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That's a Wrap: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2009
That's a Wrap: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, April 2-5, 2009

Documentary film fans that weren't in Durham, North Carolina this past weekend missed out on some top-notch programming. One hundred films were screened between Thursday morning and Sunday evening, including fifty-nine new documentaries from twenty-eight countries, at the historic Carolina Theatre and the adjacent Durham Convention Center and Durham Arts Council. Five programming blocks running from 10 AM to midnight, in five performance spaces, provided audiences with the opportunity to see a wealth of documentaries, some of which will have theatrical runs and vie for prizes at the 2009 Academy Awards, but much of which is unlikely to ever be screened anywhere outside the festival circuit.

Multiple performance spaces in close proximity with a combined seating capacity of 2425 allowed festival-goers to catch nearly everything on their respective wish lists. Festival-goers had the option of buying a variety of festival passes at different price tiers, or individual tickets for ten or fifteen dollars each, but even showings that sold out in advance were usually opened to the ticketless last minute line.

Though seating was plentiful, the quality of the performance spaces used for Full Frame varied from the uncomfortable temporary seating and problematic sightlines for the two improvised performance spaces in the Civic Center, to the traditional cinema seating and sightlines of the historic Caroline Theatre. So much preferred was the Caroline Theatre's two principal performance spaces that several festival-goers I spoke to chose which films to see based on which performance space it played in.

Having managed to catch twenty-one of the fifty-nine documentaries in competition, the standouts I saw were Unmistaken Child which won the Full Frame Inspiration Award, presented to the film that best exemplifies the value and relevance to world religions and spirituality, and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, which won three top honors (the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award, the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and the Full Frame / Working Films Award) along with $22,500 cash and $17,500 in-kind prizes.

Unmistaken Child, the first feature-length documentary from Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz, follows the quest of Tenzin Zopa, a young Tibetan Buddhist monk charged with finding the reincarnation of his recently-deceased, venerable teacher, the Lama Konchog. Though not yet thirty, Tenzin had been the closest disciple of Lama Konchog for twenty-one years at the time of his teacher's death. Using stunning cinematography and masterful editing, Baratz captures Tenzin's remarkable quest that culminates in finding a one-year-old boy whose biographical details not only match the divinations and who easily passes the many tests provided to ensure that he is the reincarnated teacher, but who also exhibits a maturity and intensity of presence that has to be seen to be believed.

The highly-lauded Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country by Dutch filmmaker Anders Østergaard chronicles the efforts of underground, Burmese citizen-journalists to document the Burmese Regime's brutal repression of non-violent protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007. At the risk of their lives, these citizen-journalists, using small digital cameras, clandestinely capture images of riot cops and soldiers killing and brutalizing peaceful protesters: monks by the hundreds are rounded up and taken away; a professional Japanese journalist is gunned down on camera; several of the underground citizen-journalists are discovered and arrested, and yet despite all this they continue to smuggle their images to the outside world. Østergaard combines the digital images of the underground citizen-journalists with tasteful recreations of events occurring away from the street protests to create a thoughtful and moving record of bravery in the face of brutality.

Other documentaries of note in competition included Israeli filmmaker Oded Adomi Leshem's Voices from El-Sayed (winner of the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award) documenting an Arab-Israeli community where genetic deafness is common, faced with the decision whether to adopt ocular implants for the community's young children or to maintain the vitality of the mixed-deaf heritage of the community; O'er the Land, an experimental documentary about American values and pastimes by Deborah Stratman; and California Company Town, a meditative study of monolithic California towns that have gone bust by Lee Anne Schmitt. Documentaries of note not in competition included Sons of Cuba, a gripping chronicle of 12-year-old Havana boys training for future Olympic glory by Andrew Lang; Objectified, an insightful look at product design from the director of Helvetica; and Food Inc. by Robert Kenner, the latest anti-agribusiness broadside to feature advocate-authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation).

In addition to top-notch programming, the Full Frame organizers provided superb administration throughout the festival with a cadre of professional staff and an army of helpful volunteers. With thirty premier documentaries, dozens of other worthy films, numerous filmmakers in attendance, and smooth efficiency, this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Fest was a great success.

Here's hoping for an equally fabulous festival next year.

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