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That's a Wrap: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, 2010

Durham, North Carolina was the place to be last weekend if you love documentaries. One-hundred-and-one docs from 27 countries, including 33 US, North American or World premieres, were screened between Thursday morning and Sunday evening at the historic Carolina Theatre and the adjacent Durham Convention Center and Durham Arts Council, as part of the thirteenth annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Five programming blocks running from 10 AM to midnight, in five performance spaces, provided festival goers with the opportunity to see a diverse body of documentaries, some of which will eventually have theatrical runs or make it to DVD, but many of which are unlikely to ever be screened anywhere outside the festival circuit.

The festival's transition this year to new leadership under Executive Director Deirdre Haj was seamless. Haj, together with Director of Programming Sadie Tillery, continued the tradition of excellence for which Full Frame is renowned, evidencing none of the financial constraints which have plagued other festivals in recent years. In fact, this year Full Frame expanded its commitment to include two free outdoor screenings in Durham Central Park.

Multiple performance spaces in close proximity 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 the many showings that sold out in advance were almost always opened to those waiting in the last minute line.

As in past years, seating was plentiful but the quality of the performance spaces used for Full Frame continued to vary from the uncomfortable temporary seating and problematic sightlines for the two improvised performance spaces in the Civic Center, to the traditional cinema experience of the historic Caroline Theatre. So much superior is the Caroline Theatre's performance spaces that the venue was sometimes the deciding factor between two otherwise evenly-matched offerings. Nevertheless, the benefits of having so many performance spaces in such close proximity certainly outweighs the drawbacks.

Despite seeing films in all but one of the nineteen time slots between Thursday morning and Sunday evening, I managed to catch just thirteen of the fifty-seven documentaries in competition, but of what I saw the standouts were Lucy Walker's Waste Land, which won the Audience Award, Lixin Fan's Last Train Home, and Tim Hetherington and Sebatian Junger's Restrepo.

Waste Land, which also won the audience award at Sundance and the Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, documents a charitable art project undertaken by Brazilian-born, NY-based, contemporary artist Vik Muniz. Muniz collaborates with Brazilian recyclers (don't call them garbage pickers) to turn refuse into photo-realistic portraits, earning top dollar on the art market to benefit the recyclers and their community. The strong bonds of affection which develop, and the demonstrable sense of empowerment the project engenders among the participants, make Waste Land a must see.

The Last Train Home and Restrepo are modern masterpieces of cinéma vérité. The first film from director Lixin Fan, Last Train Home is a moving observation of one family of Chinese workers who join the annual mass exodus of 130 million migrant workers from the cities where they toil to their home villages for the Chinese New Year. Restrepo, arguably the best wartime documentary to emerge from Afghanistan since Aleksandr Sokurov's Spiritual Voices (1995), documents the 15-month deployment of American soldiers in the remote Korangal Valley, which U.S. forces have abandoned just this very week after 42 American combat fatalities and hundreds more wounded in action since 2006.

Awards were also given to Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath's Enemies of the People, which offers a fresh look at Cambodia's killing fields; Robin Hessman's history of modern Russia through the personal experiences of five former classmates, My Perestroika; John-Keith Wasson's Surviving Hitler: A Love Story;Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's exploration of one front in the the ongoing ideological battle about abortion in America, 12th & Delaware; and the shorts Book of Miri by first-time Danish filmmaker Katrine Philp, and The Poot by Iranian filmmaker Elham Asadi.

Documentaries of note not in competition included the North American premiere of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's Kings of Pastry, documenting the competition for pastry's highest honor, the Meilleur Ouvrirer de France (MOF), and Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers recounting the engrossing story of the former Marine and government analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Look for Kings of Pastry in theaters this fall, and The Most Dangerous Man in America in limited release now.

The best film I saw at Full Frame this year, surprisingly, was neither in competition, nor headed to theaters, but was rather part of the thematic program on work & labor programmed by the filmmaking-couple Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. The film in question was Travis Wilkerson's experimental documentary An Injury to One (2002), which recounts the murder of union-organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana in 1917 though austere 8mm film, archival stills and newspaper articles, emotionally-distant narration, and a haunting ambient score, culminating in an unforgettable whole reminiscent in tone to James Marsh's docudrama Wisconsin Death Trip (1999). An Injury to One is available on DVD from Icarus Films, but unfortunately only at the prohibitive price of $390. Here's hoping for a steep reduction in price at some future date.

Just 362 days left until Full Frame 2011. Hope to see you there!

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