The 21st Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicks off this Thursday and it looks to be hitting America’s nonfiction sweet spot: films about individuals seeking to change the world, the power of family and the issue of race. Those with a ticket to Durham, North Carolina are in for the highest highs and lowest lows of the human experience at what’s one of my favorite documentary festivals. Full Frame has all the clout of being a major player — this year, it’s honoring legends Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com, Control Room, The Square) and it has A-list filmmaker Joe Berlinger curating a True Crime program — but at a smallish size that makes it feel manageable.
Sadie Tillery, Full Frame’s artistic director, told me what’s happening this year and just why the festival has succeeded at being a filmmaker’s festival as well as an audience favorite.
Based on the films being submitted to the festival, what are some of the themes or issues that you’ve noticed are important to filmmakers this year?
I think documentaries often shine a light on people who are making change in the world. This year we considered, and have programmed, a variety of films that detail intrepid individuals who have taken a stand for what they believe in. Patrimonio, The Area, The Providers, The Pushouts, The Rescue List, and Messenger on a White Horse, are examples of such films in our lineup this year.
We’re also screening a number of poignant films about families, such as The Blessing, David. The Return to Land, América, and The Bastard. We’re showing several films that powerfully examine race and discrimination, like 12th and Clairmount, Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, and Crime + Punishment. Additionally, Sky and Ground, This Is Home, and On Her Shoulders speak to the global refugee crisis. And we’ve programmed several wonderful documentaries that reflect on someone’s life and work, like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG. When I look at this year’s program, I see a wide breadth of stories about people who are making a difference in the lives of others.
Honestly, I could keep going until I’d listed every film in our program. It’s amazing how many connections appear between films as the lineup comes together. Someone once described it to me by saying that the films are like stars and it’s up to each festival attendee to make their own constellation. That’s what remains exciting to me about programming eighty some films over the course of a single weekend—viewers will discover their own connections and through lines.
We are in the second year of the Trump presidency; how do you see the current political climate impacting documentaries?
I’m still trying to come to terms with what happened on election day in 2016, and I see that reflected in some of the films we’re screening, too, especially Capturing The Flag, which follows volunteers working to support citizens at the polls in North Carolina during the presidential election and documents voter suppression as it unfolds that day. I can read about voter suppression and hear about voter suppression, but seeing it unfold on screen is staggering in an entirely different way.
Our New President is constructed with Russian state news footage and YouTube videos broadcast during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and delivers a disturbing compilation of propaganda and misinformation. The film is an entirely different reflection on the 2016 presidential election.
I think it may take a few years to see the ways the current political climate impacts documentaries. I suspect there are films still in production now that will allow us to consider the current administration with unique perspectives. Perhaps what’s going on in our country has made me more alert to films that show individuals who boldly take the need for change into their own hands.
Tell me a little about the special sections dedicated to Jehane Noujaim and Joe Berlinger’s Crime and Punishment film pics.
The festival will honor Jehane Noujaim with our annual Full Frame Tribute, and will screen four of her films over the course of the weekend: Startup.com, Control Room, Rafea: Solar Mama, and The Square. I think it will be particularly interesting to screen Control Room again, given the attack on news media today. Jehane’s films are riveting. Over the course of her career, she’s gained access to remarkable people who are at the center of dynamic, even historic, circumstances — Control Room documented Al Jazeera journalists when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and The Square was there on the ground in Cairo during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. It’s powerful to see significant events unfold through personal experiences.
Joe Berlinger joins us as the curator of this year’s Thematic Program. We could easily have programmed a series around true crime featuring his works alone — he’s returned to the subject matter again and again over the course of his career. The Thematic Program will include two of his groundbreaking films, Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, along with his recent documentary series Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio. The series also features films that highlight the different ways filmmakers have approached the genre over the years, from Titicut Follies to The Thin Blue Line. I’m proud that Full Frame continues to share curatorial space with filmmakers through the Thematic Program. It’s remarkable to see which films resonate for an artist around a particular topic, and it gives us an opportunity to revisit older works on the big screen. Documentaries detailing crime and the justice system are incredibly popular right now, but this Thematic Program shows that our fascination with what really happened and how trials unfold is not new. Whether we’re inside the courtroom or hearing from law enforcement or connecting with loved ones on either side of a case, documentaries give viewers the opportunity to understand the complexities involved both within a particular case and within the U.S. justice system overall.
The Deminer, The Unafraid and Owned: A Tale of Two Americas sound pretty interesting. Can you tell me a bit about each film?
Owned: A Tale of Two Americas and The Unafraid will have their world premieres at Full Frame, and The Deminer is screening as a North American premiere. It’s particularly exciting when we can be a part of sharing films with audiences for the first time.
The Deminer follows a former Colonel in the Iraqi army who commits his life to disarming bombs and landmines. It features remarkable home-movie footage of his work, described in detail by his son. The film is incredibly suspenseful. It’s astounding what he can do with very basic supplies and that he continues this pursuit in spite of the dangers involved.
Both The Unafraid and Owned: A Tale of Two Americas are particularly timely films. The Unafraid follows the stories of three undocumented students who are determined to pursue their education even in the face of mounting threats of deportation. The film is personal — we’re intimately following people’s lives — and is another potent example of how documentaries can reach beyond headlines and allow viewers to connect deeply with the people whose lives are at stake.
Owned: A Tale of Two Americas examines the history of U.S. housing policy, and particularly highlights the racist underpinnings that ensured a pathway to homeownership for some, but not all, Americans. The film provides a systematic analysis of this discrimination, and shows how it led to issues we face today regarding segregated communities, gentrification, and unequal distribution of wealth.
I noticed over the years that there are a lot of documentary film editors who attend the festival. Why do you think that is?
Full Frame strives to be a filmmaker’s festival. We’re aiming to create a landscape where filmmakers — not just directors, but producers, editors, and cinematographers — can come together, see each other’s work, and be a part of a community. Between screenings and discussions in our A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy, Full Frame makes space for dialogue and exchange.
It doesn’t hurt that Durham is a quick flight from New York City. The festival is easy to get to and easy to navigate once here. There’s a group of editors that comes down every year, and it’s humbling that they attend even when they’re not screening films. I think they are here to engage with the work and engage with other filmmakers. As a four-day event in a smaller city, Full Frame helps consolidate and focus that energy.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is from April 5-8 in Durham, North Carolina. For information about screenings and more, visit its official website.