Along with approximately one billion other humans on the planet, Durham's Nancy Buirski was glued to her television last week when Michael Moore stepped up to the microphone to accept his Best Documentary Oscar.
As the founder and executive director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Buirski had a special interest in Moore's remarks. His film, Bowling for Columbine, is the most commercially successful documentary in years and Moore himself is by far the most famous person working in the medium.
"Initially, in his remarks about nonfiction films, he was saying almost what I wanted him to say: 'This is the real world and nonfiction matters,'" Buirski says, speaking by telephone last week. However, she was disappointed to see him sabotage his relatively subtle and graceful opening with a strident attack on our "fictitious" president. Continuing in the vein she wishes Moore had followed, Buirski says, "Documentaries help us understand how other people live. This is how we can move toward peace."
Although Buirski admits to a little unease about operating a "festival" in the middle of a war, she also contends, "Our festival is more relevant now than it's ever been." This relevance, Buirski says, stems from this year's program having a particularly strong focus on clashing worldviews.
"One of the most [potentially] inflammatory films on the program is Noble Sacrifice," Buirski says, referring to Vatche Boulgourjian's study of the Ashura ceremony of self-sacrifice that is observed by the Shiite community in Southern Lebanon. Why is this controversial? The festival program provides a delicate elaboration: "The spirit of self-sacrifice as embodied in Ashura has been transformed by circumstantial adversities to become a military tactic commonly referred to in the West as suicide bombing."
"We don't expect anyone to leave the theater a convert--actually, they'll probably be appalled," Buirski acknowledges. "We had a lot of discussion about whether we wanted to show this one." She points to Portraits of Grief, a film based on the New York Times' acclaimed series of Sept. 11 obituaries as an example of a counterbalancing film that documents the effects of political violence. "And, somewhere in between, we have Wedding in Ramallah," Buirski says, referring to a film about arranged marriages between Palestinian men in America and women back home.
Elsewhere in the program, there are films exploring homegrown cultural conflicts. One of them, Flag Wars, will screen in Durham, fresh from winning the jury prize at South by Southwest two weeks ago. This film, co-directed by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras, is a study of tensions that arise in a Columbus, Ohio, working-class black neighborhood, when relatively affluent white gays and lesbians begin to gentrify the area.
Chantal Akerman's De l'autre Cote is a film that will hit close to home for anyone in the Triangle who works in close proximity to Mexican immigrants. Apparently taking her cue from a widely publicized story about illegal immigrants perishing in the Arizona desert, Akerman trains her camera on bereaved relatives of dead migrants, on some young men and women who nevertheless hope to cross over themselves and on the corrugated metal barrier that slices across the landscape like a Richard Serra installation.
In addition to the films in competition, there are a couple of special programs planned. One of them is titled "Leadership through a Gender Lens." This sidebar about activist women was programmed by renowned documentarian Chris Hegedus and White House Project Director Marie Wilson.
Another special program is "Flights of Fancy," in honor of the Kitty Hawk centennial. But instead of filling the program with airplane movies, the festival has decided to put a metaphorical spin on it, stressing films that celebrate crazy dreaming. A film about the visionary designer Buckminster Fuller is on this program, as is Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the Errol Morris hit of a few years back. But the not-to-be-missed treat is Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, a study of the nearly insane German director Werner Herzog and his attempts to subdue the Amazon jungle so that his movie Fitzcarraldo might come to fruition.
The opening night film will be Seabiscuit, a documentary based on the best-selling racehorse bio. (This film, which will be introduced by 1978 Triple Crown jockey Steve Cauthen, hits the screens a few lengths ahead of the fiction version starring Tobey Maguire, due out next fall.) Another prestige project getting an opening night slot is The Blues, a series of short films about blues musicians that was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese.
This year's career achievement award will go to the recently deceased Charles Guggenheim, who's final film will receive its world premiere at the festival. Titled Berga: Soldiers of Another War, this film documents the fate of Jewish-American soldiers who were captured by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. Guggenheim completed the film just before his death last fall. Full Frame will screen several of his other films throughout the weekend, including The Johnstown Flood and Robert Kennedy Remembered.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme will be in town to screen clips from The Agronomist, his work in progress about a Haitian human rights activist. He'll be on a special MTV-sponsored program hosted by Kurt Loder, and novelist Walter Mosley will be on hand to introduce his old friend Demme. Another event will honor Pat Mitchell, the CEO and president of the Public Broadcasting System, with the maverick plutocrat Ted Turner in town to lead the toasts.
Buirski says that the current difficult fundraising climate for nonprofits has also affected Full Frame. "We're looking at a cash shortfall. Everybody's had trouble raising money. We have too, but we hope to have a black balance by end of festival."
But these are hard times for everyone, and Full Frame, with its program of over one hundred shorts and features, remains dedicated to bringing the truth to light, no matter what the circumstances.
The festival begins on Thursday, April 10 at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Check next week's Indy for a preview of festival films.
Coming next week in Full Frame coverage:
A behind-the-scenes look at organizing and producing the festival and select film previews.