The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, now entering its seventh year, is feeling the ground shifting beneath its feet. The object of its adoration is no longer ghettoized, if not quite upgraded to Beverly Hills, and the form is becoming an increasingly visible and viable commercial medium. Furthermore, as documentaries become more popular, the very definition of the term is going through an inevitable mutation and expansion.
With the increased interest in documentaries as a commercial enterprise, festival founder and Executive Director Nancy Buirski expects more acquisitions people to attend this year. One major question, though, is how many films are available for "discovery." As documentary venues go, Full Frame is third in line in the festival season after Sundance and South by Southwest, both of which have become increasingly important doc bellwethers. Indeed, some films in competition--including Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's Sundance sensation, and Control Room, Jehane Noujaim's film about the Iraq War from Al Jazeera's perspective--come with the cachet of already having theatrical distribution in place.
Still, with 66 films (culled from 750 submissions) in competition, there's still plenty of room left for a previously unheralded project to be discovered. But such industry considerations are, perhaps, all inside baseball to the thousands of Triangle film lovers who will queue up this weekend in downtown Durham for one or more films and discussion panels.
The newfound popularity of documentaries is a real phenomenon, and the festival has scheduled a panel discussion to consider why the world's ready for Winged Migration, Bowling for Columbine and Spellbound. Called "Docs in their Heyday: Coming Soon to a Multiplex Near You," this Buirski-moderated panel will feature Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, producer and director Lauren Lazin (Tupac Resurrection), and acquisitions experts John Sloss and Mark Urman.
"We'll ask what this trend means to the documentary world," Buirski says. "Is it a passing trend or does it reflect a real appetite?" Buirski hopes to bring the discussion around to the effects the popularizing of docs can have on young filmmakers. "Do they start thinking about marketplace or do they continue making films with their hearts?" This panel will take place at the Durham Arts Council, Friday at 1 p.m.
If documentaries have become more commercially viable, it's also been noted that the definition is becoming harder and harder to pin down. A case in point is one of last year's most original films, American Splendor. A hit at festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Deauville, a respectable box office performer upon release and an Oscar nominee last month, this film threw down something of a gauntlet to anyone wishing to maintain distinctions between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking.
By mixing traditional documentary techniques--including interviews with its principals Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner--with scenes reenacted by actors, American Splendor signaled a new shift in how stories can be told. Accordingly, Full Frame is set to examine this phenomenon with its "Hybrid Symposium," organized by Mary Lea Bandy of the Museum of Modern Art. Bandy has programmed an adventurous and eclectic program of more than a dozen films that break down distinctions between fact and fiction.
Bandy, for one, doesn't think the hybrid phenomenon is a new one. "It's been right under our noses for years," she says in a telephone interview from her home in Manhattan. The program will include such familiar fare as Al Pacino's Looking for Richard and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. But most of the offerings are quite esoteric--for example, area viewers will have a rare opportunity to see recent work by Jean-Luc Godard. Commissioned by MoMA and co-directed by Godard's wife Anne-Marie Meiville, The Old Place is a consideration of art at the end of the century that incorporates written texts, music and images to arrive at what is said to be a pessimistic conclusion.
Bandy's program will also include little-seen work by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Agnes Varda, Robert Flaherty and Michael Powell. The films are scheduled throughout the weekend, and the symposium itself will be at the Durham Arts Council at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday. In addition to Bandy, the panel will include HBO exec Sheila Nevins, American Splendor associate producer Julia King, The War Room's R.J. Cutler, In the Realms of the Unreal's Jessica Yu and 50/50 producer Tom Fontana.
As usual, the film festival will have something for everyone. Two opening night crowd-pleasers are scheduled for Fletcher Hall Thursday night, April 1. At 6:30 p.m., doc legend D.A. Pennebaker will unveil his latest project, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. This film records a recent one-woman show by the longtime Broadway diva, as well as documenting her personal struggles and triumphs. "She's a hero," Buirski says, "an incredible woman of theater." Stritch herself will appear for an audience Q&A afterward.
Then, at 10 p.m., the headbangers will invade Fletcher Hall for Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. This film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the team responsible for Brother's Keeper and, less fortuitously, the Blair Witch sequel) is said to document a period of considerable tension for the band as they record their 2003 album St. Anger.
This year's fest won't stint on celebrities, either. However, this is still Durham, and these are still documentaries, so the two big ticket events cost just $15 to attend.
On Friday night at 7:45 p.m. MTV's Kurt Loder will host An Evening with Harry Shearer. The legendary talent (with Christopher Guest) behind such seminal films as This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind will chat about his career and show clips of his work. Then, on Saturday, Michael Moore will alight upon the Carolina Theater stages for two different scheduled appearances. At 4:30 p.m. he'll take part in a panel entitled "Documentary as the Swing Vote," alongside moderator David Paletz, Paul Stekler (Last Man Standing), George Butler (Pumping Iron), D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room, Elaine Stritch at Liberty) and Shearer. (Tickets for this event will go on sale Saturday morning.)
Later Saturday night, at 9 p.m., Moore will take the Fletcher Hall stage for An Evening with Michael Moore, which promises film clips, anecdotes and--surely, surely!--generous helpings of anti-Bush rhetoric. Call the Carolina Theater box office for tickets: 560-3040.
Sadly, one person who will not be present this weekend is the great French documentarian Marcel Ophuls, who was set to receive a lifetime achievement award. Not long ago, the director, known for such classic excavations of mid-century European horror as The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, fell ill and is not well enough to travel. However, a program of his films, curated by NCSU film prof Joe Gomez, will go on. Several films will be shown on the State campus, while The Memory of Justice, Ophuls' monumental 1976 film--all 278 minutes of it--will screen on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre. This film, which Ophuls cites as his most personal, is an examination of war crimes through the 20th century, and it covers territory ranging from Nuremberg to Algeria to Vietnam.
For information about tickets, festival passes and programming, go online to www.fullframefest.org or call the Carolina Theatre box office at 560-3040.
Here are Indy reviews of nearly two dozen films in competition at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, set to run April 1-4 in Durham. Films with an asterisk (*) are highly recommended. Reviews written by Jason Brown, David Fellerath, Fiona Morgan, Barbara Solow, York Wilson, Byron Woods.
*Balseros (2002. Spain. 120 mins. Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech, dir.)
Staggering in its ambition and persistence, this Spanish doc follows a select few Cubans who took to rafts in 1994 during a mass exodus that Castro briefly encouraged before U.S. diplomacy intervened. Shooting over the course of a half-decade, the filmmakers chronicle life in the Guantanamo refugee camp before continuing on to America where the immigrants are placed in communities as various as Connecticut, New York, Florida and New Mexico. But the American dream is an elusive one. --DF
Saturday, April 3, 9:45 a.m. / Fletcher Hall
Bar Na Victorii (Bar at Victoria Station) (2003. Poland. 56 mins. Leszek Dawid, dir.)
With no job prospects in their small Polish town, friends Marek and Piotrek decide to brave illegal passage to London. On arrival, they find a network of exploitation--fake job notices and phony work permits available for astronomical fees. The intensity of their situation is magnified by a near total lack of concern for the camera's presence.--FM
Friday, April 2, 8:15 p.m. / Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre
*Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan (2003. United Kingdom. 96 mins. Phil Grabsky, dir.)
When the Taliban blew up ancient stone Buddha statues in 2001, the act alerted many in the West to how destructive the regime was. Afghans already despised it for terrorizing its its people, forcing many out of their homes. The family of 8-year-old Mir are among the hundreds of refugees living in the caves of Bamiyan, a town burnt and destroyed by war. Striking cinematography captures a landscape that is at once breathtakingly beautiful and utterly devastated. We watch a year of its rebuilding through the eyes of a bright, energetic boy. --FM
Saturday, April 3, 9 a.m / Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre
A Certain Kind of Death (2003. USA. 70 mins. Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock, dir.)
What happens when someone dies and there's nobody to claim the body, take care of the arrangements, or mourn? This film follows the hardworking civil servants who handle those cases for Los Angeles County, from the investigators in the coroner's office to the crematory, as they tie together the traces left behind in three different deaths. While the images of decomposing bodies are certainly grim, the film manages to be uplifting. --FM
Saturday, April 3, 9:30 a.m. / Armory
Chavez Ravine (2003. USA. 27 mins. Jordan Mechner, dir.)
In July 1950, the city of Los Angeles sent letters to the 300 Latino families that lived in an area known as Chavez Ravine, telling them to vacate their houses. The idyllic, village-like community was to be converted to a 10,000 unit low-income housing project--the biggest of its kind at the time. But the evicted families of Chavez Ravine suffer a double insult when the head of the project is red-baited and ultimately jailed for being a communist. Their former homes are plowed under, and a stadium is built to house the newly relocated Brooklyn Dodgers. --YW
Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 7:45 p.m. / Armory
Citizen King (2003. USA. 120 mins. Orlando Bagwell, dir.)
A fresh and intimate look at the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Baptist minister and activist from 1963 to 1968. Mostly in the black and white footage of the era, filmmakers Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker offer a stern spiritual and deeply human chronology documenting the last five years of one of America's great social movers. MLK has never felt so close. --JB
Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2, 7:30 p.m. / Armory
Father's Day (2003. USA. 38 mins. Mark Lipman, dir.)
"Documentary as Therapy" is becoming a genre all its own. In Father's Day, director Mark Lipman even admits to his mother that he never intended to make his father's story into a movie. The documentary process seems to have begun by instinct in an effort to answer questions about his father and the events leading up to his death at the age of 49. There are no boring talking-head shots--just family commentary behind home movies and photos that appear like ghosts, and then fade from the screen. Watching this film is like accidentally walking into a wake: too private to intrude, too fascinating to leave. -- YW
Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 9:45 p.m. / Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre
*Gan (Garden) (2003. Israel. 85 mins. Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, dir.)
Heartbreaking, passionate and articulate, this film follows Nino and DuDu, two teenage boys who live on the streets of Tel Aviv and prostitute themselves in an area of town called the Garden. Their struggles with homelessness, drugs and police violence are intensified by the fact that they are Palestinians, dodging immigration authorities, Israeli Secret Service, jail cells and suicide bombings--abuse seems to come from all sides. Their vivid personalities and troubled friendship tells a larger-than-life story, presented with compassion and urgency. This is sure to be a hit of the festival. --FM
Friday, April 2, 10:00 p.m. / Carolina Theatre Cinema One
Ha-Harug Ha 17 (No. 17) (2003. Israel. 76 mins. David Ofek, dir.)
The suicide bombing of a bus at Meggido Junction in Israel had 17 victims, one of them unknown. The filmmakers conduct their own amateur investigation to find out his identity, which leads them into working with the police. They interview survivors and victims' families, illegal workers' advocates and public administrators. The director himself spends way too much time on camera. But otherwise, No.17 is a riveting detective story and a fascinating tour of diverse modern day life in Israel. -- FM
Saturday, April 3, 7:30 p.m. / Carolina Theatre Cinema One
Konkurs (Competition) (2003. Poland. 26 mins. Maciej Adamek, dir.)
This short film made for Polish television follows a few young hopefuls in the Mini Miss Poland competition. They come from different backgrounds, but all seem to have the same dream: to be Britney Spears. The film does little to enlighten us as to why. While interviews with the girls offer an interesting look at global pop culture through a different national lens, the film doesn't go past the surface. --FM
Friday, April 2, 12:15 p.m. / Armory
*Monster Road (2004. USA. 80 mins. Brett Ingram, dir.)
Vibrating images, large and small--the clay animator works with huge eyes behind thick glasses on an inch-high character--big hands in the foreground. A true verite documentary leaving all the telling to the characters: underground Seattle animator Bruce Bickford and his father George, a forgetful kitchen-table sage. The film explores their lives in a blithe, grotesque, sad and illumined amniotic void. Local filmmakers Ingram and Jim Haverkamp brought home top honors for this film at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. --JB
Introduction by Francesca Talenti, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill / Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2, 11:00 p.m. / Armory
Music From the Inside Out (2004. USA. 90 mins. Daniel Anker, dir.)
This film shows us the personality behind the tuxedoed ensemble of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Individual and group interviews explore the tension between self-expression and unity in an orchestra, and the filmmakers follow musicians on their off-time to see what really excites them. And it has a great soundtrack. -- FM
Introduction by Kenneth Raskin, assistant conductor, North Carolina Symphony / Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2, 3:15 p.m. / Fletcher Hall
No Name Game Farm (2003. USA. 50 mins. Toby Beach and Peter Yost, dir.)
Friday night cockfights are a tradition in southwest Louisiana, and Glen Comeaux is a keeper of the flame. He and his young assistant, who says his choices in life are chickens or jail, train their fighters by feeding them well, pitting them against each other and playing John Cougar Mellencamp at loud volumes. --FM
Introduction by Luis Velasco, the Center for Documentary Studies / Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2, 5:30 p.m. / Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre
*The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story (2003. USA. 75 mins. Josh Aronson, dir.)
Possibly the best documentary made yet on transgender issues, this Showtime-produced film follows a year in the life of Rene, a female-to-male who lives not in an accepting urban enclave but in true middle America. After the couple is confronted by their congregation and banned from the church, Rene's young wife grapples with a delayed realization of what it means to be married to a transgendered person, as Rene pushes his family to face their fears and anger. --FM
Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2, 5:00 p.m. / Carolina Theatre Cinema One
Shiny Stars, Rusty Red (2003. Norway. 60 mins. Elisabeth O. Sjaastad, dir.)
Following a year in the life of a young filmmaker in China, a country where all media are strictly censored, this film tells a familiar story of an ambitious young artist trying to catch a big break in a tough business. Quirky music and graphics seem to reflect present-day Beijing's globalized culture, as do clips from other Chinese films, both underground Cannes entries and Communist-approved commercial successes. --FM
Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 10:30 p.m. / Armory
Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women over 65 (2003. USA. 55 mins. Deirdre Fishel, dir.)
Sex for women over 65 is the topic of Dierdre Fishel's unflinching production. Despite its frankness and brave, occasionally explicit images, the film evolves into a broader, less fresh discussion of ageism and geriatric empowerment. --DF
Q&A following screening / Sunday, April 4, 10:45 a.m. / Fletcher Hall
The Talent Collector (2003. USA. 24 mins. Bobby Sheehan, dir.)
Coralie Jr. is a Hollywood talent agent with a penchant for "unusual acts." Her clients include a woman who plays the flute with her nose, a guy who juggles chainsaws, a guitar-playing yodeler who performs upside down and a basketball team made up entirely of little people. --FM
Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 1:45 p.m. / Carolina Theatre Cinema One
Texas Hospitality (2003. USA. 4 mins. Michael Pfaendtner, dir.) A small gem that brings new meaning to the phrase "gallows humor." Using online information about the last meals of Texas death-row inmates, the film is full of surprises even though it's under four minutes long. The faces of executed inmates, their crimes and last meal requests flash onscreen to the accompaniment of a twangy score. The words and images are timed like good punch lines. We're told that one inmate declined his last meal. Then, in the next frame, we learn that at the last minute he decided to eat a hamburger "at his mother's request." --BS
World Premiere / Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 9:30 a.m. / Armory
*Thirst (2004. USA. 62mins. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, dir.)
"It's time that Stockton entered the 21st century in its delivery of services and think of our citizens as customers," says the mayor of Stockton, Calif., explaining why the city's water should be sold off to a private European consortium. But the citizens aren't going down without a fight, just as the campesinos of Cochabamba, Bolivia, don't, either. Filmmakers Snitow and Kaufman also travel to Rajasthan, India, where village co-ops have built a network of reservoirs. Heavy on power-to-the-people-isms, the film could use a few more details on the economic basis for privatization. Still, when the water wars arrive, we can say we saw it here first. --DF
World Premiere / Q&A following screening / Saturday, April 3, 12:45 p.m. / Fletcher Hall
*Tobacco Money Feeds My Family (2003. USA. 87mins. Cynthia Hill, dir.)
As director Cynthia Hill explores how the lives of three small-town tobacco farmers change during one growing season and its aftermath, she threads through her own conflicted thoughts and feelings about growing up on a tobacco farm outside Pink Hill, N.C. In the process, she manages to report on an endangered culture from both the inside and the outside--without letting rich imagery and poetic insights mask the starker truths and spiritual contradictions of her people. --BW
Q&A following screening / Friday, April 2 / Fletcher Hall / 9:45 a.m.