Feature: The 9th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on April 10, 2006.


Full Frame examines reality through the art of film

How much reality can you handle?

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival explored this question last weekend from April 6-9 at the Carolina Theater in Durham. More than 100 documentary films were shown, with 73 competing for various awards. However, that's only a fraction of the more than 1100 submissions that were received from documentary filmmakers around the world.

The festival officially kicked off with a screening of The Sketches of Frank Gehry, which delved deeply into the creative process of prestigious architect Frank Gehry and his work. The film was directed by famed actor and director Sydney Pollack, who had never directed a documentary before.

"I didn't know what I was doing," said Pollack. "The only research I could do was to go over to [Frank's] office and wander around and say, 'This is kind of interesting.'"

Despite it being his first attempt at making a documentary, Pollack said he learned a lot from the experience.

"What I came away with was that I found a kind of freedom in that approach that I've never had in narrative filmmaking. There's something peaking in the looseness," he said.

Another dominant theme this year was disease and how it affects families. It was perhaps no more finely crafted than in A Lion In The House, which got up close and personal with five families of children with cancer. Its directors, Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert, were given an honorable mention for the Grand Jury Award.

Films with similar themes were sometimes screened in pairs. One such duo focused on the relationship between technology and medicine. The Boy in the Bubble looked back at the case of David Philip Vetter in the 1970s, who became known as "Bubble Boy." David was born with SCID -- Severe Combined Immunodeficiency -- a disease that rendered his immune system incapable of functioning.

In an attempt to save his life, he was forced to live and grow up in a large plastic facility that would protect him from germs -- a bubble that would separate him from the real world for most of his entire life. The film presented the idea that science, if handled inappropriately, can harm and imprison an individual more than help.

Another highly praised film was So Much So Fast, directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan. Filmed over a period of four years, it examined a man named Stephen Heywood who was diagnosed with ALS, a sickness that gradually deteriorates nerves and muscles. Unlike the film before it, So Much So Fast showed how advances in technology helped allow Stephen to continue to move and communicate even in the later stages of the disease.

"It's a totally new world," Jordan said. "He truly can imagine himself being bionic."

Many films were given their world premiere at Full Frame. One such film, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, was labeled only as a "Sneak Preview" in the program and wasn't revealed until seconds before the screening. The documentary focused on the Peoples Temple movement of the 60s and 70s and its founder Jim Jones, infamous for its mass suicide of more than 900 individuals.

"We interviewed around 35 people; around 28 of them were members of Peoples Temple," Stanley Nelson, the film director, said. "It was one of the hardest films I worked on because the stories were so incredible."

The theme for this year's festival was Class in America, and various films were shown related to this theme. Another group of films consisted entirely of non-competing documentaries related to Hurricane Katrina.

Still Standing took a 7-minute look at how a grandmother from Columbia was affected when she lost her home.After Katrina: Rebuilding St. Bernard Parish looked at people from St. Bernard Parish in Mississippi who chose to stay and try to rebuild their lives.

Issues such as race and class were explored in occassionally humorous ways in Desert Bayou, which followed a group of black victims as they were evacuated to the state of Utah.

Not all the films focused on serious themes such as death, destruction and political oppression. A/K/A Tommy Chong focused on how actor and comedian Tommy Chong (most well-known from movies such as Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke) was convicted for selling marijuana paraphernalia online. Though it touched on serious ideas like political censorship and media spin, it was one of the more comedic films shown.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated lambasted the ratings board of the MPAA with hilarious results. In the film, director Kirby Dick hires private detectives to track down the anonymous raters and asks whether or not the board is objective and appropriate in its rating criteria -- particularly in regards to R and NC-17 rated films -- often with hilarious results. Ironically, Dick's film itself received an NC-17 rating.

Full Frame was also the chosen place for an announcement by actor and producer Danny DeVito. He informed the press about ClickStar, a new online program set for release within the next year that will allow computer users to download and rent films through a broadband connection. Though there will be many channels, DeVito is specifically involved with the documentary channels of the service, which he has creatively titled "Jersey Docs."

"For many years I've been dying to do this," DeVito said. "There's been an incredible resurgence of people over the last 10 years who are interested in watching good documentaries, and it's wonderful."

DeVito also said his goal with "Jersey Docs" was for it to be a place that involved "the democracizing of the documentary."

"[Documentaries] have always been provocative looks at what's going on. They haven't always been big money makers, so they weren't always put out there," DeVito said. "ClickStar is a place to premiere films as well as distribute films that have been out for a while that people don't even know exist."

After the announcement, an awards ceremony was held to honor a few of the best documentaries screened at the festival. Filmmaker Eva Weber won the President's Award for best student film for The Intimacy of Strangers, which took an intriguing and experimental look at secretly recorded cell phone conversations. The Audience Award, the only award to be voted on by the public rather than a jury, was given to The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Danny DeVito presented the prestigious grand prize, the Grand Jury Award, to James Longley for his film Iraq in Fragments.

The Full Frame Film Festival is the largest film festival devoted to documentaries in North America. This year, its ninth year running, was a huge success, attracting filmmakers and film lovers from all across the world. The spirit of the festival was perhaps summed up perfectly by the CEO of ClickStar, James Ackerman.

"Documentaries are in one part a window on the world, yet also a reflection of the human spirit," Ackerman said.