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Framing dangers

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The Full Frame fest last weekend was truly sensational. It was a remarkable and charmed event--everyone I encountered throughout the weekend professed to be thrilled with the consistently high quality of the programming. Ticket sales set new records, and there were 16 sellouts. Many of the filmmakers were in attendance, as were acquisitions people. The only major problem over the weekend was a festival seating policy that resulted in pass-holders being turned away from below-capacity screenings that were technically sold out.

And, of course, there was Michael Moore, who made two festival appearances on Saturday. I missed the Fletcher event, but he was a reasonably restrained presence at a panel discussion earlier in the day, even as he discussed Fahrenheit 9/11, his upcoming cinematic hand grenade that will detonate in local theaters this summer.

Oddly, the two films I saw that managed to rile audiences were both special screenings out of competition at the Durham Arts Council. On Friday morning, Lebanese filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian presented Noble Sacrifice, his now-notorious film about the Shiite Ashura sacrifice and its purported relationship to suicide bombings in some militant Islamist cultures. This film, which features many violent, graphic images of ritualistic bloodletting, animal sacrifice and suicide bombings, was pulled from the program last year after concerns were raised by area Islam experts about the film's potential to inflame wartime passions.

When the credits rolled at the end of Noble Sacrifice, the applause was scattered and tepid. Then a discussion panel of three local scholars took its place in front of the theater. The moderator was WUNC's Amy Nelson, a Muslim who wears a hijab. Boulghourjian took a seat in the middle of the lineup and Nelson asked the three experts to open the proceedings with individual statements. It quickly became clear that Boulghourjian would have no allies on the panel.

Duke's Miriam Cooke took the filmmaker to task for exaggerating the significance of the bloodletting shown in his film, comparing it to the Iron John men's movement in this country. Her colleague at Duke, Negar Mottahedeh, said the film failed to sufficiently mediate the bloody images for foreign audiences, thus becoming a "spectacle of violence for the non-believer." And Ja'far Muhibullah, a graduate student at Duke, challenged Boulghourjian on the distinctions he made--or failed to make--between the political and religious doctrines of Hezbollah and another Lebanese jihadist group, Amal.

After the three statements, Boulghourjian drew laughter when he asked Nelson, "Where should I begin?"

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, a man in the front row raised his hand and identified himself as a student of propaganda films. Inevitably, he dragged out the bugbear--Leni Riefenstahl. "Congratulations," he said to the filmmaker. "You've made a propaganda film."

"On whose behalf?" said Boulghourjian.

"You tell me," responded the guest.

"No, you need to tell me!" said Boulghourjian. "You've just accused me of making a propaganda film."

The student of propaganda filmmaking declined to support his charge. The following discussion wasn't much more subtle. While there's plenty of room for discussing the artistic and documentary merits of Noble Sacrifice, it was a little discouraging to see so few audience members willing to grant Boulghourjian the benefit of the doubt--to grant that his film was an honest attempt to explore an urgent issue by placing viewers inside the mindset of those who might commit acts that outsiders consider irrational and atrocious.

For his part, Boulghourjian probably didn't help his case much with his post-structuralist talk about "mutilating" the documentary form, to destroy its purported objectivity. When the worst are full of passionate intensity, the best need to have conviction; the passionate violence in his film would seem to demand an excess of interpretative earnestness and clarity. And the very fact that audience members reacted so angrily to the images of his film--missing his serious, empathetic intent completely--suggests a critical communication breakdown between audience and artist.

Boulghourjian himself says that his documentary is "experimental." While this word is often used in a self-congratulatory way to mean avant-garde, Noble Sacrifice is truly an experiment, one that attempts to explore an issue by giving the audience an unfamiliar point of view. On the basis of the Durham sample, the results are perhaps best described as "mixed."

Point of view also became a contentious issue at Sunday afternoon's In-the-Works panel when Shambhavi Kaul screened a cut of Field of Stone, her work in progress about country singer David Allen Coe. Using a restrained, verite approach, Kaul's camera follows scenes in the peripatetic life of Coe, who looks these days like a redneck George Clinton, covered as he is with tattoos, braids and beads.

The film was quite intimate and sometimes confusingly so. Eschewing the usual conventions of establishing point of view, Kaul preferred to let her camera linger on Coe, his girlfriend and his teenaged son. The long silences were actually quite effective in conveying both contemplation and tedium, and the technique was particularly effective at creating sympathy for the girlfriend--an attractive but unsophisticated woman who would be all too easy to ridicule.

Kaul's film is a portrait of an intelligent but deeply troubled performer who is a folk hero among a subculture of working-class social outcasts who are dismissed as white trash--when they're noticed at all.

But then the bomb lands: Kaul's film shows Coe breaking into a vicious ditty about a woman who'd left him for a black man.

When the lights came up, it was clear that the racist song had completely overwhelmed the rest of the film. Moderator Buddy Squires set the tone with his questions: "Why David Allen Coe? Why this unrepentant racist?" Kaul explained that she was trying to avoid judging her subject, and trying to give an honest portrait of Coe's place in his world.

When Kaul pointed out that Coe doesn't see himself as a racist, and indeed, his fans consider themselves to be marginalized, an angry black member of the audience shot back, "But these people voted for Bush."

Kaul took a lot of heat after the screening, but I'd like to offer a bit of a defense. Last year, I was present with her crew during some of the filming in Daytona Beach, Fla., during that community's annual Bike Week. I spent time in the Iron Horse, the club where Coe performed the racist song, as well as a few late-night hours in a biker campground. While I was surrounded by tough-looking characters with few middle-class social graces, I never felt like I was in dangerous company. (I'm a white male, it is true, but even at the biker campground, I remember a black biker seeming entirely in place there.) Rather than being a hotbed of virulent, reactionary politics, it seemed to me that bitter anti-authoritarianism is the predominant (if not the only) ideology in this world.

As vile and disgusting as Coe's song is to civilized ears, it's possible for me to believe the singer's claim--as does Kaul, apparently--that he's not a racist and that the song represents very, very rough humor intended for a very specific audience. It will be a real but very worthy challenge for Kaul to create a sympathetic portrait of this marginal subculture and the man who is the closest thing they have to a voice. It will be tough--and maybe Kaul will choose to simply drop the song from the film--but I'd like to see her try.

At the end of the evening Friday and Saturday nights, I was too tired to bother trying to crash the invitation-only parties at Fowler's and Parizade. But, as far as I'm concerned, the one big party I made was the one that mattered. This was the Monster Road bash, held at Indy photographer York Wilson's Monkey Eye studio in downtown Durham that was thrown Friday night in advance of the Armory screening of Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram's film.

What made the event feel so charmed was the sense of a real local film community coalescing in the midst of an important festival. The happy crowd at Monkey Eye was a veritable who's who of local filmmakers and boosters with a lot to celebrate: Four films by young, local filmmakers screened at this festival, in and out of competition.

With the fantastic resources available in this area, from the Center for Documentary Studies to the Full Frame festival (not to mention Ms. Films, the Hi Mom! fest and the ongoing Flicker series) the evening seemed to be a celebration and a promising harbinger of this area's future as an important center of documentary filmmaking. EndBlock

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