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Full Frame Serves up a Feast of Nonfiction

By Ron Sutton

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival , held in Durham, North Carolina, just concluded its 16th edition this past Sunday, April 7. With Deirdre Haj in her fourth year as executive director, the festival's organization has never been better. The partnership with Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies remains solid and mutually beneficial. The festival's recent designation as an Academy Award-qualifying festival for short-form documentary was a feather in Full Frame's cap. And its year-round educational programs—"Teach the Teachers," "School of Doc," "Full Frame Fellows" and the "Full Frame Archive"—all thrive. In addition, the new 99-seat Full Frame Theater just opened on the campus of American Tobacco, which will also provide office, classroom and gallery space for the festival.  

This year's Full Frame saluted Jessica Yu with a program of eight of her films; tapped Amir Bar-Lev to curate a thematic program, "Stories About Stories"; and showcased nearly 100 documentaries, including 75 in competition for the 10 major festival awards.

Among the social issue films was Remote Area Medical, by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman. The film shows us a typical weekend visit by RAM to Bristol, Tennessee's NASCAR stadium. In this weekend alone, a covey of doctors, dentists, nurses and volunteers drawn from all over the US provide screening, diagnosis and treatment for some 1,500 individuals from the mountains and valleys of  eastern Tennessee, who will have waited in line for days before the first 500 tickets are passed out. The RAM project begun in 1985 to aid indigenous Brazilians living far from any medical care in the rain forest. In the intervening 28 years, RAM's main focus has shifted to providing care for wretchedly poor US citizens living in outlying areas. Remote Area Medical will both lift and break your heart.


From Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman's Remote Area Medical. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


A Will for the Woods, from a North Carolina-based quarter of filmmakers—Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, Brian Wilson—focuses on the expanding "green burial" movement. The film won both the Full Frame Audience Award and The Nicolas School Environmental Award. In addition to informing us about this national movement centered in the Green Burial Council, A Will for the Woods is a loving tribute to psychiatrist Clark Wang. A Duke alumnus, an accomplished cellist and a passionate folk dancer, Wang, with his wife's support, convinced an amenable cemetery owner in Wake Forest to develop the only official green burial site in North Carolina. Informative and thought-provoking, the film ironically alludes to the type of burial practiced throughout the United States up to the Civil War—no embalming, no concrete cover, no steel casket, no harm to the environment.        

Another North Carolina-themed film at the festival was If You Build It, by Patrick Creadon, in which designers Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller bring a radical and innovative program of hands-on education called "Studio H" to Bertie County. In a flood-ravaged town hanging on by its fingernails, Pilloton and Miller run a class in design and building that transforms the lives of their students, as well as their own. Their guiding words are "Design, Build, Transform," and this well-constructed film embodies the very same attributes as this inspiring story unfolds.

One of the most popular of the invited films was Barbara Kopple's Running from Crazy. This study of Mariel Hemingway's struggle to stay sane in the shadow of her family's dark history of suicide and dysfunction reveals the skill with which Kopple can tell a great story. The eminent threat of violence against self informs but does not dominate the work. Though focused on Hemingway's travails, we also learn about the tragedy that affected her two older sisters, Joan and Margaux. Addressing the work of Suicide Prevention at the end of the film, though, lends Running from Crazy a bright halo of hope.

Another invited film that shocked its audience was Robert Stone's Pandora's Promise-a true mind-bender, or, more accurately, a potential mind-changer. The facts presented in the film about the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island will challenge many of us to rethink our position regarding nuclear energy as a source of electric power. While the film acknowledges that it may be hard to shed the anti-nuclear feelings and misinformation that have dominated the conversation over the past few decades, Stone contends it will be nuclear energy that will save us and the planet. "It isn't nuclear that's killing us; it's coal that is killing us," he affirms at the end.

Two films at Full Frame depicted different kinds of  armies. One, Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army, opens with the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.  This decision ensured that anyone accused of a crime anywhere in the US must be provided with a public defender if they cannot afford a lawyer. The film tracks the present careers of three Georgia-based public defenders. The terrific overload on these attorneys demonstrates one of the weaknesses of the US criminal justice system, one that has become outrageously unfair and that barely pays lip service to the Gideon decision.


From Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


Patrick Reed's Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children is an infuriating and heart-wrenching look at the barbaric use of child soldiers in Africa. Boys as young as 14 are given guns and taught to kill with savage and indiscriminate force, while young girls are forced into becoming "bush brides," i.e. sex toys for the soldiers in the various commanders' armies.

Lt. General Romeo Dallaire wrote a book on this tragedy, based on his experiences when he was Commander for the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1994. It is through Dallaire's compassionate eyes that we view this ongoing tragedy as he returns to stop the use of child soldiers. Though he leads a worldwide crusade against the practice, he is forced to admit that thwarting this tragedy is not soluble at present.  


From Patrick Reed's Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


Full Frame also screened a number of films about specific problems or situations in other countries such as India, Africa, Norway and Guinea.

Blood Brother, by Steve Hoover, tells the story of Rocky, a young American who visits India on a whim and then bonds with a house full of HIV-positive children. His life is changed radically-and forever. Blood Brother is both emotionally challenging and deeply satisfying.  

Jessica Yu's The Guide, set in Mozambique, tells the story of a young man who is training to be a guide at Mt. Gorongosa National Park. We learn about the numerous ecological threats facing the park. In the end he wants not only to be a guide but a biologist who can assist in countering all these threats.

Wrong Time, Wrong Place, from Dutch filmmaker John Appel, takes a look at persons whose lives were intimately affected by the July 2011 bombing and mass shooting in Norway. Skillfully and respectfully filmed, Wrong Time, Wrong Place explores the question of happenstance and destiny. A few minutes earlier or later would have made all the difference in this examination of the tragedies.

Eva Weber's Blackout tells the sad story of  Guinean children who must go to the airport in order to study because the electricity infrastructure is badly managed. The struggle just to find enough light in which to read lessons and become an educated person seems so obvious, but in Guinea it is simply not provided. 


From Eva Weber's Blackout. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


There were many unusual and quirky films at the festival, but one of them, DA VINCI, by Yuri Ancarani, rose to the top. The film takes an inside look at a marvelous and very expensive medical miracle machine that allows doctors to operate using robotic instruments manipulated with their own hands. The amazing and challenging footage captured by a camera inside the patient's body was fantastic.

Among Full Frame's many highlights were its panel discussions. One, "Based on a True Story," included Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story), Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams), Mark Landsman (Thunder Soul) and Stephen Nemeth (War Dance, Fuel, Flow). All four filmmakers have been or are presently involved in turning their documentary stories into feature films. Their discussion of the issues ran from the rights of the original documentary subjects, to how to work within, but be as insulated as long as possible from, the studio system. Getting your documentary participants to work with you on the feature film can be tricky. What is just compensation, if any, due to them? How can the material pitched to attract box office dollars remain faithful to the truth of the issue?  How much manipulation is allowable? Who decides?

A second standing-room-only panel was "Pay the F**king Filmmakers," which was inspired by a series of provocative articles that appeared in IndieWire by former Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel. Joining him on the panel were Caroline Libresco, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival; and David Wilson, a programmer/filmmaker and co-founder of the True/False Film Festival. 

There was spirited discussion of Farnel's most controversial suggestion: Festivals should pay filmmakers 35 percent of box office revenue. The panelists asked, What would be cut from the festival's budget to allow for this payment? Would an honorarium be better?  Shouldn't festivals strive to make zero-sum the cost for filmmakers to attend? Isn't current exposure and leverage value for the filmmaker? All festivals should pay filmmakers' travel and lodging expenses, but should festivals screen films when the filmmaker cannot attend? The relative size of screening venues would become crucial if fees or honoraria were based on head-counts. How would this affect the communities in which the festivals were held? Is it even a fair question? The conversation will surely continue on the festival circuit over the next several months.


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