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Welcome to RealityWood: Full Frame Aims to Push Documentary to the Mainstream

By Hugo Perez
April 15, 2005

"Last year we saw the documentary explosion. A lot of people connected that to politics. The films were stirring up debate and creating a lot of attention for documentary, but I think what happened is more subtle than that. We achieved a tipping point that has finally succeeded in weaving the documentary film into the daily lives of people in the mainstream." remarked Nancy Biurski as this year's Full Frame Festival wound to a close. "The quality of film and variety of story that we saw in our entries this year is better than anything we've seen before." With 77 films in competition and 105 total films unspooling over it's four day run, Full Frame for another consecutive year expanded its already wide range of offerings begging one to ask not the festival's trademark question 'How much reality can you handle?' but 'How much reality can an audience member squeeze into a long weekend?'

"Documentary filmmakers need a place where they can get together to talk about their work. Writers have bars. We have Full Frame. I come here because there is a community that comes back year after year, some of whom I don't really have a chance to see anywhere else." commented verite godfather D.A. Pennebaker. Amongst the other filmmakers and guests in attendance were Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles,Joe Berlinger, HBO's Sheila Nevins, MTV's Lauren Lazin, POV's Cara Mertes, writers Walter Mosley and Ariel Dorfman, and Ric Burns who along with celebrated brother Ken received this year's Full Frame Career Award.

Opening night brought with it the world premiere of Barbara Kopple, Bob Eisenhardt, and Marijana Wotten's"Bearing Witness" which grippingly captures the dangerous and meaningful lives of five female war journalists striving to bear witness for those in war zones whose stories would otherwise remain untold. "Bearing Witness" was a fitting film and concept to kick of a festival that every year seems to strive more and more, through it's programming, to present films to its audiences that reveal previously untold stories.

While audiences flocked in droves to sold out screenings of the documentaries being exhibited over the weekend, the brightest spotlight of the festival shone on guest Martin Scorcese who in his capacity as chair of the Full Frame board was on hand to present a tribute to the Italian filmmaker Vittorio de Seta. For film connoisseurs, the screening of de Seta's series of short documentaries chronicling life in Sicilian fishing villages in the early fifties was the great revelation of the festival. Screened for the first time ever in the United States, the films are stunningly shot, some in Cinemascope, and beautifully edited to the sounds and traditional songs of the fishing villages, capturing something of a way of life that has since disappeared. Seeing De Seta's work for the first time had the impact of discovering a previously unknown filmmaker on a level with Robert Flaherty or Jean Rouch. Scorsese remarked, "There's a value in his work that makes us think about what we should be concerned about as human beings."

Saturday night's 'Evening with Martin Scorcese' gave Scorcese an opportunity to talk about the influence of the documentary form on his films throughout his career. "For me there is no difference between fiction and documentary except that there are moments of truth captured in documentaries that are very hard to achieve in fiction," said Scorsese.

Many of this year's bumper crop of new documentaries are deserving of mention, a number of which will be part of POV's 2005 season. Marshall Curry's "Streetfight" packs a wallop in its riveting portrayal of the the 2001 Newark, NJ mayoral campaign, a 'David and Goliath' tale which follows young idealist Cory Booker in his mano a mano efforts to unseat incumbent Sharpe James. Through a series of menacing confrontations with James' henchmen, the bare knuckles struggle envelops even the filmmaker who at one point has his camera damaged in a scuffle. Another 2005 POV film, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt' "The Education of Shelby Knox" is a deeply moving chronicle of teenager Shelby Knox' efforts to reform the sex education policies in her Lubbock Texas high school where students are taught abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs. Powerfully shot by Sundance DP award winner Gary Griffin the film achieves a moving intimacy with its subject.

Joe Berlinger was on hand to present "Gray Matter," his compelling first person journey documentary that follows Berlinger on his quest to find Vienna's Dr. Heinrich Gross, the alleged murderer of hundreds of children under the Nazi euthanasia program. The journey begins with the burial of the brains of over 600 of Gross' victims, brains which continued to be used for experimentation for almost sixty years after the end of World War II. Difficult to watch at times, Berlinger's film is a powerful and scathing indictment of a Viennese culture that has resisted dealing with its complicity with the Nazis and which has protected Dr. Gross for decades despite clear evidence of his crimes. Berlinger said, "This was a very personal film for me. Even though I had my hands full with the Metallica documentary I felt that I had to make this film."

Rachel Boynton's first film "Our Brand is Crisis" feels like the work of an old hand. It is a gripping inside look at how a team of American campaign consultants led by Jeremy Rosner and James Carville influence the outcome of Bolivia's presidential election in favor of their candidate Goni. While not overtly critical of its subjects, the film ultimately allows its American subjects to hoist themselves on their own petards and quietly indicts an American political culture being exported which values brand names and 'message' over substance and concrete policies.Garrett Scott and Ian Olds' "Operation Dreamland" is an immensely up close and personal look at the lives of the young men of the 82nd Airborne stationed in Fallujah prior to the major U.S. assault last year, a worthy addition to the spate of post-Iraq invasion documentaries.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this year's Full Frame Festival was its second year of partnership with Emerging Pictures to syndicate a curated selection of twelve festival documentaries to ten venues across the country running concurrently with the festival. Emerging Pictures VPBarry Rebo who was on hand at the festival commented, "Not everyone has the ability to come to the festival so we bring the festival to them. We feel that we not only allow more audience members in more cities to have access to these great films, but we also give the festival the opportunity to reach more people in more places than ever before." Based on the success of the Full Frame syndication, Emerging Pictures plans to work with other smaller "niche" festivals to syndicate their offerings in a similar fashion, which in the future might level the playing field between the larger and smaller festivals.

On Sunday, the Full Frame festival came to a close with its now traditional barbecue and awards ceremony. Over half of the juries giving prizes decided to either split the award or create an additional (in most cases cash) prize, in effect almost doubling the number of Awards given at Full Frame this year. Recent festival fave "Murderball" directed byHenry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro took home the Full Frame Grand Jury Award and split the Full Frame Audience Award with "The Shape of the Moon," directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich.

The Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short was given to Alessandro Cassigoli and Dalia Castel's "Good Times"and an Honorable Mention was given to "Max by Chance" directed by Max Kestner. The Full Frame "content + intent = change" Award was given to Jessica Sanders' "After Innocence" with an Honorable Mention being given to Garrett Scott and Ian Olds' "Occupation: Dreamland." Rachel Boynton's "Our Brand is Crisis" received The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.

The Seeds of War Award created by writer Walter Mosley to reward documentaries that 'lay bare the seeds and mechanisms that create war' was split between Pirjo Honkasolo's haunting "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" andEugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight." In receiving his award, Jarecki commented that "If we can have a festival like this in the shadow of war, we (as filmmakers) may be able to create something positive out of the difficult circumstances the world find's itself in." Spike TV's Full Frame Spectrum Award was split by Maryam Keshavarz'"The Color of Love" and Arturo Perez Torres' "Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary." Torres accepted his award for, "the people who live in the shadows of this country." Full Frame Women in Leadership Award and the Full Frame/Emerging Pictures Audience Award both went to Marion Lipshutz and Rose Rosenblatt's "The Education of Shelby Knox." This year's Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award went to Susan Stern's "The Self Made Man" with Hubert Davis' Hardwood receiving an honorable mention. In her remarks Stern expressed the idea shared by many of the gathered filmmakers and filmgoers that, "We have to believe that we can make this world a better place than we can imagine."

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