It’s not hard to imagine the 16th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which begins Thursday at various locations in downtown Durham, as the Golden Corral of cinema – a sumptuous buffet in which you can stuff yourself or pick selectively among a number of choices.
Full Frame has grown in stature in its relatively short history; for the first time, it’s a qualifying event for the Academy Awards for best documentary short and the Producers Guild of America Awards, which means that along with meeting other criteria, films can be considered for those awards by being shown at Full Frame, without the usual theatrical run.
This year, the festival, part of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, has as its thematic program “Stories About Stories.”
Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev has chosen nine films, including two of his own, to explore the place where truth and perspective meet. Another acclaimed filmmaker, Jessica Yu, will be honored at the festival. Yu is known for her eclectic subject matter; eight of her films will be shown, including her 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” about a man stricken with polio as a child, and confined to an iron lung, who refuses to let those limitations define him.
Fifty-one features and shorts, selected from 1,200 submissions, will be screened as part of Full Frame’s “New Docs” program, making them eligible for the Audience Award and other juried prizes. Winners will be announced April 7.
With nearly 90 films (about the same as last year) to choose from during the festival’s run, it’s like standing at the buffet table and being paralyzed with indecision – lobster or prime rib? That film about child soldiers? Or the one about public defenders?
We’re here to help. We’ve screened several of the films in the festival and know the reputations of several others. Page 6D
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
The feminist trio jailed for performing an anti-Putin number in a Russian Orthodox church is the subject here. The young women are compelling, if sometimes awfully naive, presences, but the film makes a strong case for their bravery in confronting an authoritarian society. The doc will also be shown on HBO this summer.
If You Build It
Two out-of-town architects/design experts challenge a group of high schoolers in impoverished Bertie County , N.C., to learn design and build something that will enrich the local community. They teach them design principles, then ask them to build a cornhole board and a chicken coop. Then the kids compete to come up with a design for a town farmers market. Politics and finances influence their work, but even though this film has a bittersweet ending, it is also gloriously uplifting. Part of the Center Frame screenings, which means a panel discussion follows.
Stories We Tell
Actor/director Sarah Polley (“Take This Waltz”) set out to make a film about a family secret involving her larger-than-life mother. Using real interviews with family members and actors in re-created scenes, what this complex, beautifully structured work is really about is the elusive nature of memory and truth. Stunning.
A son looks for his father, an undocumented Mexican lost in the Arizona desert. A U.S. medical examiner and Mexican consul attempt to establish the identities of Mexican nationals who died crossing over. U.S. Border Patrol officers track down Mexicans sneaking into this country. Mesmerizing, heart-breaking, sometimes tough to watch, this is a must-see about our ongoing immigration discussion (It will also be shown on PBS later this month).
Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children
Gen. Roméo Dallaire was the United Nations commander in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Many of the killers were children, and Dallaire has become an advocate for ending the use of child soldiers. In this film, he returns to Africa and meets with former soldiers, militia leaders and government officials, all the while advocating for his cause. He’s the charismatic and passionate center of an absorbing film. Part of the Center Frame screenings, which means a panel discussion follows.
Gideon v. Wainwright was the U.S. Supreme Court case that guaranteed every criminal defendant the right to legal counsel. Focusing on several committed public defenders in the South, this impassioned work, which will also be shown on HBO, shines a light on a harsh, often unjust, but occasionally merciful system.
George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed third-trimester abortions, was murdered by an anti-abortion fanatic, later convicted of murder, in 2009. This film follows four colleagues of Tiller’s, the only ones in the U.S. who continue to perform the surgery. At once moving, horrifying, sobering and thought-provoking, this intense documentary is sure to provoke discussion.
Twenty Feet From Stardom
Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Linnear. Singers who have backed up the likes of Ray Charles, The Stones, Tina Turner and Sting. Never stars, but one key to any star’s success. This delightful film tells their story.
AKA Doc Pomus
Crippled by polio at age 6, little Jerome Felder grew up to become Doc Pomus, a songwriter with hundreds of hits to his credit (“Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “This Magic Moment,” among them). This film could have used more tunes and fewer talking heads, but it’s still a fascinating look at a man who overcame tremendous odds to become a pop music legend, who died in 1991.