"I went over to say hello and (John) and I each expressed disappointment at not having had been able to see each other’s films while we were at Sundance earlier that year," Goldfine told me recently via email. "At that point I said that at least we’d be able to see each other’s work at Full Frame and noted that I planned to catch Reel Paradise** the following day at its screening. (John) then told me that he wasn’t going to be able to watch Ballet Russes because it wasn’t part of the competition and, as a member of the competition jury, he could only watch the handful of films that were part of the competition."
"I scratched my head and ask him what he meant. Believe me, I was really confused. I think that might have been the first time that (John), himself, realized that Full Frame hadn’t been honest with the filmmakers about their inclusion in the competition."
Joe Angio, who directed the Melvin Van Peeples doc How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), was also at Full Frame that year. "Dan & Dayna told (producer) Michael (Solomon) and I this the day of the ceremony. Up to that point we had all thought our films were in competition, and now we werent so sure. Before long, a small posse had gathered in the lobby of our hotel, some of them filmmakers who were told that they had been (in competition), others not, but all of whom thought they were."
David Fellerath, who covered the festival in 2005 for The Independent Weekly, covered the competition controversy in his festival recap:
But if the festival was a cultural and financial success, an unfortunate and avoidable controversy over the judging procedure emerged. Although the issue seemed to resolve itself, it also hints at new challenges ahead for the festival.
One of the festival's virtues is its intimacy, with fans, journalists and upstart filmmakers mingling with the likes of famed documentary makers like D.A. Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple on the street and at cocktail parties. But this intimacy came with a price when some filmmakers approached members of the grand jury and asked for their thoughts on their own films.
A typical story was that of Peter Friedman, co-producer of Mana: Beyond Belief, who approached grand jury member John Pierson at the HBO-sponsored party at Fowler's on Friday night. Pierson informed Friedman that not only had he not seen his film, but that Mana was not being considered for the Grand Jury Award because the jury had already received a short list of 12 films for consideration.
Pierson is a veteran of the indie film scene who is best known for his representation of the early work of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. In a conversation Saturday night, Pierson acknowledged that he understood the impulse to create a short list so the jurors would not have to watch all 57 features in competition. Like everyone else, he stressed the need for transparency. "My bottom line is that if some other entity is creating a short list, people need to know about it," Pierson said.
At most film festivals, being in or out of competition is pretty obvious from the start. You have a phone call with a programmer and either they tell you or you ask. It's pretty straightforward and as far as I'm personally concerned, it rarely leads to hurt feelings. My latest film has been in competition at five festivals and out of competition at a few others (still others, such as Toronto and True/False, don't have a competitive category).
This year, two things at Full Frame clouded the issue for me. First was the announcement itself. As noted here when I reported the films screening in Durham, the festival chooses to call nearly all of the films in its lineup "In Competition". Specifically, "New Docs: Films in Competition". 83 of them to be precise.
Second, there was an exchange of emails between my New York production partners, myself and Full Frame that began on February 27. The purpose of the email exchange was pretty specific:
In the meantime, we need two copies of the film for press and jurying purposes. Let me know by Thursday, March 1 whether you would like us to use the preview copies that were sent in as part of the original submission or if you would prefer to send new screeners.
So, here I see the words "Films in Competition" and "copies of the film for...jurying purposes" and I'm thinking that every film must be in competition for the Grand Jury Prize. I was aware that there were also other categories, more narrowly focused to subject matter, that many films (particularly mine) would not be in contention for. But, I thought, at least everyone is in competition for the Grand Jury Prize. And I thought, wow, that's really great that Full Frame does this and that must be one of the reasons why everybody likes and respects the festival so much.
But when I get to Durham, I make the comment to one of the jurors that I can't believe that Ric Burns, Kirby Dick and John Sinno (who made up the Grand Jury) actually watched 83 films. And the response was, "they didn't. They only watched the twelve films that are in competition."
"But we're all in competition," I said. "They even sent me an email asking which DVD that the jury should watch."
And with that, the list of films was produced and I saw that we were not among the "finalists in consideration". Nor were we "in consideration" for any other award.
Turns out I had missed an email, which had been sent to my New York production partners (but, strangely, not to me, even though I had been emailed directly on six other occasions by the person at Full Frame who sent this email). The email reads as follows:
Below you will find a list of all the awards Full Frame offers and the films eligible in each award category. This list is currently not public and will only be shared with the press on the first day of the festival. We do this to ensure that no one film in the competitive program is privileged over another by audiences.
As we mentioned in your acceptance letter, Full Frame is proud to offer a number of prizes in various categories to our filmmakers. While not all films are eligible for all awards, we want to applaud you for your fine work. We look forward to sharing your film with audiences soon!
[The films that were finalists for the Grand Jury Award were Crazy Love, The Devil Came on Horseback, Forever, Forgotten, Ghosts of Cite Soleil, Lake of Fire, Manda Bala, The Monastery, Operation Homecoming, Protagonist, War/Dance and White Light/Black Rain.]
The date the email was sent (again, not to me) was the evening of March 28, 2007, just over two weeks before the start of Full Frame - and well within the time that most people had decided whether to buy tickets and fly to Durham. In fact, the festival had asked that you let them know whether you would attend by March 8. For myself, I would have attended Full Frame whether I was in competition or not - but only because it's an important documentary festival that I hadn't been to before and I wanted to cover it for the blog as well. In most cases, I have decided that I probably won't attend festivals where we are not in competition (or where festivals will not pay for travel). I know that many other filmmakers have made similar decisions.
But, back to 2005. When Goldfine, Geller, Angio and Solomon realized that they weren't in competition - even though it had been advertised otherwise - they decided to confront Full Frame Founder, CEO and Artistic Director Nancy Buirski.
"We told her that we thought it was duplicitous to make it appear in the Festival program as if all the films were being judged by the jury when in fact she personally had selected only a handful to be judged in this way," Goldfine said. "We also expressed our dismay at not having been informed by the Festival that our films were not going to be part of the competition – the whole process smacked of dishonesty and it just didn’t make sense to any of us."
"She was doing some backpedaling," Angio said. "Claiming how all the films were eligible for audience awards, special awards, but that only twelve (or however many there were) were eligible for the jury prize. She also told us that this was spelled out on our acceptance forms. And, indeed it was, but it was so buried in the fine print, as it were, that it was easy to overlook. And, as it happens, everyone had overlooked it."
As it turns out, the festival did disclose its judging procedure for the Grand Jury Award in acceptance letters sent by e-mail in mid-February.
On Monday morning, Durham's Cynthia Hill, whose film The Guestworker, co-produced with Charles Thompson, was in competition at the festival but not on the short list, provided a copy of her acceptance letter. On the second page of a two-page missive from Director of Programming Connie Di Cicco, the policy is set forth: "Not all films are eligible for all awards. Specifically, the Grand Jury Award will be chosen from a selected number of finalists, determined by the Programming Department." (This programming department consisted of Di Cicco, Buirski, Full Frame programming and panel coordinator Phoebe Brush and the chairs of the selection committee, Nancy Kalow and David Paletz.)
In fact, Full Frame is the only festival that I've ever attended that has filmmakers sign an extensive release, called the "Full Frame Agreement". While apparently past agreements included fine print about the byzantine awards qualifications, this year's agreement has nothing, with the only reference to awards stating:
If my film/video receives an award at Full Frame, I understand that the festival requires that I include this information in publicity materials. A Full Frame logo and award laurels will be provided.
Goldfine says that because nothing Buirski said seemed satisfactory, they gave her an ultimatum. "At that point, we gave her a choice. Either she put out a press release explaining the reality of the “competition”, announce publicly at the Awards BBQ that not all of the films listed in the program as being part of the competition were indeed in that competition, and in so doing, specifically name the competition films, and promise that in future years filmmakers wouldn’t have to go thru the deception to which we’d been submitted, (i.e., that the whole competition situation, who was competing and who wasn’t, etc., would be transparent to public and filmmakers alike); or, we as filmmakers would go to the press ourselves."
"Nancy assured us that she would set the record straight publicly at the BBQ and in a press release, and she also promised that the whole Full Frame competition process would be fixed in subsequent years."
Says Angio, "She was clearly unnerved at the swelling buzz. It was going through the crowd so quickly that in short time people were coming to us and saying, 'Have you heard?'"
Goldfine, Angio and Solomon all told me that despite her assurances, Buirski proceeded to announce the winners without making the clarification she had promised. So, Dan Geller, the co-director of Ballet Russes, called Buirski out from the audience.
According to Fellerath:
But as Buirski concluded her remarks, one filmmaker, Dan Geller of Ballets Russes, called out, "What were the 12 films, Nancy?" Buirski responded that the titles would be released in a later press announcement.
The next day, the festival released the titles.
Phoebe Brush, who now is Full Frame's Director of Programming, told me that everyone at the festival felt a change was necessary after the events of 2005. "We felt really terrible about it. People were very upset. But what we did last year and tried to do this year felt good. If felt like we had reached a good place."
When I told Brush about my own confusion relating to the awards procedure, particularly in light of the email mentioning "jurying purposes," she told me that all films were up for two awards and were watched by those juries. (These awards were the Working Films Award - which goes to a film "with the greatest potential for supporting serious grassroots organizing and social change" - and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award - which is awarded to films that "combine originality and creativity with firsthand experience in examining central issues of contemporary life and culture...created to honor and support documentary artists whose works are potential catalysts for education and change".) Clearly, I said, my film wasn't really in the running for the first award, and I have my doubts about the second (potential catalysts for education and change?).
I asked Brush about Full Frame's focus on social justice issues in its awards and she told me that each of their awards was proposed by someone outside of the festival. She told me that they were open to more craft-oriented awards (such as cinematography or editing), but she emphasized that the festival considers craft in making its selections. "We're not interested in films that are telling an important story but don't tell it well."
My problem remains the festival's choice of title: "New Docs in Competition". Why even use that terminology? No other festival does it and it seems guaranteed to produce confusion. Brush told me that they don't specify which films are finalists because of a fear that such a designation "could privilege one film over another in the minds of the general public."
As was noted in that elusive email that I never received:
"We do this to ensure that no one film in the competitive program is privileged over another by audiences."
It's almost an "everybody's a winner" kind of mind-set, although as is made clear by Full Frame's extensive roster of awards, everybody clearly isn't. And when some films - at least fifteen by my count - aren't finalists in any category, what does "in the competitive program" mean?
Dayna Goldfine says that despite the change of emailing filmmakers the list of finalists, she remains curious "as to why Full Frame seems to be the only festival that has such a confusing competition policy. In my 20 years as a documentary filmmaker, who has participated in countless festivals all around the world I can honestly say that I have never encountered anything like it."
Joe Angio says that my confusion suggests that the festival still has work to do. "I know of no other film festival (certainly of the ones that we’ve participated in) where there was any confusion whether or not we were in competition or not."
Adds Goldfine, "I think Nancy should have to address why she chooses not to adhere to a policy more in line with these older, well-respected festivals."
Brush says that the festival will have to be vigilant in the future to make sure that filmmakers actually receive the email with the finalist listings. But there's also the issue of timing - two weeks is way too late for a festival to let filmmakers know this information - as well as the fact that the general public doesn't really have access to the information, again by the festival's design, and therefore most assume that every film is, as advertised, "in competition".
Full Frame is truly not like other festivals. It has a screening committe, comprised of academics and members of the community (not many filmmakers among them) that must watch each film - and programmers must defend their choices in front of the committee. Brush says that she likes the system, although it's the only one she's worked under. "It takes a lot longer, but at the end of the day, a group of people may see a film in a different way. It's a very cumbersome system in a lot of ways, but it's very balanced."
Yet in spite of its quirks, the festival remains one of the top documentary festivals in the US. Some believe it is the top festival, although I'd argue that AFI Silverdocs challenges that position. It certainly is able to draw nonfiction starpower (as seen by this year's attendees Michael Moore, D A Pennebaker and Ross McElwee) and remains a regular destination of the New York doc community. And I had a great time (aside from my dental emergency as documented in my blog post) and saw great films.
Additionally, I must admit that despite the contortions, the system has, two years in a row, produced as its winner my favorite film (of all that I have seen - not just those in competition). Last year it was Iraq in Fragments, this year it was The Monastery.
But it seems so unnecessary and so easy to correct. Just stop calling all films "in competition" and email or call filmmakers directly and let them know what awards - if any - they are actually up for. Every other festival does this. There's no reason that Full Frame shouldn't follow the pack.
**Clarification: For those who don't know the film, Reel Paradise was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) and featured indie legend John Pierson (and his family) as its subject. Reel Paradise was one of the film shown as a special screening in 2005 at Full Frame and everyone involved knew the film was not in competition.