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The Dawning of a New Decade: Full Frame Unspools with New Team at the Top

By Ron Sutton

A significant moment occurred on the opening night of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina earlier this month, when writer Ariel Dorfman presided over a fitting and lovely tribute to Nancy Buirski, the festival's founder. Lauded for her decade of insight and effort, Buirski will continue as an advisor to the festival. "I intend to stay actively involved in Full Frame's future development," she said.

The new Full Frame team is led by executive director Peg Palmer, who had served as one of Buirski's assistants in earlier years. Asked about this year's festival, Palmer felt it was a "huge success" and was proud the event had "hosted an eclectic audience of filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world."

Palmer was quick to praise her outstanding veteran staff, including managing director Robin Yigit Smith and director of programming Phoebe Brush. She cited Ted Mott as the "masterful and experienced" production director and praised Israel Ehrisman's handling of ticketing logistics. She felt that Samantha Coles did an excellent job as the newly named communications director.

The first festival film was a special Thursday morning screening of Lucy Walker's Blindsight in the beautiful Carolina Theater, attended by over 500 Durham high school students. Nearly 100 films, seen by close to 29,000 ticket holders, were screened over the four days of the festival, at six different venues. An encore screening of the award-winning Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, dirs.) brought the festival to a close.

The Opening Night film was the much anticipated Trumbo, Peter Askin's documentary on the life of legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. A two-time Academy Award-winner, Trumbo was perhaps better known as one of the "Hollywood Ten" who opposed the very "Un-American" activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.

Basing his film on a play by Trumbo's son, Christopher, Askin has fashioned an eloquent profile of this complex, talented, acerbic and prophetic writer. Grounded in Trumbo's own words--from his many letters and interviews--the most impressive technique in the film is having actors such as Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, Michael Douglas, Josh Lucas, Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn address the audience directly. What emerges is a dramatic portrait of a "man of great wit, courage and integrity."

Similar to Trumbo, The Black List uses direct address to the audience throughout. The stunning, mesmerizing imagery is the work of director and acclaimed portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. The film consists of a series of interviews by film critic and producer Elvis Mitchell with 20 prominent African-American artists, CEOs, politicians, athletes and activists. The ingenious double camera photography lends the impression of an ongoing conversation between the viewer and such figures as Chris Rock, Vernon Jordan, Susan Rice, Toni Morrison, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and others. The play on the term "Black List" is both clever and relevant, given the current US Presidential campaign. The film redefines what it means in 21st century America to be on the "Black List."

The panel discussion on "The State of the Doc" was ably and crisply chaired by Liz Ogilive (Docurama Films). The panelists were Molly Thompson (A&E IndieFilms), Nancy Abraham (HBO Documentary Films), Christopher Black (Starz Entertainment), Tom Quinn (Magnolia Pictures), Greg Kendall (Balcony Releasing) and Tom Zadra (Red Envelope Entertainment/Neflix).

It was briefly noted that the current state of documentary film could be characterized as "doom and gloom." This seemed especially true of theatrical releases; the panel made reference to the "Bubble of '05," and suggested that aiming for theatrical distribution might not be the wisest financial approach for today's doc filmmakers. A few of the panelists noted that audiences are consuming films differently today; there is and perhaps always will be the theater experience, but more common for documentaries, and with far more "available eyeballs," are TV, DVD, community screenings and streaming video. Regarding the latter, Zadra of Red Envelope noted that Helvetica had 120,000 hits in four months-60,000 in the streaming format.

When asked about the aesthetic implications of watching a filmmaker's work on an iPod, the panelists responded, somewhat dismissively, that "consumers drive, shape and determine the market." Little concern was shown for the aesthetics of the image. Filmmakers were told, "If it works on a 13-inch Mac, then you know it works." There was no definition given as to what "works" meant.

Of the 43 films I managed to see, it was a trio of docs about women that most captured my heart and mind. My Daughter the Terrorist, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Beate Arnestad, profiles two young women, Dharsika and Puhalchudar, who have trained over seven years to be suicide bombers for the Tamil Tigers, a guerilla group in Sri Lanka. Through video shown to one of the girl's mothers, we gain insight into what caused these young women to make their choices. While inseparable companions, each would kill the other if she betrayed Tamil Nationalism. Arnestad, who lived in Sri Lanka for three years, told me that since Norway helped broker a truce in the region, she had unusual access to the Tigers--and, through them, to the young women. Despite several calls and e-mails from the Embassy of Sri Lanka to the Full Frame Festival staff, the programmers went ahead with the screening.

Another riveting film for me was Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. This courageous Kenyan woman's story begins simply enough: The women in her village had no wood to gather for their cooking and heating needs due to deforestation, so Wangari taught them to plant trees. This simple action evolved into The Greenbelt Movement and eventually was instrumental in toppling a corrupt government in Kenya. The footage captured and skillfully assembled by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater depicts the gradual empowerment of the disenfranchised women, and Wangari's bravery in some very dangerous situations. The film concludes with Wangari receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

A third exceptionally pertinent film about women was Lioness. Ably directed and produced by Meg McLagen and Daria Sommers, this film gently but firmly uncovers the untold story that, despite congressional rules to the contrary, women have been used in combat situations in Iraq. Though untrained in combat operations, these women have become part of an operation informally dubbed Team Lioness and have served side by side with their male counterparts on quite dangerous missions. Desperately needed to search Iraqi women and calm their hysteria on house to house raids, the Lioness team members are often actively involved in deadly fire fights, graphically illustrated in the film. The filmmakers are not so much interested in pointing fingers of blame as insisting that if women are to be used in such situations, they should be given appropriate training, clear acknowledgement of their combat service and, if needed, appropriate treatment on returning home.

There were other films that showed both achievement and promise: Alex Jablonski's clever and effective What Do We Want, When Do We Want It; the sad, yet positive La Corona, by Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega; the challenging work on "historical truth" by John Valadez, The Last Conquistador; Renee Tajima-Pena's moving and elegiac Calavera Highway; Joshua Weinstein's impressive and heartfelt first film, Flying on One Engine; and Hugo Perez's haunting literary film on World War II Hungarian poet Nikolas Radnoti entitled Neither Memory or Magic. Many talented filmmakers gathered with lively, concerned audiences, which is exactly the goal of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

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