Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Erica's Report from Full Frame

In an occasional series of reports from documentary-laden film festivals, Docs In Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg recently attended the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina from April 3-6, 2008.

This was my third time at Full Frame and I must say this year it felt a bit subdued. It may have been the grey and gloomy weather (which, though it was a mild annoyance, was a welcome sight in drought-stricken North Carolina). Or it may be that the festival itself is in a bit of a transition with Nancy Buirski stepping down as festival director to take on a more advisory role. Or maybe it was just me getting older and more critical about the films I see.

What I have always loved about this festival is that it is an all-documentary festival which is both close enough to the major east coast documentary film cities to make it easily accessible and yet is far enough away that folks from those places can actually converse and connect in a relaxed environment. Part of this is due to the nature of Durham itself. With due respect to the locals, downtown Durham is dead on weekends and evenings, so there really is nothing to distract you from the festival itself. And yet, while the fest draws a mix of filmmakers and industry, the locals also come out in droves for the films, indicating a clear starvation for good documentaries outside of the coastal culture capitals. Amazingly enough, Saturday night screenings were packed in spite of the competition with basketball (UNC had made it to the Final Four). According to the Festival itself, ticket sales were up from last year and I can attest to the fact that most theaters were packed. Despite this, I faced no closeouts from screenings, a problem which has plagued other growing festivals (and certainly some of the bigger festivals like Sundance).

In terms of the films, more than 100 were screened and it was sometimes difficult to choose among them. Films which were all the buzz from Sundance and South by Southwest were often pitted against each other and you pretty much had to make difficult choices since no films were screened more than once (if you weren't able to stay to watch the award winners on the final Sunday afternoon). The scheduling in blocks rather than overlaps sometimes made it difficult to pop out of one film and into another and I would find myself with large blocks of free time between screenings. Great for networking. Not so great if you wanted to see lots of films.

So I tried to choose wisely, based partially on the buzz and more often than not, just on my own interests.

The opening night film was TRUMBO, a doc about the blacklisted screenwriter which had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Much of the film was told through the writings of Dalton Trumbo, as interpreted by a number of film actors, including Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, and an unforgettably hilarious Nathan Lane. Allen joined director Peter Askin and Trumbo's son Christopher for a Q&A following the screening, marred by microphone difficulties.

Technical problems were few and far between, but the other most unfortunate one was at the screening of the new Werner Herzog film, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, another alum of Toronto. The festival had been given a bad tape so there were digital artifacts through the entire film which could not be remedied. Annoying with any film, it was downright tragic with a film enhanced by its cinematography. Still it was possible to appreciate Herzog's latest opus which takes us into the world of Antarctica and the scientists and wanderlusters who work there.

While mild complaints about the constant drizzle of Durham were overheard, it all fell into perspective after seeing two different films about Hurricane Katrina. I had originally intended only to see one because I didn't think I could emotionally bear to relive the horror of witnessing your country let its own citizens down in the face of death and destruction. But I changed my mind afer seeing the first film, THE AXE IN THE ATTIC. This film looks at the diaspora created by the hurricane by taking us on a road trip with filmmakers Lucia Small and Ed Pincus who are very much outsiders and reflect often on this along the way. Ultimately Small and Pincus become the most interesting characters in the film since the others are people they spend only a few days with to capture their stories. I found myself intrigued by the filmmakers since they, in many ways, represent the white middle class liberal northerner feelings of anger and powerlessness over a preventable disaster which underscored the race and class divides in our country. So, in a sense, they are stand-ins for me. But at the same time, I found the filmmakers annoying for many of the same reasons, because ultimately the film becomes not about Katrina or the people directly affected by Katrina, but about white guilt and ambivalence towards African-Americans, poor people, and the South. I felt too much time was spent focused on issues of documentary ethics (i.e., of giving money to film subjects) and not enough on the people they met. Small, in particular, worried aloud so much about giving money. And yet the filmmakers also reflected that in one scene (where they filmed Katrina survivors going to a FEMA office to deal with some ongoing bureaucratic hurdles which have prevented them from getting benefits) that the subjects themselves were hoping the presence of the cameras would help move things along faster. So the issue of money became almost irrelevant because this reflected on a larger issue of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Interesting, but still made me feel at arm's length from the people who the film was purportedly about.

So, with this as a backdrop, I saw a second Katrina film,TROUBLE THE WATER . This film was a bit of a 180 from AXE IN THE ATTIC since it focused on one set of characters who were very much insiders – an aspiring female rap artist and her family and friends who could not afford to leave the Lower Ninth Ward and stayed put in their home to brave the storm. The film was propelled by the "money shot" of having first-person home movie footage from the main character in the days leading up to and during the hurricane which really made me feel the experience more than any news footage. But, while this insider footage is what has given the film so much attention, it was the story the filmmakers captured which really gave life to the characters and the world from which they came. For them, Katrina was a disaster, but far from the first or last of a long history of struggles and heartaches. The filmmakers did not impose their vision of the characters upon them, but instead showed them for who they are, warts and all. I have to say that, of the Katrina films I've seen, none has done a better job of personalizing the story and making me feel less of an outsider looking in on an event than a human being sharing in an experience with other human beings. Apparently others agreed, since the film won three awards at the festival, including the Grand Jury Award, a human rights award, and an award from film outreach pioneers Working Films.

Always interested in international issues, I switched gears a bit and saw two films which gave unique insights into life in Iran, one by an Iranian filmmaker and one by an Iranian-American. TEHRAN HAS NO MORE POMEGRANATES! was a refreshing look at Iran's capital city and more importantly into Iran's unique Iranian culture which is full of humor and pathos. As U.S. relations with Iran have continued to sour, the country is a question mark for many Americans and this film gives us a better sense of urban Iran which faces many of the same challenges and class divisions as American metopolises. Beautiful cinematography, archival clips, and a deadpan narration buoy a film which is part city symphony, part reflection on the urban divide between the haves and have nots, and part an hommage to a place and people who manage to have both a proud and rich history and what appears to be a constant sense of self-deprecation as a form of free expression.

In a very different vein, BE LIKE OTHERS looks at the phenomenon of sex change operations in Iran. A more common practice than many of us might assume, gender change is acceptable under Iran's interpretation of Islamic law since it is seen as a medical-psychological condition whereas homosexual practice is outlawed. So the result is that many who may be homosexual undergo the operation, whether they are transgendered or not. The film follows the story of two such men and the challenges this brings to their relationships with their families, societal expectations, and their own sense of being. Along with A JIHAD FOR LOVE (which has been playing the international festival circuit, but, as far as I know, has yet to premiere in the United States), BE LIKE OTHERS will surely create discussion and controversy around the topic of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world.

BE LIKE OTHERS was paired with FLYING ON ONE ENGINE, a film about an Indian-American doctor who travels to India for months at a time to perform hundreds of free surgeries for children with cleft lip and other facial deformities. What could have been a sentimental feel-good story is balanced by the quirky character of the surgeon himself. Though beset by his own physical limitations, he is only too happy to revel in the god-like status his patients' families bestow upon him. He spares no-one -- neither the women he believes chase him down nor Mother Teresa who he notes won a Nobel Prize even though she left all the dirtywork to others while he has never won the prize (in spite of numerous nominations) even though he conducts the surgeries himself. The film provides a good balance of exposing his character and yet leaving us with a sense of mystery as to his motivations.

Being from Washington DC, U.S. politics is always of interest and the festival marked the premiere of BOOGIE MAN, a film about a unique character in recent American politics, Lee Atwater. While some have wondered why this film would premiere at a festival like Full Frame rather than a larger film festival, I think it was a very appropriate setting to screen the film because of the film's underlying theme -- the impact of the North/South divide on American politics at its very core. Political junkies of all partisan stripes will be drawn to the film because it not only characterizes a legend among political operatives, but also returns to this theme. In an election year where the Southern vote may be crucial (in spite of the fact there are no real Southerners on the ballot), this film will be sure to inspire debate. If it had a major weakness (aside from being in a technically unfinished state), BOOGIE MAN's main drawback is that it presumes a certain pre-existing level of knowledge of the American political system and U.S. history. I tried to watch the film from the perspective of an international who understands the big picture of the U.S. political system as it impacts foreign policy, but may not understand the nuances or the context of why we vote the way we do and who "we" are anyway. I think it would be difficult for a film like this to bring much more understanding since it jumps headfirst into the Reagan Revolution without helping us understand the politics and history which led up to it and why someone like Atwater was so crucial to this shift in political focus and to honing the skills of his successor, Karl Rove.

It remains to be seen how the festival will continue to develop. Though its local audiences are growing and it is still a great place to mix and mingle with industry in a relaxed environment, Full Frame still faces the challenge of being positioned between other, more prestigious festivals which may make it difficult for it to boast many premieres. However, it is definitely one which I would recommend all filmmakers attend -- whether you have a film in the festival or not -- to get a good sense of what's garnering buzz in the world of documentary.

Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award — "Trouble the Water"
Special Jury Award — "Man on Wire"
Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short — "City of Cranes"
Full Frame Audience Award — "Man on Wire"
Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award — "Lioness"
The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award — "In A Dream"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Inspiration Award — "At the Death House Door"
Full Frame President's Award — "Summerchild"
Full Frame Spectrum Award — "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Women In Leadership Award — "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai"
Full Frame/Working Films Award — "Please Vote for Me" and "Trouble the Water"
The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights — "Trouble the Water"

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