By Tom Capello
April 25, 2006 Documentary
films are beginning to make their
mark in theatres with strong characters, powerful
messages, and big box office. The good news for filmmakers in the
South is that the premiere doc fest in the U.S., the Full Frame Documentary
Film Festival, is hosted by Duke University's Center for Documentary
Studies in nearby Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. This year's Full
Frame festival was held April 6-9.
In the quaint, accessible town
of Durham, I was able to view 20 documentary films in 60 hours with
eight hours of sleep every night. Compare that to my visit to Austin,
Texas in March for the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW),
where I saw six films in five days and could barely stand up straight
due to extreme exhaustion. Why such a contrast? It may have been
that the potpourri of bars, restaurants, and partygoers on Sixth
Street in Austin was too much of a distraction, or it may be that
Full Frame's focus really is on film viewing. Their six venues are
wall-to-wall films from 9 a.m. to midnight every day. Almost every
programming block offers a double feature of films that compliment
one another. This allows viewers to maximize their viewing time
around topics or stories that hold a personal interest.
The best thing about Full Frame is that every screening
has a Q&A afterwards with the filmmaker. Sometimes, that can
be annoying at festivals when questions become inane. Fortunately,
at Full Frame, everyone in the audience tends to be an informed,
practicing professional who appreciates and wants to understand
the struggles and rewards in the making of each film.
all Full Frame's documentary greatness and glory, there were some
drawbacks. The biggest drawback was the lack of networking opportunities
for festival attendees versus the opportunities for exhibiting filmmakers.
There were very few panels and a lack of open door parties for attendees.
Another drawback is that it is a three-and-a-half day festival that
should be five to six days long. There are no repeat screenings
of films; they are one and done. It is a painful decision to skip
captivating films for other captivating films. This was a constant
complaint among attendees. Finally, packet materials and volunteers
were the worst guides for directions and suggestions of places to
go between screenings. After the first night of running in circles,
I discovered that a plethora of social gathering spots existed a
mere three blocks away. I cannot believe I got lost in a place where
hotel, venues, and restaurants were all within a three block radius.
More amazing is that the people that live there cannot give proper
directions to places within a three-mile radius.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The
films and filmmakers were inspirational. I will pick three exceptional
features to mention and one exceptional short to hunt down online.
Full Frame Films to See
Friday morning introduced me to a film called Rain
in a Dry Land that will air this year on the PBS series
P.O.V. This film followed the journey of two Somalian refugee families
as they relocate to the U.S. Following these strangers in a strange
land is as heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching. It does remind
the viewer that the U.S. is still a humanitarian country.
A film that caused the biggest immediate emotional
reaction was So Much, So Fast by filmmakers Jeanne
Jordan and Steven Ascher (who made the 1996 Sundance Audience-Award
and Grand Jury Prize-winning film, Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern).
They filmed Stephen Norwood for four years as he and his family
dealt with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. The story of bravery, determination,
and perseverance catalogues Stephen's wonderful spirit living on
as his body deteriorates, and how his brother Jamie tries to race
to find a cure by starting a foundation and overcoming every obstacle
in his path. This film did not have distribution at the time of
screening, but it will soon find its audience.
Finally, the feature that will resonate for weeks
and months was 51 Birch Street. Filmmaker Doug Block
is interviewing his parents around their 50th wedding anniversary
for mere posterity. Suddenly his mom dies, and Doug uncovers secrets
and stories that shatter the picture-perfect marriage he thought
existed between his traditional parents. All of the sudden, he has
stumbled upon a documentary film. His dad remarries three months
after his mom's death to his old assistant, Kitty, and 30 years
of typed and written journals by his mother reveal an imperfect
past. Every viewer will be driven to challenge themselves about
how well they really know and love their parents. HBO Documentary
Films will release the film this year.
The world of documentary is exploding with the accessibility
of technology. New distribution networks (indiepix.net)
and online doc clubs like Ironweed (ironweedfilms.com)
make the viewing of these films equally accessible. The films are
inspiring and make it worth going to Full Frame or exploring these
online distributors. In fact, I saw a short called No Umbrellas
that blew away the audience at Full Frame with its examination of
a damaged voting system in America by exposing the issues at one
urban polling location in Cleveland, Ohio. This 26-minute film will
be distributed with the doc feature Street Fight on Ironweed in
the coming months.
Short films get distribution, features hit big
box office, and documentary films have their own film fests; documentary
filmmaking has arrived in the global marketplace. And the South
will reap the reward by having the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
for years to come.