Saturday, April 21, 2012
by Ned Phillips
I first attended Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2007. I was midway through my program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and getting ready to begin production on a short for Duke’s Summer Documentary Institute. I had never been to a film festival before and when the dust had settled four days later I was speechless. Stunned, by not only the films themselves, but the high level of discourse that they inspired, it deconstructed and rebuilt my understanding of documentary art and what it was capable of.
Since Scottishman John Grierson coined the term documentary in 1926, documentary film has attempted to capture some aspect of reality. Originally used for historical archiving or instruction, documentary had the connotation of being slow paced, boring or over-informative. Through the years, non-fiction filmmaking has become more creative and experimental with the incorporation of new techniques and technology. Animation, state of the art photography and dramatic reenactments are just a few examples of the tools filmmakers now have to help tell their stories. The conversation about what documentary art is continues in academic and artistic circles, and with the increasing popularity of the internet and reality television, the lines between truth and fiction become evermore blurry.
That is why Full Frame is so refreshing. It is a rocket ship from the mundane to the extraordinary. With the overwhelming saturation of screens, information and “entertainment” we find ourselves in on a daily basis, Full Frame emerges, phoenix-like, to lift us above the bullshit and mediocrity we’ve grown all too comfortable with. For four days in April, Durham, North Carolina becomes the epicenter of the universe for the most talented, cutting edge non-fiction storytellers.
During my first festival in 2007, my preconceptions were shattered immediately by a film called Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) directed by Jason Kohn. Kohn, who previously worked as researcher for doc-legend, Errol Morris, wove together a head-spinning tale about the current socio-economic and political climate in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Kidnappers, politicians, frog farmers, doctors, businessmen, detectives, lawyers, plastic surgeons, victims and criminals tell the story of their beloved, albeit flawed country, which culminates in a dazzling final sequence of profound realizations and stunning super 16mm cinematography over a soundtrack of psychedelic 70s Brazilian rock. It was documentary film like I had never seen before: gripping, beautiful and engaging, it had all the aspects of my favorite popcorn blockbuster with one exception- this story was unfolding in actuality. These were real people.
In addition to introducing us to new characters and situations playing out in our world, documentary can also delve deep and provide new insight to characters and issues we’re already familiar with. In 2007, one such film was Kurt Cobain About a Son, directed by AJ Schnack. Interestingly enough, it was a mellow, contemplative portrait of the Seattle rocker and Nirvana front man. Set against gentle footage of the Pacific Northwest, we hear a publicly perceived wild Cobain telling his own story, in his own words through a series of previously unreleased audiotapes. We eventually realize that the imagery we’re seeing are the places Cobain grew up in and around, including the ocean view from the apartment where he eventually committed suicide. It’s an intimate depiction of an artist, often misunderstood, who still represented and spoke to an entire generation: mine.
After completing my program at The Center for Documentary Studies, I moved to Paris, France where I worked as a tour guide, travel writer and photographer for nearly four years, so this year’s festival was the first I’d been able to attend since 2007 and having been around the world, I can’t imagine a better setting for such an event.
Full Frame takes place in downtown Durham, with five cinemas spread between The Durham Arts Council, Durham Convention Center and the Carolina Theater including the beautiful, historic Fletcher Hall. The plaza in front of the Carolina Theater serves as the nexus of the festival, offering ample room for discussion, networking, and general chitchat. Here, while talking shop, you can grab a cocktail or a coffee, amid various top-notch Durham eateries, including Rue Cler and Parizade, which set up onsite restaurants making it easy to enjoy a quality meal between films and events.
Here, at festival headquarters, the energy and enthusiasm for Full Frame is palpable and I find myself wanting to eavesdrop on every single conversation happening around me. People at the top of their game are talking about their next projects, what’s gotten funded and telling war stories about the films they are showing. Introductions are being made and reflections are being shared, all propelled by a thirst and passion for the art and culture of documentary storytelling.
The festival is also a great way to showcase Durham as the next cultural boomtown. Full Frame draws a lot of attention from the best and the brightest and I had many conversations with out-of towners who had nothing but positive things to say about the Bull City.
Everyone’s film festival experience is different due to that fact that films are often showing at overlapping times. You must cultivate a plan of attack, yet be flexible. Films sell out, recommendations get made, you meet people you want to sit next to- the possibilities are endless. Just sitting in the cinema waiting for the show to start, I met fascinating individuals; a cameraman who works for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, traveling the world for forty years shooting documentaries; a local physician interested in health reform checking out the array of health related films. You’ll find yourself secretly checking out the passes everyone is wearing around their necks to figure out who they are and what they are up to. You never know- you might be standing in the beer line, chatting up a beautiful girl from NYC with long brown hair. Suddenly, she flips her pass around to reveal herself as a world-class filmmaker in town to show her latest project. Cue the nervousness.
Perhaps the best thing about any festival of this nature is the opportunity to interact with the filmmakers. Whether they are telling you a dirty joke after too many cocktails at one the evening parties or answering a tough question during the Q&A after their screening, it’s an invaluable experience to gain insight into their process, their challenges and then hear their stories of success.
The scope and subject matter of this year’s selections were wide and diverse, ranging from a film about a cat living in South Carolina named Mr. Lee to a documentary filmed in twenty-five countries over the course of five years that the filmmakers describe as “a nonverbal, guided meditation that will transform viewers around the world as they are swept up along a journey of the soul.” Whoa…
Whoa, indeed. The opening night film was the world premiere of Jesse Owens, directed by Laurens Grant. It was fairly straightforward, highlighting the track star’s athletic accomplishments during the racially charged 1936 Berlin Olympics. By winning four gold medals, he single handedly foiled Hitler’s plot for an Aryan super-athlete dominated games. And although his victories were celebrated abroad, his heroism did not exactly translate to success in his American homeland. Making outstanding use of archival footage, as well as interviews from both sports writers and scholars, the film tackles the fascinating life of a revolutionary athlete at the intersection of sports and race- a conjuncture that still fuels passionate debate today.
Other highlights for me included, the world premiere of Herman’s House, a film about an unlikely friendship between a New York City artist named Jackie and a man named Herman who’s spent forty years in solitary confinement for a crime many believe he is innocent of. Together, they design Herman’s dream home, which will serve as youth center until Herman moves in- if he’s ever released from the penitentiary. The audience is easily carried by Jackie’s energy and enthusiasm for the project and a particular credit goes to director Angad Singh Ballah’s ability to make us care so deeply about Herman, a character we never actually meet on screen. While illuminating some very unsettling issues within the American justice system, the film is ultimately about friendship, hope and what we can accomplish when they’re kept alive.
Then there was The Imposter, a beautifully photographed film directed by Bart Layton. In this head scratching mystery a 13-year-old boy goes missing in San Antonio, Texas only to turn up years later in Spain. When his family travels all the way across the Atlantic to collect him there is immense relief, but as time goes by, it becomes obvious that something is wrong. Powerful interviews drive this story of perception, deception and the subjectivity of truth.
The Queen of Versailles tells the story of the obscenely rich Siegel family who plans to build the largest home in America, modeled after Louis XIV’s palace in France. However the film takes an unexpected turn when the real estate bubble bursts and the family has to make serious lifestyle changes. These setbacks reveal true character, as the family comes to grips with the fact the American Dream may not be what it seems. Director Lauren Greenfield handles what could easily have turned into a Real Housewives-eque nightmare with graceful craft and skill.
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry tells the story of Chinese artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei, who’s held exhibitions in the top venues all over the world. Alison Klayman’s incredibly intimate portrait shows how one man’s crusade against censorship and oppression has inspired many to push for free speech and transparency of government, often at their own risk. By examining the changing landscape of art and activism, with particular regard to technology, the film shows just how far one visionary will go to inspire change in his homeland.
However the film that rocked me to my soul the hardest was Samsara, the latest from meticulous filmmaker Ron Fricke. The title derives from a Sanskrit word, meaning to flow on, to perpetually wander, to pass through states of existence. More specifically, the titles relates to the cycle of birth, life, death and then rebirth. It’s hard for me to describe what the film is about because in a sense, it’s about everything. Throughout the feature length documentary, there is not a single word of dialogue. The hypnotic imagery, captured masterfully on full 70mm film explains the cyclical nature of life on earth from both a natural and human perspective. A sweeping soundtrack provides emotional and narrative structure as the film expertly juxtaposes the personal versus the collective experience. Art, war, technology, architecture, religion, natural disaster, urban planning, farming, sex, death and industry are all touched upon, again, without a word uttered. I was so flabbergasted when the credits rolled, that I started to wander aimlessly through the streets in deep contemplation, only to discover myself at my doorstep hours later, in the middle of the night.
And there lies the power of documentary film- the ability to transport us to worlds and situations otherwise inaccessible. One thing that struck me about the films this year was that every single one contained some sort of thematic cycle: political, economic, natural, human. These movies hold up a mirror to the world we live in and ask us whether we will continue down that same road or will we break the cycle. Documentary is social commentary at its highest form. At times, it entertains us. At times, it uplifts us. At times, it sickens us. At times, it calls us to action. But above all, documentary will always provide understanding and give merit, meaning and example to the old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. I look forward Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, right here in Durham, for years to come.