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Festival Focus: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

By Ron Sutton

From Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary April 12-15 in Durham, North Carolina. When it was founded in 1998 by Artistic Director Nancy Buirski as the Double Take Documentary Film Festival, it proudly exhibited 45 films in three venues and awarded a jury prize and an audience award. This year's edition screened 123 films in seven venues, and handed out 12 prizes totaling $87,000.

The theme this year was "The Powers of Ten: Ten Filmmakers, Ten Films and Ten Years." Ten previously honored artists selected a film that had special meaning for them and that marked changes in our culture and the documentary form. Martin Scorsese selected Haile Gerima's Harvest 3,000 Years, Walter Mosley picked Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, and Charles Burnett, The Empire in Africa. Cara Mertes presented Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied and Todd Haynes'cult film Super Star: The Karen Carpenter Story. DA Pennebaker had Nicole Védrès' La Vie Commence Demain (Life Begins Tomorrow) screened as his choice, while St.Clair Bourne chose his own Making Do the Right Thing. Ariel Dorfman went with ABC Africa by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and Mira Nair opted for Gilles Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. Julia Reichert chose Michael Moore's Roger and Me, while Moore himself selected The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On by Kazu Hara. 

Seven of the ten filmmakers participated in a stimulating panel discussion, "The Powers of Ten: A Conversation," moderated by ABC correspondent Robert Krulwich.

There was general agreement that in the past ten years, the documentary had become a dominant cultural form--alive now with new audiences and new storytellers using a variety of conventional and non-conventional techniques.

Another exciting and informative panel at Full Frame was "Show Me the Money: The Reality of the Documentary Heyday," which focused on the challenges, problems and fluidity of the distribution deals available to documentary filmmakers today.

Moderator Eugene Hernandez, editor and co-founder of indieWIRE, kept things moving among the experienced panelists: Dan Klores, publicist and filmmaker (Crazy Love); Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions at Magnolia Films; Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix; Nancy Abraham, vice president of documentary at HBO; John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media and managing partner of Sloss Law Office; and Steve Savage, president and co-founder of New Video and Docudrama.

The panel looked at how changes in the industry are affecting documentary filmmakers and the choices available to them in distribution and marketing. Theatrical release for a documentary remains an outstanding platform, but only for exceptional films that are entertaining and arresting in both content and style--"about two a year," quipped a panelist. HBO is still the gold standard for the platform of traditional TV, though competition is growing from other networks such as MSNBC. 

The panel agreed that when you look to sell your video rights, you'll find yourself in the middle of a burgeoning war, with retailers such as Blockbuster and Kmart competing against mail and electronic delivery systems such as Netflix. Sloss stressed that video deals involve new overlapping rights, and he advised to beware of exclusivity. "Who you license your film's video rights to today will matter significantly in ten years," he maintained. 

At one point a panelist stated, "Film is film, not a format." That negative view of film aesthetics was as close as the panel got to considering whether seeing a film on a theatrical screen, a television screen, a computer or even a cell phone were comparable experiences. They simply didn't seem to care what screen or format the filmmaker/artist had intended for the work.

Well, at least the offerings at Full Frame screened in theatrical venues, and a number of the programmed films employed the direct-address-to-the-camera technique. One of the most unusual of this type was Robert, Mary & Katrina. The entire 45-minute film, by Marjoleine Boonstra of The Netherlands, consisted of a husband and wife, seated side by side, telling us about what happened to them and their family during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Hearing the two talk in a rambling, disjointed fashion, finishing one another's sentences--sometimes with conflicting views being presented at the same time--was remarkably effective in drawing viewers into their experience.

Another film that took my breath away was Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire. Fifteen years in the making, it could very well become the definitive film on the abortion issue in the US. Filmed in black and white, Lake of Fire pulls no punches on either side of the issue. The graphic, in-your-face images and technique leave you with a plethora of feelings, questions and ideas that relate to this important social issue. 

Coma is an in-depth experience with four brain-damaged patients. As one learns about this phenomenon from the sensitive touch of filmmaker Liz Garbus, we watch with relief and sadness as two patients partially recover and two others slip away into a vegetative state. At the end of the film there is a faint ray of hope: After 19 years in a coma, a man, upon awakening, may have experienced the first traces of the brain renewing itself. 

I did not expect much from Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone, but Joan Brooker-Marks' feature work is an impressive survey of the porn-meister and his eventual contributions to First Amendment law. Intelligently composed with pertinent interview segments with Flynt at various stages in his life, this film would be an excellent and entertaining tool in any discussion on obscenity and the First Amendment. 

Adam Zuckerman worked four years to make Greensboro: Closer to the Truth. A New York-based editor, Zuckerman learned that Greensboro, North Carolina, would be the site of the first "Truth and Reconciliation Panel" in the US, modeled after the procedures followed in South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. The focal point of the film is the 1979 massacre of Communist Party labor activists by members of the Ku Klux Klan. What unfolds is the attempt to discover the truth of what happened that day, as well as why the men responsible for the five murders, who were filmed in the act, were never successfully prosecuted in three separate trials at both the state and federal levels. 

The screening was followed by the "Truth and Resolution Panel," moderated by Hodding Carter III, professor of social justice at University of North Carolina. The panel members included Zuckerman and two individuals from his film--Signe Waller Foxworth, whose husband was murdered that day in Greensboro, and the Rev. Nelson Johnson, the labor activist who was to lead the protest march against the Klan that day.

Also on the panel were the makers of the two other "Southern Sidebar" films, Marco Williams (Banished) and Godfrey Cheshire and Dr. Robert Hinton (Moving Midway). In Banished, Williams skillfully raises the question of what do we do now, having clearly discovered that our town was rendered white by our forefathers illegally driving blacks from their homes and property. Moving Midway grapples with what "plantation" mentality has done to the realities of history, both in the North and South, from Birth of a Nation through Gone with the Wind to Roots. Cheshire and Hinton discovered that, while not blood-related, one of their grandfathers had owned the other's as a slave and that a great-great-grandfather, in a liaison with a black cook, had given Cheshire 100 black cousins he didn't know he had.  

Carter's opening remarks were as piercing as a sharp sword: "What is involved in all three of these films is an attempt to overcome that most disastrous of Southern White failings, which is the obliteration of memory and the attempt to pretend that both recent and more distant pasts neither exist nor are relevant to our time and place. A South which, for much of its history, was obsessed with its own notion of the past, its own myths...has managed to simply write off vast swatches of itself in the hope that by doing so, deliberately or not, we can, as we like to say, ‘move on'."

The discussion of the films underscored the reality that "moving on" without dealing with truth, justice and real reconciliation will only cause us to repeat the errors of our ancestors.

It was a sober but hopeful note on which to conclude the 10th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.


Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.