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Festival Review
Full Frame: A Festival of Docs

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.

In 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.