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Full Frame Comes Full Circle: Doc Fest Reconnects with Duke University

By Ron Sutton

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was launched in 1997 as the Double Take Documentary Film Festival, sponsored by the Documentary Studies Program at Duke University. In 2002 the festival parted with the Duke program and adopted its current name.

Led for 10 years by founder Nancy Buirski, the event grew, prospered and became internationally known. Buirski stepped aside in 2008 to pursue filmmaking, and the resourceful Peg Palmer provided two years of interim leadership. Deirdre Haj was named director just prior to the 2010 festival.

Through 2011 Haj has guided the festival's return to Duke's Documentary Studies Program. "Our missions have never been more aligned," she asserts. "Our borrowing from each other's strengths would create even more benefits for the communities we serve: the documentary community and Durham, North Carolina." 

In addition to the festival, Full Frame produces year-round, outdoor free screenings at American Tobacco; a Full Frame Fix at the local Nasher Museum; an annual, festival-oriented Teach the Teachers program; and a summer Documentary Production Camp for non-traditional learners. 

A newcomer would notice a few changes at Full Frame. The four days were, as usual, crammed with documentaries, but Haj tried some streamlining. In the past, panels would be scheduled during screenings. Not so this year.  Sponsored by A&E IndieFilms, panel conversations were scheduled in open slots and were held in The Speakeasy,  a comfortable space next to the Press Room, where, at the 3:30 pm session, if you were of age, you got a free cocktail! 

It was in this Speakeasy venue that Pat Aufderheide, director of American University's Center for Social Media, led a panel presentation titled "Wrongs and Rights: Protecting Subjects and Footage."  Two New York lawyers, David Smallman and Karen Shatzkin, both with extensive experience defending documentary films and their makers, were joined by two filmmakers, the legendary Alex Gibney  (Taxi to the Darkside, Enron, Casino Jack.) and trial lawyer-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladoff  (Hot Coffee) to offer advice and answer questions from filmmakers in the audience. Aufderheide also passed out info on the Center's latest publications, "Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put the Balance Back in Copyright" and "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work."

Festival programmers selected four films for the Center Frame showcase, which typically screen works of intrinsic quality and audience appeal. Julie Moggan's feature-length Guilty Pleasures, which opened the festival, was allegedly inspired by the startling statistic that "every four seconds, somewhere in the world, a Harlequin paperback is sold." Moggan focuses on five individuals, women and men, from England, Japan, India and the US, whose lives are changed by their connections to these romance novels. These characters were so ordinary and relatively uninteresting at first impression, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for them to make the changes necessary to bring fulfillment and happiness. Guilty Pleasures was a sort of romance novel in itself.

The second night's Center Frame film, the world premiere of Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story, was riveting. It tells the story of newlyweds Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested in 1958 in the middle of the night in their Virginia home, convicted of the crime of interracial marriage, and banished from both their home and the state of Virginia.  Told with remarkable, never-before-seen archival footage shot by documentarian Hope Ryden, the film charts the couple's courage and perseverance as two young ACLU lawyers, Bernie Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, agree to take on the case.  They eventually argue it all the way to the US Supreme Court.  The Lovings' conviction is overturned, and the state of Virginia's anti-interracial marriage legislation is inevitably doomed. HBO co-produced the film, which will air in 2012.


Mildred and Richard Loving, subjects of Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival



Saturday evening's Center Frame screening, the US premiere of Burma Soldier, was followed by the presentation of Full Frame's 2011 Career Award to filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The brief ceremony honored their earlier works--In My Corner, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. One of the filmmakers quipped that her children asked her if this meant she was going to retire!

Burma Soldier, on which Nic Dunlop is also credited as director, tells the story of Myo Myint, who joined the Burmese army as a teenager, lost an arm and leg in the service and after discharge began to question the harsh, half-century of military rule in his country. Eventually deemed a dissident, he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for 15 years. He escaped to Thailand when released from prison and made his way to the US. His story about a very secretive country is compelling, and was made only more so by his personal appearance with the filmmakers during the Q & A that evening. 


Left to right: Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, with Myo Myint, subject of Burma Solider, which Stern and Sundberg made with Nic Dunlop. Photo: Mike Oniffrey. (c) All Rights Reserved Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 



Full Frame always invites a person of significance in the documentary community to program a series of films around a particular theme. The thematic program for this year was handled by archivist Rick Prelinger and was titled "One Foot in the Archives." The ten programs included films such as Lance Bird's America Lost and Found; Philippe Mora's Brother Can You Spare a Dime; Louis DeRochemont and Lother Wolff's March of Time: One Day of War---Russia 1943; and the intriguing Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. The film, by Göran Hugo Olsson, consisted of Swedish TV journalists' coverage of the Black Power movement in the US--an interesting view of our own culture through another country's perspective. 

But for me, the session on "Raw Material, Indigestible?" was priceless because it featured Prelinger himself presenting clips from his own Prelinger Archives. What can we learn from a home movie of a Ku Klux Klan rally in a small town in Pennsylvania? How can we judge the filmmaker's motive, if that is important? Should filmmakers use or withhold (as Rick did in his presentation) graphic excerpts they find in archives of electric shock treatment forced on patients in a state mental hospital? The emerging question of archival reuse was centermost in our enlightening class, conducted by a very masterful Professor Prelinger.

There were 66 films in competition and I saw just 12 of them, but one I found surprising, fascinating and fulfilling was The Boy Mir----Ten Years in Afghanistan. This unusual film shows us what has happened over the last ten years to Mir, whom we met as an eight-year-old in Phil Grabsky's 2004 doc The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  Although he had originally planned just one return to Bamiyan--to show his finished film to the family--Grabsky made several trips to Northern Afghanistan to follow Mir's growth into a young man. The result is an unforgettable portrait of a boy's, and a country's, development. Scenes of the region's stark beauty contrast sharply with the struggle for survival that the Afghan people face. Penetrating, respectful, absorbing and revelatory, Grabsky's style is both refreshing and responsible. Over the 10-year period, he has established a fund, begun with the proceeds from his films about Mir, to assist in the young man's education and further development.  


From Phil Grabsky's The Boy Mir--Ten Years in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


Another film in competition that impressed me was Hot Coffee. Former Oregon trial lawyer Susan Saladoff  begins the film by referencing the celebrated case of the woman who successfully sued McDonald's for millions of dollars when she spilled hot coffee on her lap. I stopped by for ten minutes on the way to another screening to see what in the world a filmmaker would do with such a frivolous law suit. Well, in ten minutes Saladoff had laid out a case that changed my views 180 degrees in terms of what I thought of this case and the important issues linked to it.    

 What I learned from Hot Coffee was how corporate America, aided by our frivolous and crass media outlets, have shaped and corrupted our view of the civil justice system.  Politicians, in cahoots with big business, used this case and others like it to distort our views of tort reform, state-mandated caps on malpractice awards, and mandatory, closed-door arbitration with the arbiters picked by the very corporation that you are claiming wronged you.  If you own a credit card or cell phone, you have probably agreed to mandatory arbitration. Asked about how her former profession figures in her filmmaking, Saladoff remarked, "Displaying facts and evidence on film is like presenting material evidence to a jury."  

Two other films in competition caught me by surprise. One was We Still Live Here -Âs Nutayuneân. Directed and produced by Anne Makepeace, it chronicles the story of the Wampanoag Indians, who greeted the Pilgrims in 1620, and subsequently lost their language--which they have now painstakingly regained, thanks to the amazing efforts of Jesse Littledoe Bair, through her use of historic contracts, old deeds and footnotes in native Bibles. A very moving film, it won the Full Frame Inspiration Award.

The other eye-opener was Hell and Back Again, artfully created by still photographer  Danfung Dennis. Embedded with a company of men from the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment, Dennis shot some of the most powerful and stunning battlefield footage  I have ever witnessed.  As the men tangle with the always nearly invisible Taliban in Afghanistan, Sergeant Nathan Harris is wounded.  The image and sound in the film switches brilliantly back and forth from the turmoil of war to Nathan's physical and emotional turmoil as he attempts, with the tender and patient care of his young wife, to come back from three tours of duty and his serious injuries.


From Danfung Dennis' To Hell and Back. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival



In addition to the Center Frame films and the thematic program, the festival invited some 16 films, one of which was Barbara Kopple's Gun Fight, which affirms her stunning record of making timely and important films about controversial subjects. It features some interesting characters: Colin Goddard, survivor of eight bullet wounds in the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, who stumps tirelessly for sensible gun legislation; and Garen Wintermute, ER physician from UC Davis Medical Center, who pleads in Sacramento for help in closing the "gun-show loophole," which allows almost anyone with the money to buy all manner of weapons, including assault rifles, from "private owners" at gun shows. Another compelling figure in the film is Richard Feldman, who for 20 years was head of PR and legislative activities for the National Rifle Association, but became disillusioned by the politics of it all. He now tries to hold a centrist position in calling for sensible gun regulation. Hearing all these folks speak in person after the film was quite moving and informative.

The Festival was enriched with two Kartemquin films on its schedule, as well as Gordon Quinn and Steve James in attendance.  One, The Interrupters, directed by James, was in competition and won a Special Jury Award from the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. It follows three members of the Chicago CeaseFire Organization into live, threatening and violent situations where they use skills and insights gained from their own complicated and violent past lives to help those involved to a solution that eschews violent retaliation.

 The other Kartemquin film was the world premiere of A Good Man, a film about the incomparable dancer/choreographer, Bill T. Jones. It chronicles his struggle, both aesthetically and emotionally, to produce a commissioned contemporary dance concert honoring Abraham Lincoln. Quinn and Bob Hercules capture both the man and the process in this absorbing and informative work.

 The Festival had also screened Magic Trip. Created by Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood, the work was indeed quite a trip for those of us who watched it late on Saturday night.  The filmmakers did the impossible: making a reasonably cogent film out of the endless amount of footage shot in 1964 by Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters on their bus trip from California to New York and back.

The 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is scheduled for April 12-15.  For a complete listing of festival winners and other information about the event, click here.


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