Full Frame Film Festival 2006
I'm here in Durham, chowing down North Carolina-style barbecue (hacked-up pig, tangy vinegar sauce) off a paper plate, complemented by sweetened iced tea, and in the company of several hundred stalwart American documentarians (among them: Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles) at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. What do I call this? Utopia! Transcendant eats, outstanding company.
"Are documentarians better than other people?" I ask my Newton-based filmmaker friend, Steven Ascher, who's at Full Frame, along with his co-director wife, Jeanne Jordan. They're showing the hugely life-affirming. So Much So Fast, chronicling Stephen Haywood's valiant battle to keep his juices going, and his brainy humor and agnostic philosophizing intact, as his body slips away through ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease.
"I think documentarians are better," Ascher replies. He's thinking of the standing ovation from the non-fiction filmmakers for, Mark Rabil, the diligent lawyer who got a North Carolina black inmate, framed on a rape-and-murder rap, out of a lifetime jailing. (Seen in The Trials of Darryl Hunt, winner of Full Frame's Audience Award.) Documentarians are like that: socially conscious, anti-racist, empathetic of regular people and their woes, and willing to toil years in the editing room to put forth an important story. Durham, North Carolina, might be a blue town in a red state, but the Full Frame bunch are far bluer: imagine even a single George W vote from this progressive crowd.
I'd heard for several years that Full Frame is the best-programmed documentary festival in America, and that might be right. In three days of viewing, I see only really good films. Every one of them. There are extended Q&A's with filmmakers after the screenings, and no rush to clear the house. There's a fascinating sidebar of films produced post- Katrina, and Branford Marsalis offers an impromptu New Orleans jazz concert.
Several docs I like:
Anne Makepeace's Rain in a Dry Land, following two Bantu families from ravaged Somalia who are relocated in America. Family one lands in Springfield, Mass, family two in Atlanta, and both experience what you expect of immigrants without money or education: poverty, alienation, depression, family feuds, but also dogged resilience and slivers of hope. A sharp, deeply felt humanist tale with one remarkable scene: the Atlanta family maneuvering stairs for the first time ever, the brave mama leading her frightened flock down the wall-to-wall carpeted steps.
Kirby Dick's This Film Not Yet Rated, a blistering attack on Hollywood's MPAA Board, which sees and hears no evil when there's rampant, repulsive violence, but which straps films with the audience-stopping NC-17 rating if there's lesbianism, too much orgasmic sex. Part tongue-in-cheek detective story, this important muckraking work gleefully exposes Jack Valenti and his entrenched studio cohorts.
Rebecca Snedecker's By Invitation Only, a personal documentary in which the liberal filmmaker rubs against the upper-crust Mardi Gras traditions of her society family, realizing there's no place in the celebrations for her African-American boyfriend. A smart, tantalizing take on class and race, tracing a hundred years of parallel New Orleans history, white and black.
Patrick Creadon's Wordplay, lots of fun, loads of heart, a grandly winning story of America's crossword-puzzle subculture, climaxing at the exciting national tourney to determine America's best solver. Sure to be a box-office hit, this guaranteed pleaser comes next to the Independent Film Festival of Boston.
(Boston Phoenix, April 2006)