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“…With the Giddy Feel of a College Reunion”: The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Returns


In the spirit of springtime renewal, the Durham, North Carolina-based Full Frame Documentary Film Festival returned to in-person mode for the first time since 2019. And while Full Frame presented virtual versions from 2020 through 2022, the festival was canceled altogether last year, due in large part to fiscal struggles undermining its parent, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. An April 2023 report in Duke’s The Chronicle indicated that the university would undertake a review of the Center. Members of the festival’s Advisory Committee circulated a petition on social media, helping to assure the festival’s return and, a year llater, Duke reaffirmed its support as Presenting Sponsor, with Full Frame continuing as a program under the auspices of the Center.  So, with the giddy feel of a college reunion, Full Frame ‘24 lured a cross section of emerging artists and grizzled veterans alike, along with a coterie of programmers, educators, publicists and journalists like me.

In the interim years, the documentary world lost a trio of giants who were instrumental in helping to lend a national profile to this truly familial gathering: Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski; DA Pennebaker; and Julia Reichert, all of whom were feted with warmhearted tributes.

Steven Bognar, Reichert’s longtime partner in love and art, unveiled their final collaboration, Julia’s Stepping Stones, a project Bognar described as “my grief therapy.” The house that they shared was “way too empty and way too big” after her passing in December 2022, and “it was solace to sit in the editing room and play with the footage and stills of Julia.” When she received her diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2018, Reichert set out to narrate her story and her evolution from working-class daughter to aspiring journalist to activist/artist/distributor/entrepreneur; Bognar wove in this audio recording with video of Reichert on the phone, looking out at her garden, relating her story, in a more freewheeling fashion, to an interviewer. The result is a taut, 32-minute gem–a portrait of an independent artist in full trajectory.

Reichert’s first partner, Jim Klein, introduced Growing Up Female, which the duo made in 1970, while students at Antioch College. The film, now considered a classic in feminist cinema, profiles six females In different stages of their lives, all contemplating, under Reichert’s empathetic interviewing, their prospects and identities, and the challenges of navigating and realizing autonomy in a culture of limited options. It’s a snapshot of growing up female in middle America while the women’s movement was surging across the country. As Reichert recounts in Julia’s Stepping Stones, her and Klein’s grassroots DIY approach to both getting the film out to their intended audiences–imagine toting one 16mm print on overnight Greyhound rides to college campuses and community centers around the country–and taking ownership of their work paved the way to their co-founding non-theatrical distribution company New Day Films a year later.

Reichert and Bognar were regulars at Full Frame, as were DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, More effervescent sprites than wise elders, these legends made lifelong friends among the younger generations of filmmakers, many of whom, like Marshall Curry and Gary Hustwit, showed their first films there. Curry moderated a panel of Pennebaker’s collaborators like Nick Doob, Wendy Ettinger, and, of course, Hegedus, for an hour of war stories about the birth of direct cinema and Pennebaker’s passion as a tinkerer and builder, stemming from his engineering background; the making of The War Room; how Pennebaker and Hegedus worked together; and Pennebaker’s renown as a renaissance man. “He didn’t have expectations,” Doob noted of his process. “He wanted to live inside the eyepiece. He wasn’t going after things; things were coming to him. It was zen filmmaking: He’d just turn the camera on to see what would happen.” Hegedus noted that before he passed, he was working on his memoir, entitled The Youngest Person in the Room, which suited his insatiable curiosity.

Pennebaker left behind a prodigious archive of not only his completed works over his 60-year career, but his works-in-progress and outtakes. Hegedus and her team are seeking out a home for it, as well as a benefactor who can finance its restoration and upkeep.

Pennebaker joined The War Room team when he was 67, and would continue making films for the next quarter-century. Nancy Burstein turned to docmaking at 68, and made six films in ten years, in what would be her final act, following a two-decade run as founder/director of Full Frame. The festival presented a cavalcade of comrades–Curry, Yance Ford, Sam Pollard, among them–who testified to her vision, her hard-driving energy, her fearlessness and her collaborative spirit. “I learned two things from Nancy,” Ford reflected. “The power of the filmmaking community, and the way in which bringing us all together was such an important part of the filmmaking process.” Regarding Buirski’s programmatic vision, Ford noted, “It was such an example of what filmmaking can be in all of its forms. It encouraged me to think outside of what was possible for documentary filmmaking. All of us were able to push ourselves towards an uncertain future because of what we saw in Nancy’s programming.”

Curry noted that Buirski, Pennebaker and Reichert “all had an insatiable curiosity, and a generosity of their time and expertise, and all had a spirited, joyful enthusiasm about making work and appreciating the work of others.”

The same can be said about an artist who is still very much among us, yet forever young: composer/producer Brian Eno, the subject of Gary Hustwit’s generative documentary, Eno. In tackling Eno, Hustwit knew that, with someone as pioneering and curious as his protagonist, he wanted to develop a project that would match Eno’s venturesome sensibilities. So, he considered the idea of filmmaking and film exhibition as a generative process and experience. Teaming up with UK-based computational artist Brendan Dawes, the duo spent five years creating a generative AI system that would accommodate Eno’s archives and new interviews. “I wanted to make a film that was different every time it screened,” he explained as he introduced the film.

And so, the Full Frame attendees sat back and watched the one-and-only screening of this specific version. Eno himself is a genial, self-effacing baedekker through this singular journey through life, music and art; he had intimated to Hustwit and Dawes how much he hated music documentaries, but was sufficiently impressed with the pair’s adventurous intentions that he signed on. Along the way, he takes us back and forth, in a sort of Möbius strip, through his early inspirations–among them, Ketty Lester, Little Richard, and the blending of red and blue colors–and his current fascinations: incorporating the sounds of nature; the confluence of light and sound; and setting up the process, codes and rules for generative music. David Byrne makes a couple of appearances–both in footage from the Talking Heads days, and more recently, reading from Eno’s deck of “Oblique Strategies” cards, which Eno created, seemingly in the spirit of the I Ching, to spur creativity.

Eno is, in effect, in conversation with younger versions of himself, as he ruminates on ambient music, his preference for the studio over the stage, ephemera vs permanence, the joy of singing groups, being vs. becoming. This kind of cerebral fluxus, of reflecting for the sake of looking forward, does lend itself to a generative project that never ends, for which there’s no sequel or prequel or episodic sequence. Scheherazade, arguably the first generative storyteller, who practiced her art over the course of 1,001 nights in order to stay alive, probably would have loved this film. Being present for the premiere and final screening of what I’ll call Full Frame Eno compels me to soak in the “next last version,” to see what I missed and what I stand to gain.

Shoghakat Vardanyan had other things in mind than contemplating the aesthetic possibilities of the documentary form when she first picked up her smart phone to create what would become 1489. For her, filmmaking was a means of holding out hope, of survival, of documenting an agonizing two years. In 2020, her native Armenia and neighboring Azerbaizhan went to war over a disputed border territory. During the 44-day war, Vardanyan’s brother, Soghomon, a composer/musician, was drafted into the conflict–and disappeared after seven days. Over the next two years, Vardanyan captured the agony of waiting, of not knowing, of doing everything possible to keep hope alive. In one scene, her father, a sculptor, paces back and forth in silence; in another, he explains the mythology behind one of his friezes–and how it relates to his missing son. Her mother prays and sings her son’s songs. And Vardanyan herself shaves her head. This is cinema of suspension, when the litany of Kafkaesque calls to bureaucracies about the whereabouts of “1489”–Soghomon’s given identity as an MIA soldier–are juxtaposed with wrenching encounters with the last soldiers to see him alive. And on his birthday, the family receives two of his bones; 1489 becomes, to the family, Saint Soghomon. This is not, to use that overwrought word, closure; this is profound grief. This is filmmaking as testament, as affirmation, as tribute. 1489 earned a Special Jury Award at Full Frame.

Yance Ford made his first film, Strong Island, partly to honor his slain brother, whose perpetrators were acquitted by an all-white jury. The film is a personal meditation on family history, tragedy and racial injustice–and it laid the foundation, in a way, for Power, Ford’s trenchant exploration of the history of law enforcement in America. Dense with archival footage dating back a century, as well as riveting analysis from scholars, journalists, former and current police officers, and victims of police brutality, Power gives us the kind of history and context that those in power seek to censor and erase. Throughout America’s narrative, as the film suggests, law enforcement was deployed in the name of slave patrols, forcible removal of Indigenous peoples, suppression of labor movements, and a general manifestation of force and fear, impunity and unaccountability. Ford maintains a subtle, Brechtian presence throughout the film, from his opening voiceover, in which he states that he came to the project “with curiosity and suspicion” about the history of policing in America, through his occasional interjections, most notably when partially occluding the viral footage of the murder of George Floyd, or when challenging an interviewee about what she means by “we.” In this approach, Ford both empowers and implicates us viewers into asking who the slogan “To protect and serve” is truly for.

Clay Tweel, back in Durham for the first time since 2016’s Gleason, presented The Bitter Pill, which follows the heroic journey of West Virginia attorney Paul Farrell in his years-long crusade against Big Pharma and the devastating toll they have taken on his home state of West Virginia.

Tweel and his team take viewers through the byzantine, arduous arcana of the law, its byways and bivouacs, cul de sacs and ditches. Farrell, who comes from a family of lawyers and jurists, is a shrewd and tenacious tactician and strategist, as attorneys need to be, when taking on the deep-pocketed legal eagles from corporate America.

Tweel takes us along, as Farrell takes his cause nationwide, assembling a formidable team of like-spirited warriors who have toiled for years on the oxy beat. We see the process—flowcharts, databases, spreadsheets, reams of legal documents, the hours of frustrating company-line-toeing depositions—that underscores the physical and emotional toll the legal profession takes on its practitioners.

Farrell’s tenacity and aggression get the better of him: The national team kicks him off the case, but he rationalizes that by the time the settlement would trickle down to his county in West Virginia, the amount would not be sufficient to accommodate the magnitude of the epidemic. Spoiler alert: Farrell takes a tactical risk in opting for a more expeditious bench trial–and loses. But, as one audience member assured both Farrell and Tweel in the Q&A, the film won. Endings may be unhappy in the short term, but sometimes losses can be noble and ennobling.

Tom White is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor.


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