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Its Cup Runneth Over: Full Frame Festival Chock-Full of Choices

By Kevin Lewis

Mir Hussein, subject of Phil Grabsky's 'The Boy Who Plays on The Buddhas of Bamiyan'. Photo: Phil Grabsky

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is arguably the Cannes of documentary film festivals. It has always been a very polished organization, largely because its founder and director, Nancy Buirski, has been able to harness the clout she wielded from her days as a photo editor with The New York Times and bring it with her to Durham, North Carolina. Beginning as DoubleTake in 1998, the festival changed its name to Full Frame three years ago.

How has the festival succeeded? Buirski credits the high intellectual base in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area for its interest in nonfiction filmmaking. The festival gets financial backing and gifts-in-kind from the area arts councils, businesses and newspapers, as well as hefty support from HBO. Indeed, several HBO documentaries, including the superb Born into Brothels (Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, prods./dirs) and Jockey (Kate Davis, prod./dir.) were featured this year. Opening night was the premiere of Elaine Stritch at Liberty (Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, DA Pennebaker, Andy Pichta, dirs.).

The seventh Full Frame, held April 1-4, was a record-breaker in terms of attendance, according to Buirski. In any event, it was certainly the most packed with films, panels and celebrity guests. A whopping 97 films in five theaters, 60 of which were in competition for the awards, competed for the attention of the festival-goers. In addition, the first three nights offered successively an evening with Elaine Strich, Pennebaker, Hedegus and Chris Hunt; a one-man show by Michael Moore; and a Q&A with Harry Shearer, moderated by Kurt Luders. Marcel Ophuls, the 2004 Career Award honoree, was ill, so he could not participate in his retrospective. Regardless, the mind went into flux with all the choices.

The Shearer and Moore evenings, though entertaining, disappointed some who wanted to learn how these filmmakers create. Much was made of The Simpsons with the voice of Shearer, and Moore seemed to come to campaign for the Democratic Party. Though clips from each of these filmmakers' work were shown, there was no analysis of the craft. Moore made much of the fact that he sacrificed 36 hours of editing Fahrenheit 9/11 to save us from the Republicans, but a clip from the documentary on the effects of 9/11 on America would have been appreciated. Funding and distribution for Fahrenheit 911 was yanked by Icon, owned by Mel Gibson, allegedly because of the film's opposition to President George W. Bush. (Editor's note: As we went to press, there was controversy over the Walt Disney Company's refusal to distribute the film, which its Miramax subsidiary financed, purportedly for the same reason.)

The most controversial event of the festival was the showing of an excerpt from the forthcoming 50/50 A Case Study , an experimental film that follows the agony of a woman with Huntington's Disease who wants to have a baby. Since many of the people in the film were real people with real illnesses, the audience was first shocked, then angered when they found out that the woman and her sadly unsupportive husband were actors. Executive producer Barry Levinson was not there, so Tom Fontana, the other executive producer, took the heat along with producer/director Ted Bogosian. One audience member remarked, "We just don't want our reality messed with." No attempt to explain that all film reality is "messed with" would pacify those who felt violated by this "experimental form." The unlabeled, misunderstood mixing of actors with actual people definitely got in the way of this audience being able to see the benefits of such an approach when dealing with the highly volatile and extremely private subject of "genetic engineering." Bogosian expressed his surprise to International Documentary that the audience could not appreciate the experiment in hybrid filmmaking.

One of the featured panels at Full Frame was Hybrid: A New Film Form, moderated by Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of the department of film at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The panelists included Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and Family, Jessica Yu (whose film In the Realm of the Unreal screened at the festival), Julia King (American Splendor ), R.J. Cutler (American Candidate ) and Fontana. As an almost a backhand reproach to the hybrid form, Nevins remarked, "The most successful documentaries have been the most conventional," to the surprise of her colleagues.

But the genesis of Hybrid: A New Film Form was based in the perception that even fiction film has roots in documentary, a point stretched by Bandy by her inclusion of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), not thought of as possessing documentary elements. "Marty is a documentarian at heart," stated Bandy. She believes that the hybrid, a mixture of documentary and fiction, has been a part of the film medium since the beginnings, revealed in its earliest days in location shooting on streets and in the films of Robert Flaherty. Bandy showed Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1948) as part of the program.

Yu's In the Realm of the Unreal was a hybrid of a different sort—that of animation and documentary. The film tells the story of a functional, but reclusive Chicago man by the name of Henry Darger. When he died in 1972, his landlords entered his room and found a 15,000-page, copiously illustrated novel that no one knew existed. Yu captures simultaneously the outward existence of this lonely old man and treats us to an unveiling of his inner fascinations and obsessions through the animation of his novel illustrations. These detail in rich, often bizarre fantasy, the struggle of the heroic Vivian girl princesses against the evil Glandelinian army. These sections of the film look a lot like Tolkien on mystic mushrooms, but graphically reveal how much cultural life can sometimes flow beneath the surface of everyday lives.

The film winning the most Full Frame awards was Jehane Noujaim's Control Room , set in the newsroom of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. The film dissects in detail the attitudes of the Middle East toward the United States' declaration of war on Iraq. In particular, the film crystallizes in labyrinthine, Graham Greene-style the mixed emotions and beliefs of two nations by juxtaposing Hassan Ibrahim, an Al Jazeera reporter, with Lieutenant Rushing, a United States Central Command spokesman.

Another award-winning doc of a political nature was The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyn. Set in the ruins of the 1600-year-old Buddhas blown up in 2001 by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the film tells the story of an eight-year-old boy, Mir, and his family. But it is also about refugees and about those of us who directly and indirectly create those refugees. Shot solely by London filmmaker Phil Grabsky, the film has both a beauty and sensitivity that is special—particularly in the stunning images of rugged mountains and valleys, used to separate the intensely personal footage of Mir and his tribulations. The film seems to say this daunting terrain will remain long after our relatively fragile human civilization is gone. The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyn won an honorable mention in the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award category.

Another technological milestone was reached this year at Full Frame. Emerging Pictures, a digital exhibition initiative, teamed with the festival to bring 10 of the 96 films in the festival to five cities in simultaneous showings. The plan is to reach 20 cities. Audiences at the Sarasota Film Society in Burns Court, Florida; the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan; the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska; and West Virginia College in Charleston, West Virginia all saw films beamed to them from the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Ira Deutchman, Emerging Picture's president, commented, "Full Frame is the poster child for the type of organization we want to work with: the most prestigious and most successful festival in any given niche—in this case, the documentary world."

The most discussed symposium was in some ways the most depressing. Sponsored by Duke University Law School, Culture on the Cutting Room Floor: How Law Shapes Documentary Film, for Better and Worse, reveals why polls give low approval ratings to lawyers. Appropriately, the panel was part of Framed: How Law Constructs and Constrains Culture. As Hedegus stated, fear of lawsuits forces filmmakers to self-censor themselves. Music rights are the big stick, and securing them can be a gun to the head by the copyright owner. Hedegus, who makes documentaries with her husband, the legendary Pennebaker, showed a scene from , which she directed with Noujaim. At one point, a guy starts singing a few bars from a Billy Joel song. Hedegus didn't use the footage as shot, and had to alter it to bypass nuisance lawsuits.

An even more ridiculous example was given by Orlando Bagwell concerning the classic PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize . That landmark series cannot be rebroadcast because of legal threats from those depicted in the newsreel footage and in interviews. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice nightmare, the situation repeats itself and negotiations begin anew. Bagwell's new film Citizen King was shown at Full Frame and covers the same territory—the Civil Rights movement. He said that securing the rights to historic footage was artistically constricting.

The depressing element of the symposium was the discussion by attorneys John Sloss and Eric Saltzman about the legal limits and ramifications of fair use. Sloss represented Super Size Me , Morgan Spurlock's expos of McDonald's, and surprised everyone by stating the film was protected under Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance from litigants—except McDonald's. That omission was circumvented, however, by McDonald's, which, fearing bad publicity, eliminated the Super Size meal from its menu.

Both Sloss and Saltzman admitted that the limits of fair use of footage and songs is a murky area and requires a lawyer. A filmmaker needs to buy E & O insurance to protect the film from lawsuits. But there is Catch 22; why would a filmmaker include something that could jeopardize the film? Like Hedegus, he or she would just alter or eliminate the material. If lawyers could define precisely what fair use entails and set clearly designated parameters on it, filmmakers would be free to make statements and include material that journalists and writers use as a matter of course under editorial usage rules. From the jocular manner in which the lawyers on the panel discussed this, that will not be the case soon.

Though the political documentaries, like Control Room , or the exposé films, such as Super Size Me , were the prizewinners and buzz films, there were many other quiet documentaries on timeless subjects that may have a longer appeal than the topical ones. Un Modle pour Matisse: Histoire de la Chapelle du Rosaire Vence, by Philadelphian Barbara F. Freed, was a sweet, wry and poignant Pagnolian story of Henri Matisse and his platonic but deep love for a Dominican nun. In fact, he built and designed Vence Chapel for her. Freed interviewed the octogenarian Sister Jaques Marie, who had modeled for Matisse in 1942 when she was his nurse, and could outmug Michel Simon in expressing raised-eyebrow thoughts on alternative love.

Another film on alternative love is The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story, directed by Josh Aronson. Rene, who was present with co-producers Linda York and Francine Bergman at the screening, and is one of the most masculine guys you'd ever meet, was a woman before his operation. In fact, everyone in his California town thought he, his wife and their adopted children were a traditional nuclear family. Beautifully and fluidly shot, with graphic depictions of growing a penis, this is a classic in the making.


Kevin Lewis has written for DGA Magazine, Film History, Films in Review and the Irish Voice. He contributed to the Critical Edition of Body and Soul, published by California State University, Northridge.