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Recapping Full Frame 2009

Scenes from Morgan Street

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Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

It was a low-stress weekend. The weather was pristine, the ticketing arrangements elicited few complaints, the films were excellent, and the televisions at the Durham Marriott provided a handy spot to keep tabs on the progress of the Final Four.

On Sunday afternoon, Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country picked up three awards, including the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award. The coveted audience award, meanwhile, went to The Way We Get By, a film about three senior citizens in Maine who have greeted more than 700,000 members of the armed services passing through the Bangor International Airport.

The one disappointment of the awards ceremony, though, was that so few of the winning filmmakers were present. However, when one considers that many of the most-hyped American docs in the festival (Food, Inc.; The Cove; The September Issue and others) were screening out of competition, more space was created for foreign docs to win prizes: Indeed, more than half of the winning films came from abroad. One foreign filmmaker, Elli Rintala (Oil Blue), did make it in from Finland to pick up her prize for best student film. (She told the crowd, in good English, that it was her first trip to the States.)

Festival attendance figures were still not available as this paper went to press.

In a weekend that ended with sightings of the actors Patricia Clarkson, Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom—all in town to shoot the feature film Main Street—hanging out in the Marriott lounge, there were plenty of celebrities to choose from, ranging from 1960s countercultural icon Wavy Gravy, who was ubiquitous in his tie-dyes and rubber fish on a leash, to agricultural icon Joel Salatin, who drove down from his Virginia farm to speak after the film Food, Inc. (see page 33). —David Fellerath

André Leon Talley swept up the walkway to the Carolina Theatre in an enormous pink lizard-skin duster and shades. The 6-foot-7 fashion icon and editor-at-large for Vogue magazine elicited gasps from the crowd as he briefly turned the plaza into his own personal catwalk. The Durham native had come from New York to promote The September Issue, and his towering presence made Durham seem small.

Talley says he visits Durham often, but his arrival as a prominent player in a high-profile documentary clearly marks a triumphant return. The true extent of the triumph was revealed at a press conference on the Carolina's second floor: "It's very bittersweet to me because this is the Carolina Theatre," he said. "When I grew up here it was Jim Crow, and I fondly remember my uncle, Deacon Willie Love, would bring me here on a Saturday. One of the first movies I saw was Dracula, and we, of course, being black, had to sit in the balcony."

It was somewhat ironic, then, that for the event, seating was again restricted, though only as part of a PR strategy. Perhaps to create extra "buzz" for a film that had already found a distributor (Roadside Attractions set its theatrical release for this September, naturally), or to ensure a couple hundred extra ticket sales come the fall, Full Frame announced before the festival began that the film had sold out its screening.

So, it was surprising to discover that approximately two-thirds of the seats were filled for the film's prime-time Saturday night slot in Fletcher Hall. The second balcony was closed entirely. Whatever the reasoning behind the restricted access to the film, the decision palpably took some of the air out of a screening that might have played to a packed house. Which is perhaps fitting for a film about high fashion, which trades on exclusivity and mystique.

Fortunately, the non-sellout sellout was just about the only hiccup in an otherwise flawlessly executed festival. The programmers, the logistics team and the volunteers have hit their stride in the festival's 12th year, and the decision to keep all the venues together in one place gave the feel of a close-knit community of filmmakers and audience. It also kept the focus squarely on downtown Durham, as the warmth and vibrancy of Full Frame once again showed the city in its best colors. —Marc Maximov

William Gates, one of the two subjects of Steve James' genre-defining basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, told a panel of filmmakers that attending this year's Full Frame fest (his first, by his count, and just the fifth time he had watched the film) "reminded me of how I pursued the game of basketball—I wanted to be the best at it."

Indeed, Gates was seated with some of the best filmmakers in their league: Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Fallen Champ), George Butler (Pumping Iron, The Good Fight) and Steve James (Hoops Dreams, At the Death House Door), along with two promising new players in Arturo Cabanas (Man Up) and Andrew Lang (Sons of Cuba). James had organized the panel in culmination of this year's excellent sports film series, This Sporting Life. But aside from the amount of talent gathered in close proximity on the Durham Arts Council stage, the truly remarkable event was Gates' recounting of the impact of being on the other end of the camera.

Now, Gates said, his high school uses Hoop Dreams for recruiting, and though he never achieved NBA fame, he uses the film as "bragging rights around the house" to tell his son that he is in the upper echelon of athletes like Michael Jordan with films dedicated to them.

Gates told the audience he hid the pregnancy of his then-girlfriend from the filmmakers until she had already given birth, for fear of seeming to conform to the stereotype of a black man living in inner-city Chicago. However, he said he's glad he finally came clean. The two have been happily married for 16 years and have four children, Gates said.

When James showed Gates the final cut, James recalled the 18-year-old's reaction: "It shows how I go from being a great basketball player to an average basketball player."

James disagreed but asked Gates how he felt about that portrayal.

"It's what happened, and I think people should see it," Gates said.

As for charges of exploitation, which Gates said he encountered after the film's release, he said: "Here's someone who took a genuine interest in my life. If that's exploitation ... man, exploit me."

Gates added that ultimately it's the athletes on screen who make or break a film.

"If we can get into their psyche, their thought process, that's a great film," he said. "I think everyone wants to see that." —Matt Saldaña

One of the curious elements of this year's fest was the lack of an overriding theme, apart from James' sports film sidebar. In festivals past, there have been heavy concentrations of such topics as terrorism, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. The economy is the obvious bogeyman today, but it's surely too soon for recession-inspired filmmaking to show up at Full Frame. Next year may be a different story, however.

But how does the economy affect the ability of filmmakers to finance their films? While waiting for the awards ceremony to begin on Sunday, I put this question to Thom Powers, a perennial at Full Frame who is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.

"When things get bad, the rest of the world gets used to what it's like to be a documentary filmmaker." —David Fellerath

Our writers blogged this year's Full Frame fest at Artery, the Indy's seasonal arts blog. Visit the site for video interviews with Steve James (Hoop Dreams); Joel Salatin (Food, Inc.); and Wavy Gravy and Michelle Esrick (Saint Misbehavin').

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