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The Docs of Durham: Full Frame Presents Four Days of Nonfiction

By Ron Sutton

Central among the 106 films screened at the 15th edition of the Durham, North Carolina-based Full Frame Documentary Film Festival were films addressing socio-political problems. Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, from Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, was the best of them. It is a balanced but penetrating analysis that illuminates the wrong-headedness of our present system, posing the question, Has health care in the US become a disease management system, rather than a system that treats not just symptoms but the underlying causes of disease? Paying physicians for the number of patients they see per hour and punishing them for keeping their patients healthy through preventative measures is an example of our present system's shortcomings. Escape Fire won the festival's Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights.


From Michael Heineman and Susan Froemke's Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare


 Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In examines the decades-long War on Drugs, outlining the origins and intricacies of this multi-billion-dollar crusade that has incarcerated millions of US citizens (many unjustly), and has failed to alter the status quo. The film illustrates one definition of madness: "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to change."

The biblical story of David and Goliath comes to mind watching Big Boys Gone Bananas*. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten faces professional defamation by the "suits" at the Dole Food Company. Bananas*, the 2009 film on which Big Boys is based, reported on a lawsuit won by Nicaraguan migrant workers against Dole's illegal use of banned pesticides. Dole officials refused to watch the film, yet they attempted to suppress its LA Film Festival premiere and attack the filmmaker's reputation with lies and law suits. Big Boys Gone Bananas* is a beautiful, engaging story that teaches us much about the ultimate power of the consumer to change history. 

The early 1980s saw a striking increase in the number of AIDS cases. David France's How to Survive a Plague deals with the history of that epidemic. People who should have responded immediately to this scourge sat on their hands. Their lethargy and inaction prompted the formation of two coalitions--ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), which launched a dual-pronged strategy. highly visible public protests and quiet infiltration into the scientific community to help steer research toward a possible cure. The film, composed almost entirely of archival footage, is exceptionally well-constructed, and a beautiful testament to people who won't give up in the face of near insurmountable odds.

Directed by Durham native Macky Alston, Love Free or Die is a call for the inclusion of the LGBT community into the life of the Christian Church. The focus is on Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. He was the first openly gay, non-celibate bishop in the Episcopal Church of America. His ordination and personal ministry have become a matter of controversy for the Anglican Communion worldwide. The film gently but firmly explores this explosive issue.  

Ross McElwee, a pioneer in the personal documentary genre, curated Full Frame's thematic program, this year entitled "Family Affairs." The program included the rarely seen Diaries, an intimate, personal memoir by Ed Pincus, who presided over the Q&A session that followed the screening. McElwee also premiered his newest film, Photographic Memories, a sensitive exploration of the rift between himself and his teenage son, Adrian. Both father and son discussed their positive and negative feelings about the film in the Q&A session.


Ross McElwee (right) with his son Adrian, discussing Ross' latest film, Photographic Memories. Photo: Charlottte Claypool


Ron Fricke's Samsara (the Tibetan word for "ever-turning wheel") was the most memorable and beautiful film I saw at Full Frame. Its magnificent cascade of stunning, jaw-dropping, OMG images was mesmerizing, and its haunting, wordless soundtrack held me in its grip. I sat through the lengthy credits in an attempt to determine the source of these enormously powerful sequences: the detention center dancers, the thousand young men performing martial arts in unison, the extraordinary buildings, the close-up of a ferocious volcano. Fricke, one of the cinematographers on Goddfrey Riggio's legendary Koyaanisqatsi, filmed Samsara in 70mm over a period of four years in 25 countries on five continents.

Featuring both adventure and scientific advancement, Chasing Ice, from Jeff Orlowski, focuses on National Geographic photographer James Balog's Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).  Balog and his assistants miraculously mount dozens of cameras that photograph retreating glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska.Through the ingenious use of time-lapse photography over a period of years, the EIS  presents eyewitness results that make any argument denying global warming quite laughable. Chasing Ice won the festival's Nicholas School Environmental Award.


From Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice. Photo: James Balog.


Full Frame's Audience Award went to Andrew Garrison's Trash Dance, a performance film featuring the men and women of the Austin, Texas Department of Solid Waste Services! Choreographer Allison Orr spent a year interacting on a near daily basis with these "trash men and women." She worked alongside them; gained their trust and solicited their ideas and participation. The climax is a rousing, successful, outdoor public performance, highlighted by the graceful, balletic movements of the workers and their gargantuan trash vehicles. 


From Andrew Garrison's Trash Dance


A film combining biography and live performance, Neil Berkeley's Beauty Is Embarrassing follows the life and times of Wayne White---designer, painter, puppeteer, sculptor, musician and raconteur. From Pee-wee's Playhouse through Little Miss Sunshine and Beakman's World to his infamous/famous Word Paintings, White's  creative, iconoclastic, wild self shines through all he does. In a freewheeling, off-the-cuff interview with both men at a nearby Durham baseball park, Berkeley confessed, "Wayne was like a box. I just kept pulling stuff out." 

Full Frame attendees were buzzing about Seth Keal's CatCam, largely due to the appearance of its star, Mr. Lee, on You Tube. The feline "actor/photographer" shows what cats do when they are out and about on their own. A thoroughly delightful short film, it underscores the creativity of the owner, who fashions a camcorder for Mr. Lee's collar that captures some amazing images. 

Full Frame also offered the oddly named Speakeasy Panels, sponsored by A&E IndieFilms. Well organized and well attended, these free forums dealt with a range of topics, from "Free Speech" with filmmakers Judith Erlich, Bernardo Ruiz and Fredrik Gertten to "New Day Films: How to Start a Distribution Company" with New Day founders Liane Brandon,  Jim Klein, Julia Reichert and Amalie Rothschild. All Speakeasy sessions began with free drinks. "The Academy Discussion" panel featured just one person: Michael Moore. He appeared via Skype in a standing-room-only discussion moderated by Chris Hegedus about the new guidelines regarding qualification for the Academy Awards. 

Full Frame isn't just a festival; under the leadership of executive director Deirdre Haj, it has accomplished the following:

  • established an archive of award-winning documentaries at Duke University. Eighty-four film masters are kept in a secure, climate-controlled storage facility, made available for individual research on site only.
  • developed a year-round program that includes: a "Teach the Teacher" program; a "School of Doc" five-week summer camp for teens; and the Full Frame Fellows Program, which this year allowed 150 college and university students from 13 different schools to participate in the festival.
  • created a "vault" of previously screened documentaries. Full Frame presented 14 of them in two free outdoor screening events in Durham Central Park.


Ron Sutton is professor emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.