The 2014 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival may have taken place on April 3-6, but in reality, it began long before that. Several weeks before the festival, the list of films being shown is released. This bit of cinematic foreplay generates excitement and slides you into the mindset needed for the impending weekend. A quick set of notes is made about what you hope to see based on personal interest and Internet buzz. Then two weeks out the schedule grid is released. The list of films you plan to see is revised due to time conflict and the need to rest. Then, just days before the festival, you participate in a podcast with the Full Frame Director of Marketing and make a mad scramble to align your tickets with his insider information.
Thanks to this attentive work on the front end, I now sit in the hospitality suite, confident in the tickets dangling around my neck in the pass pouch. It’s barely noon on day one and I’m fueling up on pork sliders with rice and beans, courtesy of Old Havana Sandwich Shop. It’s already crowded and I’m sharing a table with two older women and a middle-aged guy discussing the film they just saw, Last Days in Vietnam. One of the women mentions how her war photographer friend in Vietnam was awarded best picture of the year, while the younger man recalls the evacuations on television during his 5th birthday party at Lake Tillery. Hearing their analysis of the “powerful storytelling” leaves me feeling regretful that I didn’t see the movie- but I feel that way every time I hear chatter about something I didn’t catch.
I’m off to see a film from Lucy Walker’s Thematic Program, Approaches to Character. It’s something I saw years ago when I was a younger, inexperienced doc viewer and I’m hoping to dig in a bit more this time. The film is Metallica: Some Kind of Monster directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Upon entering Cinema 2, I’m immediately struck by the audience, comprised mostly of silver haired senior citizens and not what I imagine as Metallica’s primary fan base to be. Not that I am a super Metallica head, but there is no denying that James Hetfield has one of the best voices in rock, Kirk Hammett can shred on the guitar, and Lars Ulrich is an ass hat.
The film follows the band as they begin work on their first album in years. Not only do they have the rust to shake off, but they have also employed a full time therapist to guide the band through their inner turmoil. At center of the conflict is Ulrich vs. Hetfield, both attempting to control the direction of the group, a power struggle we’ve seen from countless rock duos throughout history. What we see is that despite the big money and big fame world that these guys live in, they are still vulnerable humans with fears, insecurities, and personal problems. The film illustrates how the creative process is the same whether you have 10 dollars or 10 million dollars and you don’t have to be a fan of the music to appreciate a film that moves beyond a typical rock doc to a psychological character study.
Next up was DamNation, directed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummel. This beautiful film explores America’s historical obsession with building dams and the fallout from blocking our natural waterways. Giving fair time to both sides of the issue, the main argument is that many of the dams built during the construction boom of the early 1900s are outdated and hazardous. Dam removal advocates argue it is in our economic and environmental interests to removed these failing structures and rehabilitate the rivers they detain. A movie about large concrete walls would be a drag in the hands of less capable filmmakers, but Travis and Ben achieve the rare feat of creating a policy film that entertains and informs while at the same time eliciting an emotional response through an incredible swirl of music and imagery. Amazing aerial photography, underwater footage, hilarious animation, and some seriously sweet James Bond style rappelling to do statement graffiti art all combine to make one of my favorite films of the festival.
In the Q & A after the film, the directors pointed out that the film was financially sponsored by Patagonia. They told an anecdote about how at the film’s premiere, Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouniard stood up in front of the audience to say “We don’t make clothes to make money, we make clothes to make films like this.”
Every year, Full Frame curates a tribute to a different documentarian. A collection of their films is shown and special events organized to celebrate and examine their work. This years tribute was to Steve James and one of this years festival highlights was watching Hoop Dreams with director Steve James and star Arthur Agee next to me in the theater. This game changing classic offers one of the most complete portrayals of American life ever captured on screen. The carefree joy of youth, the demands of adulthood, the pressures of academia, the lines drawn by social class, and what to do with the rock when the clock is winding down are all explored fully in this incredible story. You truly get a sense of what life is like in inner city Chicago, experiencing both highs and lows with the subjects. Watching Arthur Agee go one on one with his idol Isaiah Thomas will give you butterflies, just as watching Williams Gates get his knee worked on after injury will make your stomach turn.
When discussing documentary film, a lot of attention is given to how the movie impacts society but few seem to dwell on what impact the films have on their subjects. Talking with Arthur Agee after the screening makes you realize just how radically different his life is because of Hoop Dreams. Because Steve James and the camera crew followed him around for so many years, he became interested in communications, which became his major in college. Then president Bill Clinton dropped by his dorm room to say, “Hi.” He hosted a radio show and now continues to travel with the film while participating in speaking engagements with young people. And yes, he still plays ball three times a week. It makes you wonder where Arthur would be had Steve not shown up at that playground court one afternoon.
Fletcher Hall was packed on Saturday morning for the world premier of The Hip-Hop Fellow directed by Kenneth Price. The film follows master producer and North Carolina native 9th Wonder as he travels to Harvard University to become the first hip-hop fellow at the W.E.B Du Bois Institute. 9th’s curriculum revolves around how culture is passed on and how music can be used to bridge generational gaps. Perhaps the best illustration of this theme is a scene that takes place during 9th’s thesis presentation to the other, interdisciplinary Harvard fellows. He puts on Allen Toussaint’s 1965 record “Go back Home.” As the academics start to bob their heads and get lost in the jazzy, piano driven sounds, 9th flips the crossfader and drops in Jay-Z’s “D’evils” off 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. And the academics start bangin’ their heads even harder! The argument is that by using a sample from Toussaint’s record, DJ Premier, who produced Jay Z’s track, is paying homage to the sounds and artists of the past. By seeking out these original compositions or “going down the wormhole” you immerse yourself in a whole new world of history and culture. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Du Bois Research institute, compares hip-hop sampling to the literary concept of intertextuality, which, in the most basic sense, explores allusion and influence between authors.
While much of the information in the film is old news to us self-taught hip-hop scholars, it’s exciting to see academia embracing the educational possibilities and the art form. 9th Wonder is an ideal advocate for this movement- well spoken, educated, and most importantly passionate about sharing the wealth of history contained in dusty stacks of vinyl.
As best I can, I make an effort to share the festival magic with others I know, so I brought a musician friend to the late night screening in Fletcher on Saturday. Although Nick Cave has been rocking with his band the Bad Seeds for more than 30 years, I first discovered him in a movie theater in 2007 while watching the criminally underrated film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” He and his partner in crime Warren Ellis wrote one of the most hauntingly beautiful soundtracks I’ve ever heard and as I sat misty-eyed the darkness while the credits rolled, I knew I had found someone special.
20,000 Days on Earth directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard features a day in the life of stylish vampire man Nick Cave. Like no other, this film blurs the line between fact and fiction and you begin to think that this might be how Nick Cave sees his own life- a surreal, dreamy journey from one place to another with a bit of music sprinkled in-between. Nick lives in the musical incubator town Brighton, England and as he cruises about town in no rush at all, he is joined in the car by a variety of interesting and well-known folks. Their conversations shed light on the mysterious Cave, and then they’re gone as quickly as the appeared, leaving us wondering if they were even there at all.
Capped with an amazing live performance, the masterful cinematography and editing confirm my notion that Full Frame shows some their best and most interesting films late at night, when the crowds have gone home. Even my friend, a music and film snob of the highest order was awestruck by the experience.
I have come to accept that the Full Frame experience is not complete without a film that challenges and pushes me to my limits. This year’s patience tester was Visitors directed by Godfrey Reggio, which was actually recommended to me based on a single line I wrote in my coverage of the 2012 Festival.
Comprised of nothing but long takes of slow motion, high dynamic range black and white 4k cinematography, this film contains no discernable story or characters and would drive a less committed filmgoer than myself right out of the theater with its maddeningly slow pace. I, however, hold myself to a higher standard of viewership and despite the lingering hangover thrashing about in my head I stare right back at the gorilla on screen staring at me…for what feels like an eternity. Complimented by an exceptionally creepy Philip Glass score, you have plenty of time to study the film’s striking imagery as it ekes by on the screen, if moving at all. The film contains only 74 cuts and the thoughts one has while staring into the faces and scenes presented are most likely unique to the viewer. The spooky train of thought the film took me on made me glad that residual alcohol was only drug I was on. Ultimately, the final, unsettling thought I had was that with a title like Visitors, we as humans are the temporary players in this show of life.
I saw many other films, including one I am not allowed to discuss because of a full press embargo, but these are the films that stuck with me, moved me, shaped me, and left me wondering this year. I love that everyone’s festival experience is different and I look forward to seeing more from the lineup in the future. The good news is that as the Full Frame phenomenon continues to grow, so do the opportunities to experience these stories. Just last year, Full Frame became an Oscar qualifying festival and introduced free, open to the public screenings here in Durham. Furthermore, the Full Frame Roadshow will be gearing up this year, bringing free screenings to various places throughout the Triangle. So even though we’ve got a year to go until the festival next April, we ‘ll be able to see more of the same world-class storytelling we’ve come to expect and crave from everybody at Full Frame.
Filmmaker, Ned Phillips, of Cozmik Productions, Warner & Co., and the Clarion Content, has been in the Durham cultural milieu for longer than you’d know. From his work on the in progress documentary film, Truth Underground, to the videos he has shot for Durham super groups, Hammer no More the Fingers and LiLa, his still waters run deep.