At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, organizers like to think of festival filmmakers as family. At the end of a busy weekend of movie watching last Sunday afternoon in Durham, NC, event founder and artistic director Nancy Buirski thanked attendees from the stage during the awards ceremony and BBQ lunch, congratulating all fest filmmakers and inviting them back to the event even if they don't have a film to show. Such warmth clearly works, because a number of doc directors made the trip to North Carolina just to hang out, see some movies, and support fellow filmmakers. A festival that embraces both emerging and established directors, this year the event welcomed a legendary list of filmmakers, including Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles. Festival-goers at the 9th annual festival, April 5 - 9, 2006, were met with a mostly serious crop of new films, many exploring politics, race, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The more than 100 movies were held together under the festival slogan, "How much reality can you handle?"
Full Frame founder and artistic director Buirski herself programmed a special sidebar of nine films about Katrina and its tragic aftermath so that, just as in the months after 9/11, attendees could gather -- as if around a campfire -- to make sense of the disaster. At a spotlight program dubbed, "For New Orleans," Full Frame screened St. Clair Bourne's 1989 film "New Orleans Brass," about brass bands in the city and after the screening Branford Marsalis and brother Ellis Marsalis III joined the director on-stage for a conversation about music and the city itself. Looked at nearly twenty years after it was made, Bourne's film becomes a particularly poignant portrait of a distinctive city and its traditions. Chatting with Bourne about New Orleans, the Marsalis brothers proclaimed that the uniqueness of the city will return in time and its musical heritage won't be lost. "After World War II it took people years to get home," explained Branford Marsalis, before taking the stage to perform a few songs with a band, "Its gonna take years."
Another sidebar, inspired by the tragedy of the hurricane, was a program of more than a dozen movies exploring class in America, curated by St. Clair Bourne. "I especially looked for documentaries that features conflict created by class differences," explained Bourne in notes about his program. "I wanted to showcase films that stressed conflict within the narrative, not films that simply implied it or assumed it would be brought to the film by the audience." Among the films selected were Elizabeth Barret's "Stranger With a Camera" from 2000, Jamie Johnson's 2003 film "Born Rich," Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras' "Flag Wars," and a few new films, including Anayansi Prado's "Maid in America" and Mylene Moreno's "Recalling Orange Country."
A powerful exploration of such issues, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," hit home for many locals. The story of a innocent black man's long fight to clear himself of charges that he raped and murdered a Winston-Salem, NC newspaper copy editor struck a chord in nearby Durham, winning the festival's audience award and a $3,000 cash prize for the filmmakers, who are trying to secure a deal for some sort of theatrical distribution of the HBO doc before it airs on television. Often heart-breaking, Stern and Sundberg's doc, which debuted at Sundance this year, is a roller coaster. The filmmakers kept filming for years, eventually finding a happy ending that leaves viewers both relieved for Hunt's freedom and horrified at what he was forced to endure.
Audiences embraced both competition and sidebar programming, filling expanded fest venues and swelling Full Frame fest attendance -- more than 22,000 tickets were sold or distributed to screenings (last year the tally was around 19,000). Among the hottest tickets were those for Friday night's showing of Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob's new doc, "Al Franken: God Spoke" with Franken on hand to talk with the audience after the screening. While the film debuted at SXSW last month, Hegedus said that with Franken in the audience watching the finished film for the first time, it felt like a premiere. "I gotta lose some weight," quipped Al Franken, after watching the movie, taking the stage to a standing ovation from the full house. The filmmakers observe Franken on a round of personal appearances, watch as he attends the Republican convention, captur his subsequent campaigning for presidential candidate John Kerry through election night, witness the launch of the liberal Air America radio network, and are right there as he begins to lay the ground work for a potential run for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota. Asked about his political aspirations at Full Frame, Franken answered like a politician, referring only to the importance of this fall's mid-term election. "Right now, I am concentrating on 2006," the comedian and author said, "We have to take this country back, we really do."
Al Franken was also on screen in a film the next night at Full Frame, Julie Anderson's "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater," a highly entertaining (and entirely positive), portrait of the conservative politician, seen through the eyes of his own granddaughter CC Goldwater. The film expertly crafts a look at Goldwater and explores his influence on recent political figures from Ronald Reagan to Hilary Clinton. And it skewers a modern conservative movement marred by religious extremism. Franken figures in, telling a story of his own father turning from the Republican party when Goldwater rejected civil rights (a stance he later regretted).
James Longley's striking and quite timely "Iraq in Fragments" -- fresh from multiple award wins at Sundance this year -- led the large list of competition titles that were culled from other festivals and included a few new debuts. Full Frame's competition is the heart of the event and again offered a program that includes many of the best recent docs on the circuit. "Fragments" was the favorite of the festival jury, winning the grand prize and a $5,000 cash award, while Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's "A Lion in the House," a poignant look at the lives of children battling cancer, was awarded a special jury prize. In an emotional acceptance speech at Sunday's award's ceremony, Bognar and Reichert were offered a warm ovation by friends and colleagues in the doc community. A cancer fight by their own daughter inspired the film and just days before the film's world premiere at Sundance Reichert herself was diagnosed with cancer and is now in the midst of treatment. On stage, she and Bognar proudly accepted their prize and vowed to fight on.
Among the other honorees over the weekend was director and cinematographer Richard Leacock, who himself worked with doc pioneer Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North") on the filmmaker's "Louisana Story." Leacock also pioneered the "direct cinema" doc movement with Pennebaker, Maysles, and Drew, filmmakers who often worked together to shoot landmark 16mm documentaries, inspiring countless filmmakers (and perhaps a few reality TV producers) with their cinema verite work. Leacock was presented the Career Award and toasted on stage by his colleagues, in a conversation moderated by a former student, filmmaker Ross McElwee.
The legendary directors, who changed doc filmmaking by employing small 16mm cameras, all continue to work today, decades after making their first mark and each has embraced the move to digital filmmaking. En route to Durham aboard a small plane, Drew and Maysles filmed each other with hand-held digital video camera as they chatted. And Leacock, now 84 years old, is equally comfortable with digital. "To hell with film!" Leacock was quoted as saying, on stage during his tribute. "To hell with editors, labs, running around grubbing for money to make a film! I'm totally digital, and I love it!"
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Awards
Full Frame Grand Jury Award
"Iraq in Fragments," directed by James Longley
Honorable Mention: "A Lion in the House"
Full Frame Audience Award
"The Trials of Darryl Hunt," directed by Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg.
Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short
"No Umbrella: Election Day in the City," directed and Produced by Laura Paglin.
Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award
"The Refugee All Stars," directed by Zach Niles and Banker White
The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award
"I for India," directed by Sandhya Suri
Full Frame Inspiration Award
"My Country, My Country," directed by Laura Poitras
Honorable Mention, "EXIT," directed by Fernand Melgar
Full Frame President's Award
"The Intimacy of Strangers," directed by Eva Weber
Full Frame Women in Leadership Award
"Smiling in a War Zone," directed by Simone Aaberg Kaern, Magnus Bejmar
Full Frame Working Films Award
"Rain in a Dry Land," directed by Anne Makepeace
Seeds of War
"Sir! No Sir!," directed by Daniel Zeiger