Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2018: A Vital Community of Cinematic Truth-Seekers in the American South

If the state of nonfiction storytelling today could be summarized in a single phrase, it would the title of a moviemaker panel at the 2018 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: “Documentary in the Time of Fake News.”

Discerning verifiable facts from absurd lies presented as reality is now part of every individual’s daily routine in this post-truth world. False statements that fit the twisted narrative of those in power are preached as unquestionable certainties, creating a disturbing disconnect between those who believe them and those who challenge them. 

Moviemakers, particularly those working in documentary, have had to grapple with the unnerving notion that we are living in a divided time where these two parallel universes struggle to coexist.

At the 21st edition of Full Frame, which took place April 5-8 in Durham, North Carolina, moviemakers fiercely upheld the role of integrity and commitment to relevant stories as powerful agents to counteract the effects of misleading information. Having the American South as a backdrop works to contextualize its significance as a harbor for progressive thinking.

In the aforementioned panel, directors Maxim Pozdorovkin (Our New President), Laura Nix (Inventing Tomorrow), Stephen Maing (Crime + Punishment), and producer Christopher Clements (The Cleaners) debated the extent to which their artistic visions are distinct from the duties of journalism and whether or not their work should be scrutinized under the same parameters. 

They adamantly defended the subjectivity of storytelling, even when it’s grounded in actual situations or people. They also praised the emotional level of engagement documentary has with the public opposed to simply having the objective of disseminating information. But when news sources dedicate themselves to rearranging unfounded claims for ulterior motives, the role of the non-fiction filmmaker naturally evolves, taking on more responsibility. 

Pozdorovkin, Nix, Maing, and Clements discuss the responsibilities for doc filmmakers in the current era during the “Documentary in the Time of Fake News” panel.

Passionate audiences were always on hand at Full Frame, both for discussions like this and at every screening, ready to interact with the women and men behind the programmed films. Nearly every work was accompanied by its director, which is a testament to Full Frame’s impeccable reputation among the doc community. Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski presented her latest feature The Rape of Recy Taylor, while doc legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus received the 2018 Advocacy Award for their contributions to the medium. The festival also hosted a tribute to Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim as well as a sidebar of films curated by Joe Berlinger. Full Frame is undoubtedly a sacred site for any documentarian or film lover committed to the art form. 

Every screening took place at The Carolina Theater which could itself be the subject of a historical documentary, given its perpetually reckoning with discriminatory practices of its past. The venue’s third floor houses the separate box office African Americans used during the segregation era, and stands as a dark reminder of the town’s, and the country’s racist past. Surrounded by the names and photographs of African American staff or key patrons of the theater’s history, the balcony’s entrance commendably acknowledges their contributions.

The fest’s lineup collected Sundance standouts, low-key SXSW gems, world premieres, and an assortment of the most prominent docs in the circuit over the past year. Packed over a weekend, most films only screen once with the exception of the award winners.

Tears flowed throughout the entirety of Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders, a heart-wrenching portrait of Nadia Murad, the young Yazidi woman who survived the genocide ISIS committed against her people. Becoming the voice of all Yazidis, while struggling with her own trauma and the weight of her people’s precarious situation in refugee camps across the globe, Nadia lives in a constant state of distress. Bombach captures the strength and vulnerability of a woman from a small village thrown into the foreign arena of international politics, as she pleads for the world to help those still suffering. 

Plying with the boundaries between unfiltered behavior and scripted performance, Eugene Richards’ Thy Kingdom Come, starring Javier Bardem, was one of the most engrossing and morally ambiguous projects at Full Frame.

Visitors flock to the historic Carolina Theater which acknowledges its own role in the country’s segregated past.

Hired by Terrence Malick to film locals in Bartlesville, Oklahoma interacting with Bardem playing a priest, at first Richards had no intention of making anything out of these conversations. Although the subjects knew the conceit, they still spoke to Bardem with candor and painful honesty about their lives. Years later, Richards and Bardem, knowing the raw humanity within this footage, were able to license the footage back from Malick to assemble this fascinating hybrid.  Richardsfeature was preceded by Mexican short doc “Las Nubes,” about a man who, in anonymity, speaks about his experience being taunted by drug dealers in a small town.

Two world premieres, screened back-to-back on a Saturday afternoon, served as the perfect double feature: The Unafraid and The Pushouts. The former, directed by Anayansi Prado and Heather Courtney, follows undocumented students in Georgia fighting to able to attend local universities and pay in-state tuition. All of the DACA recipients featured along with their families were present at the festival. Also focused on the access to education for communities of color, The Pushouts, directed by Katie Galloway and co-directed by Dawn Valadez, tells the story of professor and author Dr. Victor Rios, a former gang member, who attempts to inspire the youth in neighborhoods similar to those where he grew up, so that they can change their personal paths in spite of a system that sets them up for failure. The Unafraid took home the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights. 

Alexandria Bombach’s speaks at a screening of On Her Shoulders, a tearjerker portrait of a woman thrust into the spotlight as an international spokesperson against genocide.

One of the big winners was Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, a look at the side effects of domestic violence from the perspective of a racially diverse group of skaters, the director included, as they come to terms with the distorted and hurtful versions of masculinity they were taught and how the cycles repeat themselves. Liu earned the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature and an honorable mention for the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.

The two other major standouts and eventual winners were Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons, a harrowing look at a Syrian father grooming his young children to become jihadists against the West. Managing to humanize a subject whose acts and beliefs could have easily been sensationalized is the movie’s most outstanding accomplishment. Eliciting occasional tenderness out of so much darkness, the viewer is at once reviled, moved, and terrified at how the story unfolds. Derki was awarded the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award. 

The other, RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening, was the top winner earning The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award. Comprised of images captured over multiple years, his beautifully shot film is an expansive exploration of black lives in Hale County, Alabama. It’s nearly experimental approach forgoes traditional narrative, and instead creates connections and contrast by arranging everyday moments involving African Americans in this Southern town. Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul served as creative adviser, and it’s clear the pair’s visual sensibilities align. 

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has become a staple of life in Durham and in that of moviemakers seeking something real among the rubble of our current relationship with truth. Its place in the American South and in the doc community at large is not only significant, but desperately vital. MM

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