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Full Frame Focuses on War and Government Corruption

By Kevin Lewis

US sailors with munitions during World War II. From Eugene Jarecki's 'Why We Fight,' which won the Seeds of War Award at the Full Frame Documentary Festival. Photo: Charlotte Street Films

The Eighth Full Frame Documentary Festival broke its previous attendance records this year, and has become more than a fixture in the cultural life of Durham, North Carolina. It has become a positive sign in a city demoralized by crime. Nancy Buirski, the festival's executive director, says, "The new venue at American Tobacco [Campus]--Duke University's decision to become part of our family of sponsors--shows how we truly have found our home in the Durham and Triangle community."

The theme this year was "Why War?" but ironically war took a back seat to other more personal themes in American and world society. Perhaps the Iraq War has so frustrated the public, and the Bush government has sought to deflect criticism of the war by pushing "moral crusades" against same-sex marriage, the right to die and abortion--all in the name of religion--that filmmakers have concentrated on personal-issue documentaries. Another reason may be that a new generation of younger filmmakers has emerged whose experience does not encompass the memory of Vietnam, Watergate or the civil rights movement. Eugene Jarecki, who accompanied his film Why We Fight, about the US military-industrial complex, stated in his Q&A session that public apathy has allowed non-elected neoconservatives to dominate our domestic and foreign policy. This is indisputable, as the last presidential election proved, but the younger filmmakers show that a rethinking of society is also occurring.

A new sense of humor, a playfulness, is a component of many of the films. But whether this reveals a deeper apathy or a new flowering of thought, well, only time will tell. Welcome to the Real World, a delightful road film directed by British filmmaker Barney Churchill Broomfield; Made in Italy, a Belgian film by Fabio Wuytack; and Cheeks, by Americans Tal Sharon and Daniel Barcelowsky, all remind one of the exuberance of the New Wave filmmakers. In a depressing year politically for the older generation, it is gratifying to know that youthful high spirits and humor are budding.

In the "Why War?" series, the brilliant Bearing Witness, a film by Bob Eisenhardt, Barbara Kopple and Marijana Wotton about American and European women journalists in Iraq, was the opening night feature. Kopple also presented Winter Soldier, the 1972 film she co-directed with Lucy Massie Phenix, David Grubin and 12 other filmmakers, about American atrocities in Vietnam. However, the three films about American business corruption with government assistance elicited the most interest among audiences, perhaps because all three involved Republican administrations. The Last Mogul: The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman, directed by Barry Avrich, revealed how Ronald Reagan, as first president of the Screen Actors Guild, and later as US president, breached government anti-trust laws to make Lew Wasserman, head of MCA/Universal, a billionaire and a crusher of competition. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, directed by Alex Gibney, turned people's stomachs with its corrosive depiction of arrogance under the noses of the Bushes. Why We Fight examined the realization of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nightmare of a military-industrial complex in present-day America, making continuous wars an endless reality. The film won the Seeds of War Award, sponsored by Full Frame board member Walter Mosley, the best-selling mystery writer. The only other "Why War?" film to win an award was the Iraq War documentary Occupation: Dreamland, directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds; it earned an honorable mention for the Full Frame content + intent = change Award.

The Color of Love, which shared the Full Frame Spectrum Award with Arturo Perez Torres' Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary, was a big audience and critical favorite. For its Iranian-born director, Maryam Keshavarz, who lives in New York, the reward was making Americans realize that Iranian women are modern, though more circumspect than Western women. The film explores the roles and rules of love among the Iranian middle class, and makes us evaluate of our own perceptions about courtship and marriage in the 21st century.

Ironically, Susan Stern's The Self-Made Man, which won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, is a splendid rebuttal to the hypocritical governmental concern over the Terri Schiavo case. Stern's father decides to commit suicide after he learns that he has a terminal illness, a decision that is discussed with his family, including daughter Susan. This film will be shown on PBS' P.O.V. series this summer.

Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, follows a group of paraplegic athletes in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. This inspiring film won the Full Frame Grand Jury Award.

Three retrospectives were presented this year. The notorious and legendary Michael Cimino western Heaven's Gate (1981) was trotted out, along with the documentary The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, the 2004 documentary by Michael Epstein. Martin Scorsese presented an afternoon interview with Italian documentary filmmaker Vittorio De Seta, now in his 80s. His classic hybrid documentary-style Bandits of Orgosolo (1960) was shown, along with seven 10-minute short documentaries from the 1950s, mostly about fisherman on the islands around Sicily. Remarkably, these never-before-seen-in-America documentaries were produced in Cinemascope and color, and were shown as featurettes accompanying feature films.

An evening with Scorsese was presented, in conversation with Buirski. A pristine print of The Last Waltz (1978) was shown later that evening. Buirski stated in her introduction that Scorsese enjoys the rare distinction of being both popular with audiences and critically esteemed.

The Full Frame Career Achievement Awards were given this year to Ken Burns and Ric Burns, brothers but not filmmaking partners. Since Ken was stranded in Dallas because of stormy weather, Ric had the evening to himself and accepted for both of them.

The panels, except for one with leading Kultur/Culture: Turkish filmmakers and programmers, The Turkish American Exchange Project, were not particularly illuminating. The filmmakers were Nurdan Arca, Ozgar Arik, Ersan Ocak, Murad Ozdemir, Sehbal Senyurt and Mustafa Unlu. Speak Out: Risky Business had a distinguished powerhouse panel consisting of Sheila Nevins, president, HBO Documentary and Family; producer Alex Gibney; Michael Oreskes, deputy managing editor of The New York Times; Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company; and David Lange, professor of law at Duke University--all of whom expressed dismay at the witchhunting Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which imposes fines on television stations for "obscenity." Lange posited that Congress was responsible for prodding the FCC for purely political purposes.

The scheduling of events at Full Frame is still a mess. Over 90 films are spread out over four days and four sites, one of which requires a bus or hiking boots to reach. Full Frame should be a time of discovery, seeing films on topics one would not ordinarily encounter. Instead, faced with a plethora of choices, one opts to see a predictable choice, according to one's previously formed tastes. And that defeats the whole purpose of Full Frame.

What is the answer? I don't know. Perhaps have the panels on one day, perhaps repeat films as other festivals do. The way the system works now is cutthroat campaigning. The more aggressive participants buttonhole the reporters, urging the reporter to see their films rather than a competing film. I personally can sympathize with the filmmaker, and appreciate the forthright stand, but I also realize that a filmmaker with a language problem is at a disadvantage. The money stakes are too high, and ultimately it is Full Frame that profits.


Kevin Lewis is a contributing editor to International Documentary, a contributing writer to Editors Guild Magazine and a writer for the DGA Magazine and Film History.