Must-See Films at 2015 Full Frame Festival

By Chris Vitiello

Ah, the harbingers of spring in Durham. Daffodils and crocuses nose out of the lawn, only to be slammed by a week of wintry mix. In the bright evenings after the clocks are set forward, the bars fill up with jogging strollers and mellow dogs. And filmgoers gird themselves for the flickering rush of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes over downtown to screen around 100 films and host all manner of ancillary events from April 9-12.

Now in its 18th year, Full Frame, which is co-sponsored by Duke University, is one of the highest-profile events in the international documentary community. It’s a qualifying festival for the Documentary Short Subject Academy Award and the Producer’s Guild of America Awards. Over 12,000 people sit in the darkened rooms of the Carolina Theatre, Durham Convention Center, Durham Arts Council and other spaces, watching films from around 25 countries and voting on their favorites. From feature-length biographies and sociopolitical missives to five-minute visual poems and experimental work, the festival offers a comprehensive celebration of the documentary film genre.

Its reputation aside, Full Frame also represents an economic boon for Durham. The 2014 festival generated almost $100,000 in tax revenue for the city, and had an estimated economic impact of nearly $2.5 million.

You have to have a strategy to handle the bounty of Full Frame’s schedule without suffering kid-in-candy-store shutdown. The day the festival releases the list of films, I read all the synopses and mark everything that looks good with a highlighter. An Evel Knievel biography?—Yes, please! How artists formed a political movement in Senegal?—I need to know that. Errol Morris interviewing the bereaved when a pet cemetery is moved?—Too potentially weird and wonderful to miss.

Then I sigh heavily when I notice I’ve circled 40 or so titles, an impossible number to see in four days. I mull and cull, pester a few friends at the festival to hear about their favorites, and simmer my selections down to a reasonable list.

Here are some of my personal must-see survivors:

Anna Kipervaser, currently a student in the MFA Experimental Documentary Arts program at Duke, world-premieres a timely film about muezzins—the people who voice the Muslim call to prayer from minarets or over the loudspeakers of mosques. In Cairo in One Breath, she tells the story of how thousands of muezzins around the city are being replaced by a single, central radio broadcast. Kipervaser’s contemplation of sound and sacred space should echo loudly in Durham, where the call to prayer was to be broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower every Friday afternoon until Franklin Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, criticized the university and it canceled plans for the bell tower broadcast. (Another Duke filmmaker, Erin Espelie, investigates black mirrors and screens in The Lanthanide Series.)

The Full Frame schedule is dotted with intriguing pairings of short and long films in one screening, none more intriguing than Graminoids and Devil’s Rope on Friday morning. Collecting six-minutes of black-and-white footage of wind blowing grass, Graminoids is what is called a “sensory film”—one that gives a dynamic impression rather than dispensing information. Demelza Kooij and Lars Koensaren’t haven’t made a headlining film with Graminoids, but it’s one that I will find myself telling friends about later—and then futilely searching Netflix and the internet for henceforth. It’s matched with Devil’s Rope, the North American premiere of Sophie Bruneau’s meditation on barbed wire. She runs her hand along the fascinating and painful history of what began as a fencing tool for livestock but has become a fundamental instrument of human control. (Another great pairing—R. Enstone, in which found footage sparks a dark mystery, and Here Come the Videofreex, which documents a 1970s countercultural news broadcast—screens Friday night.)

I’m a sucker for celebrity biodocs—who isn’t?—and Full Frame offers plenty this year. But a couple put a formal twist on the nicely portioned, American Masters treatment. Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon both intercut their subjects’ own self-documentation in with interviews with family and colleagues.

 “They’re both multi-media experiments,” says Emma D. Miller, programming coordinator at Full Frame. “Montage of Heck is woven through with all these audio recordings and home videos that Kurt Cobain made, diaries that haven’t really been seen before. There are interviews with band members and family members too, but these multimedia recordings and grainy footage are put together with it to evoke his life in a way that I don’t think a traditional biodoc would.”

Listen to Me Marlon is made from Marlon Brando’s own audiotapes. Using talkback as a kind of self-therapy, the screen icon talks about whatever’s on his mind, from deep troubles to the mundane tasks of his day. “But it’s the mundane of this legend of American acting,” Miller says, “so it’s not so mundane.”

 “Filmmakers are coming up with these new ways to explore how to bring a persona to life,” Miller continues. “It’s not just having people who are friends and family and collaborators reflect on what they did and how great it was. It’s actually putting us in the position of getting to experience the inner mind of someone, which is pretty incredible.“

Other biodocs of note include Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?, a look into North Carolina-native Nina Simone’s musical and activist career, and BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, which honors the legacy of the great African-American feminist poet and political powerhouse with copious performance footage from both Sanchez and her contemporaries.

 I will be sure to have tissues in my pockets for Saving Mes Aynak, Brent E. Huffman’s work about Afghan archeologist Qadir Temori trying to save Buddhist artifacts from an ancient site near Kabul from a Chinese mining company. An estimated $100 billion of copper is pitted against a priceless, 5,000-year-old cultural discover. Unfortunately, that means I will have to miss Marshall Curry’s concurrent Racing Dreams in order to see Saving Mes Aynak. Full Frame honors Curry in its annual filmmaker tribute, with a slate of five films and events.

Full Frame features plenty of political fare, including several films connecting with the past year’s contentious use of force by police against black Americans. (Marc Silver’s 3½ MINUTES and Peace Officer by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber) as well as Stanley Nelson’s history of the Black Panthers movement (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution).

Foodies also have their films to salivate over, including the world premiere of Erika Frankel’s King Georges, which shows how the chef for four decades at Le Bec-Fin keeps his restaurant relevant in a hyped-up culinary scene, and Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, in which a Los Angeles food critic takes us well into the eatery wilds.

The festival has something for everyone and then some, holding plenty of free screenings including outdoor events on the lawn at Durham Central Park (Love Is All on Friday night and Dinosaur 13 on Saturday). The Southern Documentary Fund, a sponsorship and advocacy organization based in Durham, also shows a working cut of the in-progress Farmer Veteran by local filmmakers Alix Blair and Jeremy Lange.

You might not catch 40 films but you should certainly call in sick at work, grab a highlighter and head downtown. Otherwise you might not get a chance to see a lot of this terrific work again. At Full Frame, you should always cram as much of the candy store into your mouth as possible.

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