Part of the appeal of the annual Full Frame Film Festival has always been its proximity to New York City. Just an quick hour or so by plane to Durham, it's been a welcome kickoff to spring and the numerous festivals - doc-centric or otherwise - that will follow in the months to come. This year, as the festival marked its tenth anniversary, mother nature and a surprise spring nor'easter made that quick trip a lot more complicated, as nearly every east coast guest was called upon to engage in a bit of flight juggling in order to get home. Some moved up their flights, leaving Saturday night or early Sunday morning (and making that afternoon's awards BBQ slightly less packed with dignitaries) while others pushed their flights til Monday or even Tuesday. Those who tried to fly out on Sunday were met with cancellations, had flights that sat on the tarmac - or even flew halfway to New York - before turning around and returning to RDU.
The uncertainty of travel and weather seemed to reflect the tone of many of the participants as well. Despite the celebratory tone inherent in the festival looking back on the past ten years (and all the events that coincided with that), a number of participants told me that something seemed off this year but no one could put their finger on what that "something" was. Perhaps it was the weather and the early departures. Perhaps it was the fact that a number of high profile guests and industry leaders who were expected were suddenly and surprisingly MIA. Perhaps it was that many of the filmmakers - including many of the winners - hadn't attended, which was surprising considering the fact that many veteran filmmakers have been attending on and off from Year One.
As this was my first time at the fest - and my first time back in the Triangle since I worked with the gifted filmmaker Norwood Cheek, who was then based in Chapel Hill - I can't compare to previous incarnations. And my own experience was largely overshadowed by a ridiculous problem with my wisdom tooth that pretty much knocked me out of commission for most of Friday and early Saturday. But I was able to see a decent number of films, including a couple that I'd been wanting to see since Sundance.
The first, of course, was Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's The Devil Came on Horseback. Since Sundberg and Stern made one of my absolute favorite films of 2006 - The Trials of Darryl Hunt - I have been excited to see their (most immediate) follow-up. But although we've played a few of the same festivals, we've often been time slotted against one another, so this was my first real opportunity to see their new film (which would go on to pick up two prizes at Full Frame).
Taken together, The Devil Came on Horseback and Darryl Hunt announce Sundberg and Stern's incredible talent and versatility. While Darryl Hunt was as dogged as a classic crime and courtroom thriller, The Devil moves like lightning, spurred by the stylish kinetic editing of Joey Grossfield and horrific photos of the Darfur crisis shot former Marine captain Brian Steidle. Steidle is also the film's protagonist - a young man just out of the military, looking for cold, hard cash in an interesting, adventurous job who finds himself on an African Union monitoring team, where he gradually realizes that he is in the midst of a genocide - and by casting him as such, Sundberg and Stern have presented what is perhaps the first easy-to-understand look at the Darfur crisis. The audience sees the development of tensions, followed by murderous raids on villages, just as Steidle does. As he learns what's going on, we learn.
In some ways, Steidle is not unlike the defense lawyers in Darryl Hunt - with whom we followed leads (occasionally blindly and sometimes erroneously) in trying to get to the heart of what was happening - and Sundberg and Stern's innate understanding of how to patiently let the narrative unfold (yet somehow never condescending) serves them particularly well here. I'm almost hesitant to say that it should be required viewing, because somehow that makes it sound like medicine - and aren't most Americans studiously avoiding learning about Darfur - but it's the kind of film that could really mean something if the right kind of attention is paid to it. As a news report noted the other day, studies show that humans are more sympathetic to the killing of one person than they are to the massacre of hundreds of thousands. We get numb to it. This film, like Steidle's photographs, have the potential to change that dynamic.
One reaction I had to The Devil Came on Horseback is that I'd never seen television news tell me about the Darfur crisis in such an easy-to-understand (and yet thorough) manner. I felt the same way when I saw a sneak preview of Alex Gibney's new film Taxi to the Dark Side, which has its official world premiere soon at Tribeca. Gibney, who was Oscar nominated for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has not made the first documentary about Abu Ghraib (Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair - which profiled the shocking case of one inmate - was recently in theatres), nor will it be the last (Errol Morris' take on the scandal is likely to hit festivals this fall). But in sketching a compelling and ultimately infuriating look at the whole of the Abu Ghraib story and the larger story of the Bush administration's decision that we needed to get "mean & dirty" after 9/11 and employ torture, I thought Gibney's film was quite good. Gibney is clearly adept at this sort of political storytelling and even if - as was the case in the Enron film - much of the information exists in other news accounts, you do have that feeling that you are seeing much of it with fresh eyes. Additionally, Gibney's films look great, and this is certainly no exception.
I also responded to For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake's emotional film that looks at five American families and how they reconcile their previously held religious beliefs with the news that their son or daughter is gay. The families are well chosen, balancing the well known - the stories of openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and the daughter of former House leader Dick Gephardt - with lesser known folks who have since become activists. But what Karslake does particularly well is to truly dig into the Bible's teachings on homosexuality - the five or six verses that fundamentalists use to condemn gays - and explores both the surrounding verses (in the same breath that homosexuality is deemed an "abomination", so is shell fish and mixing different kinds of material in clothes) and the cultural norms of the times. Less successful is a middle section that features a satirical cartoon that seems straight out of Bowling for Columbine, but overall it's a moving and extremely thorough film about an important political and social topic.
In the midst of those wrenching films, it was great to see Gary Hustwit's Helvetica. Much of the talk about Hustwit's film has been, "yes, it's really about the font", with people wondering if a feature length documentary can possibly support such a topic. But after the film garnered raves from SXSW (where it premiered), and sustained laughter in Durham, it's clearly one of those entertainments along the lines of Wordplay, a film that will appeal to the smart set - both designers and public radio listeners, which come to think of it, is where most of the art house crowd comes from anyway. The film, as one would hope from a film about design, looks beautiful - the digital cinematography by Luke Geissbuhler (who also shot Borat) is stunningly composed and the graphics are spare and in a familiar font type. Helvetica will next be seen at Hot Docs although there are rumors of many more upcoming screenings.
Also enjoyable was Michael Chandler's Knee Deep, which was a Fargo-esque look at a familial crime gone horribly wrong. With it's quirky characters and filmic style, Chandler has crafted a film that is both entertaining and completely thought-provoking, building a scenario in which you think you know where your loyalties lie and then mostly upending them by revealing more and more about the characters motivations. Although an interview with the victim would have been welcome (one assumes she didn't feel the need to contribute to a film that at least partly blames her for the crime), Chandler does an effective job of making everyone a little bit guilty and redeeming everyone a lit bit in the process. I found myself talking about it hours later with my audience companions, with different people taking different sides as to whether the crime's "victim" deserved what she almost got or whether other family members should be more to blame.
By Sunday afternoon (and the aforementioned departure of many of the east coast guests), the annual Awards BBQ was a welcome break. Also, it was the first time since my trip to the dentist that I actually felt I could eat more than just incredibly soft foods, so I loaded up on a delicious buffet of pulled pork, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans and cookies.
Held inside the large armory building across from the Carolina Theatre headquarters, the awards ceremony is both extremely comfortable and slightly strange. More like a high school awards night than a traditional film festival close, onlookers sitting in a viewing gallery not unlike Congress hang over railings and cheer and scream when films they've seen go home with prizes. And, like high school - where awards are handed out in niche categories, most of the prizes are related to specific causes or agendas, rather than focusing on craft elements - such as cinematography or editing. More strange is Full Frame's positing that most all of its line-up are in competition (see here, where FF calls its roster of films "New Docs: Films in Competition"), even though this is not actually the case. Apparently this was a huge issue two years ago and some are surprised that Full Frame continues this practice even after the dust-up that occurred then. I'm working on a separate blog piece on this topic to run next week.
(Marco Williams picks up the Spectrum Award for his film, Banished, which premiered this year at Sundance.)