Documentary cinema tends to balance the past and present. A few months after Charles Ferguson's “Inside Job” received the Academy Award for best documentary, the 2011 edition of the Full Frame Documentary Festival presented a strong program that drew heavily on themes of poverty, struggle and injustice. However, it was the past that set this year's Durham, N.C. festival apart.
"One Foot in the Archives," a 10-film sidebar dedicated to archival footage curated by filmmaker and archivist Rick Prelinger, utilized a wide range of films to explore the use of archival footage. From structurally difficult works like Phillipe Mora's 1979 "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" to this year's Sundance favorite from Göran Hugo Olssen, "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," the films represented a cross-section of perspectives that extended the dialogue into the competition screenings.
Mora's film spends a great deal of time showing images of the great depression's poverty, presenting viewers with a sentiment they would later find in films like U. Roberto Romano's "The Harvest," Marianna Kaat's heart-wrenching "Pit No. 8" (winner of the festival's Emerging Artist and Environmental awards), Leonard Retel Helmrich's "Position Amongst the Stars" and Steve James' Special Jury Award-winning "The Interrupters."
People struggling against society were featured across a number of films in the program. Nancy Buirski, Full Frame's founder and former director, returned with the world premiere of her directing debut, "The Loving Story." A look into the complicated trial that took anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia to the Supreme Court, the use of archival footage in "The Loving Story" stood out as a parallel example to the festival's Thematic program.
Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's "Scenes of a Crime" also explored an arduous legal battle through archival footage -- in this case, access to a 10-hour-plus videotaped confession at the center of a case against a man accused of killing his four-month-old son. (The film received the festival’s Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award.) And Chad Freidrich's "The Pruitt-Irgoe Myth" tackles the high-profile/highly segregated public housing disaster in St. Louis by relying heavily on images culled from moving image archives.
Not all of Full Frame's 2011 highlights took on heavy subjects. “Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja” utilized archival footage to tell the unbelievable tale South Florida’s pot smuggling culture in the 1970s. Julie Moggan's "Guilty Pleasures" enjoyed its U.S. premiere as Full Frame's opening night, screening to a crowd who welcomed the quirky doc about the global reach and influence of romance novels (yes, the same ones at supermarket check-out counters).
Films like Tally Abecassis' hour-long "Unlikely Treasures" on the obsessive (to say the least) world of collectors and Constance Marks' Sundance hit "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" also gave the festival a lighter edge without sacrificing quality or entertainment. And Cindy Meehl's "Buck" also proved to be a crowd-pleasing success, taking home Full Frame's Audience Award.
However, the weekend’s most entertaining -- or perhaps most interesting -- screening was Prelinger's interactive presentation of “Lost Landscapes of Detroit.” The 70-minute nearly silent film is made entirely out of home and industrial footage, forming as thin a narrative as one could ask. Before the screening, Prelinger invited the audience to create its own soundtrack, thus promoting an interaction similar to watching home movies in the living room. The filmmaker, who also encouraged the use of social media during the screening, wrote of the experience on his Twitter account during the screening: "Favorite moment at ["Lost Landscapes of Detroit"] screening: lights go down, room sizzles with unmuffled conversation. Not your ordinary screening or audience."
It might not have been ordinary, but it was certainly unforgettable. The weekend proved that Full Frame is firmly positioned in the current moment of the documentary film scene, a stance solidified by revealing that it has one foot following the present trends in the doc world and the other in the archives.