In 2005, I wrote a preview for the eighth annual Full Frame Documentary Festival entitled "Getting your docs in a row." What was an attempt at a humorous turn of a phrase three years ago has turned into a near-literal edict for the Triangle cinematic mainstay.
The months since last year's 10th anniversary Full Frame festival might be described as a season on the brink. Against a backdrop of financial difficulties, Executive Director Tammy Brown resigned last September. In December, a sea change occurred when festival founder Nancy Buirski stepped down as CEO and artistic director to take a less visible role.
Fortunately, the long-standing staff and carefully cultivated cachet remains intact. The result is a creative continuity that, happily, has translated into a strong, diverse program for Full Frame's 11th annual edition, opening Thursday, April 3, at Durham's Carolina Theatre and running through Sunday, April 6.
There are signs of belt-tightening, including a reduction in the number of name-brand celebrity attendees and a decrease in the number of new documentaries to 65, the fewest since the 2004 festival. Weaver Auditorium at the Durham School of the Arts will replace the American Tobacco Campus as a screening site, although ATC is now the location for the opening night party and Sunday's awards barbecue.
This year's opening night film is Trumbo (Thursday, 8 p.m., Fletcher Hall), a film about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, which brings together a collection of famous actors to read from Trumbo's letters. Elizabeth Edwards will be on hand to introduce, and actress Joan Allen, who appears in the film, will participate in a post-film discussion. (See sidebar.)
One of the festival's perennial highlights is its career award, which this year is being bestowed on pioneering African-American playwright and filmmaker William Greaves. Along with a ceremony taking place Saturday in Cinema 1 at 5 p.m., five of Greaves' films will be shown throughout the weekend, including Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and The Fight, which documents Muhammad Ali's first attempt to reclaim the heavyweight boxing crown from Joe Frazier after he was stripped of it for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War.
The robust schedule also includes the usual panoply of industry-related panels and workshops. Filmmaker Lourdes Portillo curates a seven-film series focusing on the theme of migration and Buirski returns to host a three-film sidebar series entitled Inhabiting Space, which explores the stylistic and aesthetic undulations of documentary filmmaking, employing Chantal Akerman's Sud, about the notorious racially motivated killing in Jasper, Texas, along with the Cuba setting of La Tropical and the Chechnya-set 3 Rooms of Melancholia (a Full Frame selection from 2005).
As always, compiling an exhaustive list of must-see films is virtually impossible. However, the Indy staff has again worked overtime to screen many of the documentaries appearing on this year's program. See sidebar for our writers' capsule surveys. And, below is a compressed rundown of the weekend highlights.
Thursday, April 3
As part of the Special Programming series, Blindsight (10:30 a.m., Fletcher) tracks a 23,000-foot mountain ascent by renowned blind climber Erik Tenberken and six blind Tibetan students.
GLASS: a portrait of Philip in twelve parts (1:15 p.m., Cinema 1) gives an intimate profile of composer Philip Glass, directed by Scott Hicks (Shine; Snow Falling on Cedars).
Durham-based filmmaker Josh Gibson tells the little-known story of original, world-famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker's lives in Mt. Airy, N.C. in The Siamese Connection (5 p.m., Civic Center). (See sidebar.)
Friday, April 4
Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal transform footage shot during the height and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by New Orleans Ninth Ward resident Kimberly Roberts into a startling, illustrative film in Trouble the Water (4:30 p.m., Civic Center).
Renowned documentary team Steve James and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams) pay Full Frame another visit to screen their latest film, At the Death House Door (7:15 p.m., Civic Center), which follows the 15-year career of the Rev. Carroll Pickett, death house chaplain to the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, Texas. (See sidebar.)
One of this year's annual CENTER FRAME selections is The Black List (7:30 p.m., Fletcher). Famed portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders directs producer and film critic Elvis Mitchell as he interviews 20 prominent African Americans—including Chris Rock, Toni Morrison and the Rev. Al Sharpton—on what it means to be on the so-called "black list" in today's society. Both will be on hand for a post-film Q&A, to be moderated by composer and Duke assistant music professor Anthony Kelly.
Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney's finished version of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (10 p.m., Civic Center) takes a look at the eccentric American journalist.
Fresh off a jury award from South by Southwest is Full Battle Rattle (10:15 p.m., Fletcher), about a fake Iraqi village built in the Mojave Desert used to train Army units scheduled for deployment to Iraq. It is also home to hundreds of Iraqi exiles paid to live and role-play in the village. The film is directed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, the latter of whom also directed the 2003 Full Frame Audience Award winner, Speedo. (See sidebar.)
Saturday, April 5
This year's "Center Frame" selection is Body of War (1:15 p.m., Fletcher), the story of disabled Army vet-turned-anti-Iraq War activist Thomas Young. A conversation with co-producers/directors Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue will follow the screening.
Oscar-nominated director Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes; The Kid Stays in the Picture) will be on hand to present her Sundance hit, American Teen (4:30 p.m., Weaver Auditorium), which takes a nuanced, intimate look at four teenagers during their senior year of high school in their Indiana hometown. If you miss it, don't despair: A theatrical release is planned for summer.
Man on Wire (7:30 p.m., Fletcher) is director James Marsh's recounting of Frenchman Philippe Petit's 1974 stunt when he balanced himself on a suspended high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Sunday, April 6
After the lunchtime Awards Barbeque, the Southern Documentary Fund sponsors an In-the-Works session of director Michael Frierson's work-in-progress, FBI/KKK (3:45 p.m., Durham Arts Center), about Frierson's father's time spent in the 1960s as an FBI informant inside the Ku Klux Klan.