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Full Frame-up, and up and up

A low-key festival has its most successful run yet

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Simone Aaberg Kaern, smiling In the war zone - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME
From the vantage point of someone with a tendency to carp, this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was a smashing success. Despite the relative dearth of blockbuster docs--no Super Size Me or Murderball this year--a strong and diverse array of films generated record turnout, with an 8 percent increase in ticket sales over last year.

To be sure, the festival had reoriented its own physical plant to accommodate larger crowds. The Marriott screening facility gave the festival a much larger alternative to the Armory, which in turn was used as a safe place to hold opening and closing parties away from Durham's unpredictable early April weather. Furthermore, the festival operations staff set up ticket-holder lines inside another Marriott ballroom. The new system did have the benefit of providing a sheltered staging area for films, which in turn helped dampen the normal chaos in the lobbies and the plaza outside.

On the other hand, the festival may need to find a way to transport the ticket holders to their assigned theaters efficiently. There was at least one instance in which screenings began with many empty seats and hordes of people waiting in standby. One double-bill I attended--Intimacy of Strangers and John & Jane Toll Free--became a last-minute hot ticket on Saturday night. While frustrated pass holders stewed outside, the first film began with almost the entire right section of the Carolina Theatre's Cinema One empty, but with "Reserved" placeholders on the seats. Fortunately, these seats were filled during a break between the two films.

Another issue cropped up in conversations with volunteers: the matching of a film with a venue. While festival organizers can't be expected to be utterly clairvoyant in judging a film's appeal, reports were that the Friday afternoon screening of Iraq in Fragments was a mess. Many more people wanted to see James Longley's already acclaimed (and eventual Full Frame Grand Jury award-winning) experimental narrative than were able to be accommodated by the venue's 270 seats. Speaking by telephone, festival founder and artistic director Nancy Buirski says she wasn't surprised by the film's popularity. "While documentaries in recent years have begun to resembe the structure of features in having a beginning, middle and an end, we're now seeing a fragmenting. Our audiences have really embraced challenging and experimental films like Iraq in Fragments."

Buirski acknowledged however, that the festival will be looking for ways to accomodate more viewers in the coming year. A particular focus will be the Durham Arts Council which Buirski says is better suited for panel events than screenings of films in competition.

One solution to the ever more crowded screenings comes up every year: Show all movies twice. This approach would also allow audiences to see word-of-mouth sensations. Such a film this year was Smiling in a War Zone, a rapturously moving Danish effort that filled Cinema One to only three-quarters capacity. Still, everyone who was there was blown away (take it from someone who doesn't cry at movies: it was a tearjerker), and made sure their friends knew it. Unfortunately, the prize that War Zone won--The White House Project's Women in Leadership award--did not carry with it a re-screening. Another award that War Zone seemed able to win, the Audience Award, was snagged by the exceptionally deserving, and wrenching, The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

However, showing all movies twice won't be possible unless more venues are found or the festival is lengthened by a couple of days--both expensive and probably extravagant propositions.

One perennial concern among the young and marginally employed of Durham is the ticket prices. (This is particularly unfortunate when it affects creative types who are priced out of their hometown show.) Perhaps the festival could find ways to bring ticket prices down. One possibility is a rush system in which $5 tickets go on sale an hour before show time. Another possibility is to steal a trick from Sundance and offer lower prices for very early and very late movies, as in ones that start before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

Another very gentle suggestion: Take care with the participation of visiting celebrities. Danny DeVito has made fine films and seems like a nice man, but his mugging and irrelevant banter as he prepared to give out the festival's top prize was excruciating. Despite his association with the start-up broadband entertainment company that helped underwrite the award, his connection to documentaries is rather tenuous. His demeanor seemed to suggest that the filmmakers had come to Durham to see him. On the other hand, he may have been right, to judge from the Herald-Sun's front page, above-the-fold headline the next day: "DeVito Appears at Full Frame, Announces new channel for downloading films."

Ultimately, it's a measure of what a phenomenal festival Full Frame has become that its most pressing concerns are ones related to size, growth and expense. My personal highlight reel of the weekend starts with Smiling in a War Zone and getting to meet its creators Magnus Bejmar and Simone Aaberg Kaern. This film tells the story of Kaern's determination to pilot her ancient single-engine plane from Denmark to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she would offer some flight lessons to a 17-year-old girl. (Kaern appeared at her screening dressed in a one-piece flight jumpsuit and an aviator cap, complete with earflaps and goggles.)

Another favorite was In the Pit, a study of a massive highway project in Mexico City that culminated in a gaga helicopter shot over miles and miles of elevated freeway, with a thudding percussion score. It was a combination of the sensibilities of Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog. Then there was the intoxicating but disquieting study of Indian call center workers, John & Jane Toll Free, which pushed the aesthetic limits of the documentary. It wasn't without the potential for controversy, both in its use of apparently staged footage and also in the Indian filmmaker's increasingly hostile use of his cooperative subjects.

Aside from the visiting Frankens and DeVitos, Full Frame has a way of creating weekend celebrities. Among the most popular was the young (and, word has it, rowdy) New Orleans brass band To Be Continued, who were the subjects of a Katrina documentary of the same title. The band played an impromptu set Sunday afternoon in Duke Park.

There also was the opportunity to catch the post-screening of two headed cow,in which the musicians formerly known as the Flat Duo Jets played separate sets. After drummer Chris "Crow" Smith's appearance, Dexter Romweber blasted out a short set before presiding over a cantankerous Q&A. While 20 years worth of Triangle scenesters turned out to Fletcher Hall to see the still seething Romweber, a more buttoned-down scene prevailed in the same space Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to Terry Sanford. After the film, moderator Judy Woodruff led a trip down memory lane with a panel of local luminaries including former governor Jim Hunt.

The scheduling of the festival shifts every year, due to the inconvenient timing of Easter, Passover, the Final Four and Duke alumni events and, for you golfers, The Masters. But put it on your calendar for next year: April 12-15, 2007.

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