Full Frame Earns Renown as Filmmakers' Festival
By Angelica Das
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earned its reputation as the "filmmakers' festival" by becoming a showcase for powerfully intimate stories, most often about people. "Character-driven" can be a redundant quality when it comes to most modern documentaries, but Full Frame distinguishes both its films and its own character as "bold, personal and very brave." This was how programming director Sadie Tillery introduced Darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal, which went on to win both the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Awards.
Evolution didn't stand out in originality as much as it did in the filmmaker's willingness to face his demons. A recent NYU graduate, Monroe kept the story of his film from his own professors for fear of judgment. He turns the camera on himself and his family to challenge their collective remorse in his decision to rob a bank with two others at age 17. While engaging in his own moment of self-definition, Monroe succeeds in a much larger mission of challenging audience assumptions of what it means to be a convicted felon.
Challenging assumptions about character was a connective thread, whether it's the character of a criminal or, in the case of Doug Block's feature, the character of marriage. The opening night audience met 112 Weddings with such uproarious laughter that at times it drowned out the audio. After years of turning the camera on himself and on his family, Block turned to one of his sources of income: wedding videos. The result: "Happily ever after is complicated." Couples of varying ages revealed comical and sometimes deeply painful challenges to the reality of married life, particularly with the addition of children. For Block as a wedding videographer, the biggest moment for his subjects was when they turned and faced the world for the first time as a married couple. 112 Weddings takes us on that journey.
For one minority in America, the challenge is squarely in the journey to the wedding itself. In an appropriate bookend to opening night, Saturday evening's Center Frame was The Case Against 8, about the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court. The film opens on a snowy day in March 2013 outside the US Supreme Court—a scene familiar to most news consumers. But the real story lay in 600 hours of footage shot over five years. That story is of two unlikely lawyers and two daring couples who were willing to make their lives public in order to overturn Proposition 8 in California. For Kris and Sandy, Proposition 8 meant receiving a letter declaring that their previously legal marriage no longer existed. For Paul and Jeff, not being able to get married meant they were second-class citizens. Both couples are now legally married.
The swell of victory for the marriage-equality lawsuit was bittersweet for the North Carolina audience, where same-sex marriage is banned. Directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White made it clear that the real vision for their film was to help turn the tide in the 33 states that don't yet have marriage equality.
This kind of communal emotional ride is part of what motivates audiences at documentary film festivals, and Full Frame has a solid local following. The Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) has been supporting filmmakers for 12 years, and four of their sponsored films were in this year's festival, including The Case Against 8. Celebrating the local is part of the substantial appeal to filmmakers, and a point of pride for the festival itself. DamNation director and Chapel Hill local Ben Knight said it had been his dream for 10 years to screen a film at Full Frame. The final day of the festival included a popular filmmaker destination: SDF works-in-progress screenings. Additional in-progress work screened alongside In Country, Mike Attie and Meghan O'Hara's finished piece on Vietnam War re-enactments in deep-woods Oregon, and a previous recipient of the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant.
Filmmakers also flocked to the A&E Indiefilms Speakeasy conversations. In the true spirit of Southern hospitality, these free lively discussions welcomed guests with bagels and juice in the morning, and popcorn and Moonshine in the afternoon. A regular fixture in the room was the creative mind behind the discussion topics, festival director Dierdre Haj. Haj's steadfast and guiding presence helped to solidify the collegial atmosphere of the Speakeasies.
Among the many takeaways:
• Hold off on signing away VOD rights if you are looking for other distribution.
• Your film doesn’t have to be a social-issue doc to be broadcast.
• Production value matters.
• Focus on the story, not why a funder should care about your subject.
• Vimeo is also a filmmaking community.
• You have to watch films to make films.
• Make a good movie that just happens to be a documentary.
The first of the Speakeasies was "Short Cuts," on short films, an art form much less available to theater audiences, but one in which Full Frame excels. First-time filmmaker Luke Lorentzen, a student at Stanford University, impressed viewers with Santa Cruz del Islote. Splendid cinematography immerses the audience below and above crystal blue waters surrounding one of the most densely populated islands in the world. The fisherman narrator never speaks directly to the camera; you instead see the island through his eyes, simultaneously bright and desolate. Lorentzen came away with the Full Frame President's Award.
The beauty of films like Santa Cruz del Islote is in their brevity, sometimes doing away with the narrative arch that guides features so strictly and placing the emphasis on portrait and creativity. The Chaperone, from Fraser Munden and Neil Rathbone, uses quirky animation and puppetry to tell a decades-old story of teachers at a dance that gets interrupted by a biker gang. In Steve Bognar's Foundry Night Shift, the heat of molten ore blazes from the screen as we watch in under five minutes the production of steel frames for Steinway pianos. And in another nod to North Carolina, we meet a native, Ronald, or Joe Maggard, the actor who played Ronald McDonald for 12 years, in John Dower's Ronald.
Another quirky portrait piece came from Lucy Walker, the curator of this year's Thematic Program, "Approaches to Character." Walker took guilty pleasure in programming her own short, David Hockney IN THE NOW (in six minutes). In a sweet introduction, Walker said she wouldn't be doing a Q&A because the film really says it all. She was right. With a rueful smile, Hockney tells us himself that in the end we're all just alone, as he stands with the colorful backdrop of his own landscape painting-in-progress.
The Thematic Program allows for the invited filmmaker to choose from films that span styles and decades. Hockney played with Shirley Clarke's 1967 Portrait of Jason, an exciting choice for Walker in part because it was made by a woman, and in part for the rare occasion to see a black-and-white film on the big screen. For many in that audience, sitting through two hours of Jason was too much to bear. But there was a reward for sticking out the spectacle of a man under a microscope who nevertheless lives to entertain. Portrait of Jason is a sometimes claustrophobic, but unabashed portrait of character, almost a caricature of the kind of portrait celebrated in Full Frame's new docs.
Still other portraits were inspired by the theme of family. Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman's E-Team is about the Human Rights Watch emergency crisis response team, but the parallel story of marriage and parenting in the midst of documenting war crimes is what glues us to our seats. In Joanna Lipper's The Supreme Price, we meet Hafsat Abiola, who modestly takes a leading role in the Nigerian pro-democracy movement, while raising a daughter, and in the aftermath of the political assassinations of both her parents. Tough Love, from Stephanie Wang-Breal, shines a spotlight on parents whose children have been removed from their homes, and their parents' battle to meet the standards to bring them back.
Character was dually embodied in the world premiere of The Hip-Hop Fellow, in which local filmmaker Kenneth Price follows Peter Touthit, better known as 9th Wonder, from teaching courses at Duke and North Carolina Central to becoming the first Harvard Hip-Hop Fellow. 9th Wonder's goal in this fellowship was to challenge assumptions about the character of hip-hop and sampling, and relate the music to the rest of our cultural history.
Full Frame creates a space in which all of these stories become a part of our cultural history, perhaps embodied by the everlasting life of Hoop Dreams. This year's tribute was to director Steve James. The "Hoop Dreams at 20" discussion included previously unseen outtakes and revealed surprising behind-the-scenes stories that were new to everyone all these years later. Stories like Hoop Dreams don't end with the credits, and Full Frame's tribute was a testament to the staying power of documentary.
Angelica Das is the associate director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, and is co-producer of the feature documentary Roaming Wild.