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Full Frame Tightens Its Belt

By Ron Sutton

Braced for a potential shortfall in attendance and an expected cut-back in sponsors, the 2009 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was a trim, compact, efficient operation as it marked its 12th year. The last-minute loss of one of its major sponsors, The New York Times, was a disappointment, but when asked about the Times' drop-out, Festival Founder Nancy Buirski said, "Don't worry. They'll be back!"

Buirski stepped aside two years ago as director of the festival and is hip-deep in personal documentary production and curatorial projects under the umbrella of Augusta Films, LLC. Her successor, Peg Palmer, skillfully guided Full Frame through another successful year.

Films in competition numbered 59, down only two films from 2008. With the invited and curated titles, 100 films were presented.

Among the 40 titles I screened, Food Inc. will have the most impact on American audiences when it is released to theaters June 12. This trenchant look at how agri-business has taken over and corrupted our food supply is alarming. It's possible that an aroused populace, goaded by this effective, persuasive film, may pressure our legislators and regulators to correct some of the industry's most egregious practices: grossly crowded, mismanaged feed lots; unfair wages and working conditions for employees; cruel and unsanitary treatment of animals; and the outrageous practice of "patenting" the very seeds of our food supply (Monsanto's corn monopoly). Filmmaker Robert Kenner presents his arguments with a cutting, activist edge that loudly proclaims that this gross, wasteful industrialization of our food supply is not a healthy situation. The motto capsulated to promote this film rings resoundingly true: "You'll never look at dinner the same way."

From Robert Kenner's Food Inc.

Impressive as Food Inc. was, my favorite film at Full Frame was the world premiere of Owning the Weather, a first feature by Robert Greene. This fascinating work begins with a series of interviews that ask ordinary people what they would do if they could control the weather. Since we daily experience significant control of our smaller environments--home, car, office--we believe that, in a similar manner, we can control the global environment.   

Greene's balanced look at geo-engineering is loaded with startling, but little-known facts: Eighteen percent of the land mass in Texas is seeded with silver iodide particles to make rain...In Durango, Colorado, cloud-seeding by airplanes and cannons brings snow to area ski resorts...In "Operation Popeye" during the Vietnam War, the US seeded the clouds over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an attempt to make it impassable, an act that led to an international treaty, still in effect, that pledges all signatories to never use weather as a weapon again..."Operation Storm Fury," an attempt by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to modify the intensity and direction of  hurricanes, was discontinued when legal questions arose about responsibility for collateral damage...

A major theme of Owning the Weather is, If we have screwed up nature already, can our attempts at geo-engineering on a global scale add to or subtract from the problems we face? This is a film that will spur vigorous discussion by those seriously concerned about the environment. 

From Robert Greene's Owning the Weather.

A pair of films at Full Frame that had interesting parallels were an HBO-supported film by Liz Garbus, Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, and a work by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which Arthouse Films will release late summer or early fall. The Kunstler sisters made their film in an attempt to both honor and better understand their famous/infamous father and his championing of causes both popular and unpopular--the Chicago 8, Wounded Knee and Attica to name just three. The story is seen partially through their eyes as children as they lived through protests in front of their New York home and death threats against their father.

Garbus deploys her father, renowned First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus, with considerable skill to illustrate the importance of free speech, even when it is offensive. Her title comes from the famous Schenck decision of 1919 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who stated that "shouting fire" in a theater (No mention is made by Holmes that the theater need be "crowded") would be an example of speech that can be limited and punished. Garbus uses a number of other examples to illustrate her treatise on "How Free Is Speech?"

The most haunting and unforgettable film for me was Unmistaken Child, an outstanding work by Israeli director Nati Baratz. The film follows the dedicated and selfless quest by a young Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa, as he searches for the signs and signals that will lead him to the reincarnated spirit of his Master, Lama Konchong. This spirit resides in the "unmistaken child" that Tenzin must identify and then lovingly separate from his parents and deliver to the Kopan monastery. Yaron Orbach's cinematography is stunning, the rapport with the subjects genuine, and Ron Goldman's editing effortless.

From Nati Baratz' Unmistaken Child.

Justin Strawhand's War Against the Weak is a chilling look at the American Eugenics movement, supported by Ivy League scientists and funded by Carnegie, Rockefeller and Harriman money. It is astonishing to learn that it was this American Eugenics movement that provided most of the ideas that fueled Hitler and Joseph Mengele's barbaric and deadly eugenic experiments in Nazi Germany. What they did in the US will leave you shaken and angry.

Some other films worthy of comment were Andrew Lang's Sons of Cuba, a surprising and revealing look at Cuba through the eyes of the 12-year-old boys that make up the Havana Boxing Academy; Anna-Lydia Florin's Luber Aloft, which profiles the Swiss installation artist Heinrich Luber and his amazing public space works employing his own body in gravity-defying positions; Phie Ambo's Mechanical Love, a fascinating Danish film about therapeutic robotics like Paro, the mass-produced mechanical baby seal, and the exploration of geminoid robotics and its effect on family members of the experimenter.

The panel at Full Frame that caught my eye was "Wanted for Review." Moderated by Thom Powers, doc programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, the panel featured Eugene Hernandez, co-founder and editor-in-chief of indieWIRE, and critic Ronnie Scheib of Variety. What Powers wants is to establish, increase and extend good, solid, thoughtful criticism of the documentary film form. He lamented that when he surveys critics' top ten lists, they often name just one token documentary or none at all, and few have any idea of the historical development of the form. The panel underscored a worsening situation: More docs are being produced while publications cut staff and space for reviews.

As might be expected, Hernandez offered the Internet as a possible solution, saying it empowered many voices to go with the exploding access to docs via TiVo, Nexflix, Amazon, iTunes, etc. He felt we were in a period when substantial critical voices would come forth, and he explained how indieWIRE is trying to develop a rudimentary monetary structure for serious doc bloggers and critical writers. In the end Powers challenged those present to pick three docs a year and write a 1500-to-4000-word blog on each of them. Perhaps some of us will respond. 

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