strongly in the nonfiction distribution game, acquiring Sundance hits like "Man on Wire" and "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" as well as producing two other films that screened at Full Frame, Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" and Doug Pray's "Surfwise." Each of the four Magnolia titles was in the running for the festival's Grand Jury Prize.
Quinn reflected that at a similar panel in 2007, he talked about that year's three high profile Sundance acquistions -- Amir Bar-Lev's "My Kid Could Paint That" (distributed by Sony Pictures Classics), David Sington's "In the Shadow of the Moon" (which THINKFilm distributed) and "Crazy Love," which Magnolia themselves released. "Last year I sat on this panel and said, 'we'll see how those films will do,'" Quinn remembered. "It will either be a boom year or a bust year." Despite the lack of success (particularly in relation to expectations) of those titles, Quinn sees hopeful signs for this year. "This year, things are looking a little bit better theatrically. Maybe things are not so bad."
A&E IndieFilm's Thompson was also hopeful, looking ahead to her company's upcoming "American Teen," which Paramount Vantage acquired after a fierce bidding war in Park City earlier this year. "If we have a chance at a theatrical success, this is it," she said, adding that the film would seek to reach beyond a traditional art house audience through partnerships with advertisers and social network sites.
HBO has been in the news lately for its decision to quietly screen Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" at the Coliseum Cinemas on West 181st Street in Manhattan (as well as a theater in Pasadena) in order to qualify the film for Oscar consideration prior to its run on the pay network this summer. HBO's Abraham said that the deal that the network struck with the filmmakers would allow the film to go out theatrically after airing on HBO and some suggested that there is more than one distributor interested in handling such a theatrical rollout, although that kind of theatrical-after-television strategy has not often worked in the past.
Abraham stressed that while filmmakers and press may look to theatrical releases and box office numbers as the key measure of success, for her network success is defined by a number of factors, with ratings being just one. "There are other factors," she said. "Sometimes films don't get great ratings. We look to reviews, press, general buzz and recognition in the cultural landscape, awards, etc." Abraham added that she's often surprised at how well docs have done on HBO On Demand. "There are some strange, surprising, sleeper hits."
By Saturday night's evening party, held in the vast spaces of Durham's modernist Nasher Art Museum, festival staff and filmmakers mingled and reflected on the festival as it moved into its second decade.
For founder Buirski, there was enjoyment in experiencing the festival as an audience member for the first time. "I still feel very involved," she told indieWIRE on Saturday night. = "I love the festival. I feel like they've internalized everything we've been doing for ten years." Buirski says that she will continue to work with the festival as an advisor, ambassador and curator.
COMPLETE LIST OF WINNERS:
Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award - "Trouble the Water"
Special Jury Award - "Man on Wire"
Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short - "City of Cranes"
Full Frame Audience Award - "Man on Wire"
Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award - "Lioness"
The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award - "In A Dream"
Honorable Mention - Up the Yangtze
Full Frame Inspiration Award - "At the Death House Door"
Full Frame President's Award - "Summerchild"
Full Frame Spectrum Award - "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)"
Honorable Mention - Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Women In Leadership Award - "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai"
Full Frame/Working Films Award - "Please Vote for Me" and "Trouble the Water"
The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights - "Trouble the Water"