Friday, April 04, 2014

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Day One

The first day of the 17th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham, N.C. started out overcast, but the sun made its way through the clouds in the mid-afternoon. But why the hell does that matter when I and many others were spending all day (and the next three) inside dark screening rooms at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriott City Center?

This year's roster boasts 48 new documentaries, 23 Invited Program films including 13 World Premieres and 11 North American Premieres, and the World Premiere of Doug Block's 112 WEDDINGS, which screened as the Opening Night Film earlier this evening. More on that later.

This morning, I attended my first film of the festival: Rory Kennedy's LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, concerning the complicated process of evacuating a war-torn Saigon before Northern Vietnamese forces take over. 

The bulk of the doc is constructed from an amazing amount of great grainy archival footage, along with photos, period TV news reports, and home video. Interspersed throughout are interviews with members of the military, press, and other key participants, most recounting the immense moral dilemma of whether to obey White House orders and only evacuate Americans, or whether to save as many Vietnamese lives as possible. LAST DAYS is more gripping than most recent thrillers, and there's a lot of heart pouring through the remembrances.

Now onto some short docs starting with Maurice O'Brien's BUFFALO DREAMS, a 15-minute film about Scott Shand, Scotland's only commercial bison farmer. Beautifully shot by Director of Photography Fraser Rice, the piece conveys how times are tough for the herder as weather conditions and financial failings threaten his livelihood. Despite its brief length, O'Brien's doc certainly makes an impression.

Next up, I saw Sandy McLeod's SEEDS OF TIME, concerning agriculturalist Cary Fowler, the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka “The Doomsday Vault.” It’s an installation located in Svalbard, Norway, that contains back-up copies of seeds of all the world's crops. This is because, as Fowler passionately puts it, the threat of climate change is “the single greatest challenge that agriculture has ever faced.” I thought I might be bored by a doc about a guy who's all about seeds, but the noble narrative of Fowler's mission, entertainingly enhanced with animated sequences by Sam Marlow, made for a thoroughly engrossing 76 minutes.

A couple of short works paired together followed beginning with Scott Calonico's THE SILLY BASTARD NEXT TO THE BED. The title of the 9 minute film comes from something JFK said on the phone to an air force general on the phone in 1963. Using footage, photos, real audio, and interview snippets, Calonico tops his similar style LBJ short that screened at last year's Full Frame.

Also good in the 'let's laugh at history' vein was the following feature: Brenda Goodman's SEX (ED) THE MOVIE, another doc clocking in under 80 minutes. It's a half history/half "best of" of American sex education films, many of which have been excerpted in other documentaries, and endlessly parodied by the likes of SNL and The Simpsons. Definitely the most purely fun doc of the day, and when it came to breaking down how different gender agendas were portrayed to schoolchildren of the past, I learned as much as I laughed.

Lastly, the Opening Night film: Doug Block's 112 WEDDINGS. I've not seen any of Block's previous docs (51 BURCH STREET, THE KIDS GROW UP), but the filmmaker/part-time wedding videographer's work here reminds me of Ross McElwee's (SHERMAN'S MARCH, BRIGHT LEAVES) stuff in its soft-spoken charm. Block looks back over the footage of the 20 years of ceremonies he's filmed, and catches up with with some of the couples now to see if they lived happily ever after or not. It's very amusing (sometimes sad) to see these cases of then and now, all of which is summed up by one interviewees' statement that “happy weddings are a dime-a-dozen, happy marriages are rarer.” This doc got the biggest laughs of the day, though SEX (ED) came mighty close in that regard.

Alright, that was a fine first day of Full Frame. Check back tomorrow for coverage of Day Two, and for live tweeting of the event follow @filmbabble

More later...

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