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Four Days of Docs at Full Frame

By Ron Sutton

"101 documentaries in four days! You've got to be kidding!"

From April 8 through 11 in Durham, North Carolina, thousands of people came to see the 13th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. They didn't care whether the films were New ocs in Competition (57), docs in the Thematic Program of Labor & Work (18), docs by the Career Award honorees (seven), or the Invited films (19). Attendees bought tickets, stood in line, saw films and talked about them with anyone who would listen. 

The films came from 27 different countries, and over 50 filmmakers were in attendance, eagerly receiving immediate feedback in lively Q & A sessions. Quite a few filmmakers were presenting their first festival film. Full Frame's compact, easy-going, laid-back southern environment seems supportive and nurturing to a beginning filmmaker.   

I attended with interest all the films featured in the festival's Center Frame program:

--Kings of Pastry is quite brilliantly conceived, shot and presented by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker. Its story follows, in cinema vérité fashion, the ultimately unsuccessful quest of American chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago, to win the coveted MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) Award signifying he is one of the top pastry chefs in the world.

--Do It Again is a shaggy dog tale of another failed quest: the efforts of  film producer Geoff Edgars to reunite the Kinks, a screwed-up but influential rock band from the British Invasion of the 1960s. The film, directed by Robert Patton-Spruill, is really about making a film!

---Everything is Going Fine is Stephen Soderbergh's portrait of  "notoriously candid" monologist Spalding Gray. The film is entertaining and well put-together, but it left me with some uneasy feelings about laughing at what was an obviously mentally ill person making fun of his rather tragic life (Gray struggled with depression, and ultimately committed suicide in 2004.). 

While these three films were entertaining and extremely well-attended, for me they were a bit fluffy and self-centered, relatively oblivious to a world in need of redemption. I found that concern to transform elsewhere in films such as:

--Sun Comes Up, a look by Jennifer Redfern and Tim Metzger at the plight of the Carteret Island people, whose home island is being flooded by the South Pacific due to climate change. The film's focus is on the desperate and complicated search in nearby Bougainville for land to relocate thousands of Carteret natives who will soon be homeless. 

--Promised Land presents the excruciatingly difficult problem of land reform in South Africa. Filmmaker Yoruba Richen takes us into two specific land claim cases in this legal and emotional mine field. He introduces us to natives whose families were forced from their land in 1913 by apartheid, as well as white settlers who have apparently proper deeds to the property that has been in their family for generations. Despite repeated promises by the government, only six percent of South African land is in black native hands.

--Enemies of the People won the coveted Anne Dellinger Grand Jury. This work, co- directed and co-produced by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambetha, reveals the amazing 10-year effort by Sambeth, a Cambodian journalist, to get Pol Pot's second-in-command, Nuon Che, to break his 30-year silence and admit he had given the orders that led, to the torture and murder of two million people from 1975 to 1979. Sambetha takes us to those infamous "killing fields." It is from the lips of now remorseful men who did the killing that we hear the horrible story of what they did on the order of their superiors.


From Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambteha's Enemies of the People.



--My Perestroika by Robin Hessman follows the lives of five classmates against the backdrop of the USSR's break-up in 1991. These now middle-aged citizens, raised on a steady diet of communist propaganda, offer their reflections on today's Russia.  Conceived and edited with skill and feeling, this work gives us a fresh look at this changing country.

---Summer Pasture is a compassionate, honest look at the lives of a yak-herding family in the Kham area of Tibet. Lynn True and Nelson Walker have captured the hardship and the genuine love this young couple have for one another and their life "following the yak's tail." Whether they will continue this way of life or move to the city and a very different life is the question posed by this beautiful and sensitive film.

--Family Affair, a first film by Chico Colvard, like the feature work, Precious, is a difficult film to watch and discuss. The story is simple: A young boy accidentally shoots his sister in the leg. She mistakenly believes she is going to die, and she forces her sister to tell their mother that their father has been sexually abusing the three of them for years. Colvard had struggled with the film for nine years; filmmaker Liz Garbus came on board as a producer and helped him complete the project. Family Affair is his attempt as an adult to understand his family members' respective roles, in the past and present, to reconcile themselves to the events "caused" by his accident.    


From Chico Colvard's Family Affair.



 Those were my six favorites, but there were other films that exhibited artistry and concern:

--Wasteland, winner of the Audience Award, is an amazing story by Lucy Walker about the artist Vik Muniz's work with and for the garbage pickers of Brazil's Jardin Gramacho, the largest land fill in the world.  What these people do with what others discard is amazing!

--No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, is an examination, by Steve James, of the trial of Iverson that took place in their mutual home town of Hampton, Virgina, in 1993. The film masterfully captures issues and arguments about racism in Virginia and the US then, as well as the issues that surround Iverson now as a superstar of the NBA. 

The festival's Career Award this year honored Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy, of Moxie Firecracker Films. In a tribute led by Nancy Abraham, senior vice president of HBO Documentary Films, clips were shown from some of the 30 films that Garbus and Kennedy have made over the last 12 years. The Full Frame program included a total of seven of their works: The Farm: Angola, USA (1998), American Hollow (1999), The Execution of Wanda Jean (2002), A Boy's Life (2003), Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), The Fence (2009) and Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech (2009).

Full Frame offered two panels this year on the State of the Documentary. I attended the first one, and the panelists gave excellent advice and concise answers to the questions asked by the mostly filmmaker audience. The panels were both moderated by project consultant Michelle Byrd, who for 12 years served as executive director of Independent Film Project. Gita Pullapilly, producer of last year's Audience Award-winner, The Way We Get By, provided an excellent case study on both funding and distribution rights. These topics were the main focus of the panel, with a few modest digressions toward ideas and aesthetics.

The curators of the Thematic Program this year were Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. Their moving film, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject category, and, interestingly enough, the Thematic Program was supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The five pages Reichert and Bognar had written for the program booklet was surpassed only by the 18 films they had selected, as well as the title they had created for their program: "Chair-Making, Pole-Dancing, Coal-Mining, Cart-Pushing Films on Work and Labor." I was only able to attend the first film in the series, Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer's The Wobblies (1979), though I had previously seen The Global Assembly Line (1989), whose maker, Lorraine Gray, was one of my students at American University. Talking with the curators after many of the films was an added treat for Full Frame attendees.

For me, though, the heart of the festival resided in two films: Restrepo and How To Fold a Flag. Both films deal with military service, and together they made quite an impression on the audience, as well as the judges, in Restrepo's case. Directed and produced by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm), Restrepo won a Special Grand Jury Prize and an Honorable Mention in the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award category.

Restrepo is the "up-close-and-personal" story of a unit of soldiers fighting in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Its footage leaves you breathless as the filmmakers, firmly and completely embedded in the unit, record the daily lives of these men at this remote and advanced outpost dubbed Restrepo. Named in honor of a fallen comrade, its high-ground position protects the lower base camp known as the KOP from fire by the Taliban.

The filmmakers show the boring, everyday life that often engulfs the outpost, as well as the harrowing gunfire the soldiers regularly receive and return. The film also documents their meeting with villagers, who live in precarious houses that seem to cling by threads to the harsh mountainsides. In this battle for the hearts and minds of these isolated people, you can sense the tension and danger involved in merely discussing the taking of one of the villager's cows. 

The filmmakers follow the men on dangerous patrols that fall under attack from the Taliban. It is an attack they ultimately repel, but not without cost. Interspersed with the uncompromising footage of life at the outpost are full-face interviews with some of the men, filmed in Italy, their rest-and-recovery stop before going home. How they feel about what they have faced and endured is riveting, as you think of them picking up their lives in the US again. A dozen or so of the men attended the Saturday night screening at Full Frame and enjoyed a warm reunion with Hetherington, who handled the Q & A.


From Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo.


The feature-length film's theatrical and broadcast rights are with National Geographic Films, with a July roll-out date planned, following the May publication of Junger's book on the subject. 

The next and last day, I saw How to Fold a Flag, by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker.  Tucker was present for the Q & A with Jon Powers and Javron Drummond, two of the four men depicted in the film. The story here is really a follow up to Epperlein and Tucker's Gunner Palace, which features these men fighting in Iraq in 2003 and '04.

The carefully chosen footage depicts in detail what has happened to these four men since they came home from the war. 

  • Jon Powers became a Democratic candidate for Congress trying "to help the American people reclaim their country." 
  • Michael Goss has become a "cage fighter" in an attempt to ward off depression caused by his horror-filled experiences in the military. 
  • Wilf Stuart is a "death metal guitarist" who works nights in a convenience store, where, as he puts it, he serves "dickheads."   
  • Javron Drummond, who works in the biggest Swift Company hog-processing plant in the country, is working on a degree at Fayetteville University in North Carolina. 

There is one more soldier in the film, 1st Lt. Ben Colgan, who didn't come home to his peace activist parents, Joe and Pat. Well, he did come home--but in a coffin.

The film takes its name from the ceremonial folding of the flag presented to the bereaved next of kin. It is both a tribute and a call for continuing help. Some of the thought-provoking, sobering words from the film still reverberate with me: "I feel there are ghosts out there--reminders for the forgotten."..."I'm messed up."..."I don't know what normal is."..."You come back to what you leave."..."Yeah, I think about suicide, but I work through it...with a friend."  


Wilf Stuart, one of the subjects in Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's How to Fold a Flag.



Asked by an audience member whether the saying, "We appreciate your service" is meaningful to them, both veterans said yes and suggested the person add, "Welcome home."

With a new executive director, Deirdre Haj, in place and another successful festival under its belt, I would say Full Frame is in good shape for the coming year and beyond.


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