September 1, 2002

Doubletake Goes Full Frame: But Nonfiction is Still the Name of the Game

From Marina Petrovskaia’s <em>Confession</em>, a meditation on the ethical nature of documentary filmmaking

To launch its fifth year, Doubletake Documentary Film Festival announced a name change, to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Executive director Nancy Buirski assured the opening night crowd—primed to watch Alexandra Pelosi’s tell-all political road movie Journeys with George—that the name change would only give the festival more freedom to expand its service to the documentary form.

The change also divorces the festival formally from its academic counterpart, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, which will also now sponsor an annual film event using the Doubletake name.

The festival has grown dramatically in five years. This year, 67 films were shown in competition, with more in sidebars. The range of work was extremely wide. Experimental work appeared, such as Marina Petrovskaia’s Confession, a meditation on the ethical nature of documentary filmmaking, and Jesse Lerner’s The American Egypt, which uses extremely rare and remarkable footage from the silent era of Mexican cinema to re-tell a too-hidden history of peasant revolt and suppression in the Yucatan. A small portion of the programming featured international work, such as Canadian Paul Cowan’s investigative documentary on a mining disaster, Westray, and Dennis O’Rourke’s Cunnamulla, about life in the Australian outback. It’s My Life, by Brian Tilley, about the remarkable South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, is part of the international project Steps for the Future, which resulted in dozens of programs produced by and for Southern Africans on HIV/AIDS issues (see cover story in ID Vol. 22, No. 6, July-August 2002).

Some American work is still in search of distribution, such as Mirra Banks’ extraordinary Last Dance, which chronicles a tempestuous creative partnership between Maurice Sendak and the Pilobolus Dance Company; the story is rich in insights about creativity far beyond the performance itself. Many more of the offerings will be or have been on public television or cable, such as Tasha Oldham’s The Smith Family and Whitney Dow and Marco Williams’ Two Towns of Jasper (both on P.O.V.), Liz Garbus’ The Execution of Wanda Jean (HBO), Ric Burns’ Ansel Adams and Lisa Ades’ Miss America (both on American Experience) and Brad Lichtenstein’s Ghosts of Attica (Court TV).

One well-attended sidebar series was “9.11 Films of Tragedy and Hope.” The series included films of New York independent artists—Deborah Shaffer, Monika Bravo and Jason Kessler among others—as well as works produced through mainstream television. The program also featured perspectives on Afghanistan through Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbef’s Afghan Alphabet and Randall Scerbo’s Inshallah: Dairy of an Afghan Woman, a profile of an Afghan woman working for humanitarian aid.

A packed panel discussing the films of September 11 quickly plunged into questions of the ethics of covering traumatic events. James Ronald Whitney, queried about his choice to put a wireless mike on a father telling his child of his mother’s death (Telling Nicholas, for HBO), vociferously defended his choice as facing ugly truths. Other hot discussion points were filmmakers’ control over material. Betsy West of CBS and independent filmmaker Jules Naudet, who worked with CBS to produce the feature doc 9-11 for the network, shared stories of tussles over creative vision.

In an unusual and creatively programmed strand, board member DA Pennebaker created “Score!,” a set of seven programs exploring the relation between music and image in films. The strand was launched with live music from the band Yo La Tengo, which accompanied the silent underwater films of cinematic pioneer Jean Painlevé. Among other treasures were legendary avant-garde shorts such as Len Lye’s 1952 Color Cry, with a soundtrack by blind blues musician Sonny Terry, and Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, with music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. Pennebaker’s own work was also featured, including his 1967 portrait of Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back.

The festival also honored veteran Frederick Wiseman with its Career Award, and screened his Domestic Violence and Law and Order. Accepting his award, Wiseman engaged the audience in media literacy exercises regarding his films, thus neatly avoiding definitive interpretation of his own work, while demonstrating core features of it. Wiseman also pointed out to the representative of Kodak, the Industry Award recipient, that he had purchased all the film for his documentaries—which use high shooting ratios—and suggested that it was time for Kodak to donate some to him!

Audiences were also invited, at various points, to become participants in the filmmaking process. The audience for Charles Burnett’s work-in-progress Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property lingered for more than an hour to offer feedback and criticism. Aspiring producers attended a session of In-the-Works, a DocuClub event to provide a supportive critical environment for works-in-progress. In addition, Robert West of Working Films hosted a panel on strategies for ensuring that a film has impact among communities and constituencies.

The Full Frame jury announced eight awards, including best documentary for Davis Guggenheim’s The First Year, about five new public school teachers in Southern California, with honorable mention for Joel Katz’s Strange Fruit, which profiles the history of the famous song.

 

Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.

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