Skip to main content

War Becomes the Inadvertent Theme at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

By Emily Edwards

Robert Capa's 'The Fallen Soldier,' from Anne Makepeace's 'Robert Capa: In Love and War,' an American Masters production. Photo: Robert Capa/@Comell Capa, courtesy of Thirteen/WNET/ American Masters

I attended the sixth annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina last April, planning on paying special attention to the curated thematic series, "Leadership Through a Gender Lens" and "Flights of Fancy," to see if and how these themes might be reflected in the competitive films. However, war seemed to be the unintentional zeitgeist of this particular festival.

Welcoming audiences to the festival, Executive Director Nancy Buirski admitted that there had been some concern among the staff about hosting a documentary film festival during a time of war. As if in recognition of audience stress, the question repeated throughout the festival would be, "How much reality can you take?" Buirski emphasized that audiences in contentious times especially need documentary films experienced in the "comfort of a community's embrace." 

The world premiere of Seabiscuit seemed designed as war's antidote. Directed by Steven Ives and based on the sports biography written by Laura Hillenbrand, the story of Seabiscuit is the struggle of an unlikely horse, "a masterpiece of faulty construction," that became the "proxy for a nation facing war and prolonged economic crisis." The dung-colored, knobby-kneed racehorse that charmed a nation in 1938, continues to inspire through Ives' careful selection of interviews, newsreel footage and archived photographs. Faced with its own economic uncertainty and war, the Full Frame audience seemed to respond as enthusiastically to this horse in 2003 as audiences did more than 60 years ago. 

World War II turned out to be a backdrop for several films. Martin Doblmeier's Bonhoeffer tells the story of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and executed by Nazis for plotting to assassinate Hitler. It is a moving portrait of a Christian striving to counter the abhorrence of Nazi Germany. War is clear and present in Anne Makepeace's biographical documentary, Robert Capa: In Love and War, which follows the career of America's first "embedded journalist" as he photographed soldiers in battle from the Spanish Civil War, through WWII, until his death by a land mine in Thai-Binh, Indochina.

Filmmaker Charles Guggenheim's final film, Berga: Soldiers of Another War, is also set during WWII. Told through the voices of survivors and illustrated with a mixture of archival photographs and re-enacted footage, Berga is the moving story of American POWs sent to a German slave labor camp because Germans suspected them of being Jewish. Guggenheim died last October, six weeks after completing the film. Full Frame named an award in his honor, the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award, which was presented to Jose Padilha for Onibus 174 (Bus 174). 

Another film ringing with war is situated not in WWII but in the occupied territories of the West Bank in Israel. Sherine Salama's A Wedding in Ramallah received a special jury award for its heart-wrenching story of an arranged marriage. The groom is a Palestinian living in Cleveland, Ohio, who returns home for a bride, Mariam. The two do not meet until a few weeks before the wedding. Afterward, when Mariam tries to make arrangements to emigrate with her new husband, riots and the new intifada cause the Israelis to seal off the West Bank and Mariam is unable to get a US visa. The groom returns to Cleveland, leaving his bride to wait, ducking bullets with her in-laws. 

On the level of neighborhood hostilities, Flag Wars, by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras, is a portrait of cultural struggle as affluent gay landowners move into a black working-class neighborhood. As more and more gay homeowners begin buying and renovating Victorian houses and inflicting their neighbors with code violations, Black residents begin to feel shouldered from their own way of life. Though both gays and blacks feel they share a similar "outcast" status in America, differences in race and class take precedence over a shared position and common goals to improve housing and strengthen community. This film won the Center for Documentary Studies' Filmmaker Award.

More than 730 entrees came to Full Frame, with 64 selected to screen in competition.

Emily James' Luckiest Nut in the World was the winner in the shorts category. Among the features, the Grand Jury Award went to Être et Avoir (To Be and To Have), by Nicolas Philibert. Speedo (Jesse Moss) won the Audience Award. The MTV award went to Love and Diane by Jennifer Dworkin. One film, Thabh-Ul-Azim (Noble Sacrifice) was pulled from competition by both filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian and the festival staff out of concern that the current climate would not be the best context in which to screen this film about a small Islamic sect that calls for the practice of martyrdom (suicide bombings). In the azalea-laden gardens of the Carolina Theatre amid the bouquet of southern barbecue and the camaraderie of filmmakers and friends, wars seemed paradoxically both far away yet so close.


Emily Edwards currently teaches media studies at University of North Carolina, Greensboro and serves as an associate editor for The Journal of Film and Video.