Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Very Semi-Serious
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Durham
Sunday, April 10, 2016

This weekend’s late-spring freeze turned attendees of the nineteenth annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival into puffy little cotton balls, their down jackets swishing together in tight theater aisles, making the cinemas feel even fuller than usual. By Sunday, everyone had gotten the hang of the ticketing process, screening locations, and which bathrooms had the fastest moving lines. The festival moved like a well-oiled, well-bundled machine.

I’ll admit it: this was my first time at Full Frame. I was afraid that social media and mobile devices had diminished my attention span to the point that watching back-to-back films would require an impossible amount of focus. But I routinely go to music festivals, and, as I age, I find the availability of chairs and air conditioning at any event incredibly appealing. Plus, these days, I watch more content from the PBS app than I do from Netflix. Surely this counts for something.

Driving into downtown Durham earlier in the week, I met—and spent more time than I’d like with—a cranky, tangled web of vehicular and pedestrian traffic near the Carolina Theatre. But on Sunday morning, the parking decks offered a bounty of open spaces, and people moved with swift purpose, their little lanyards bouncing around their necks like leashes no longer attached to an overprotective owner.

By ten a.m., Fletcher Hall was stuffed for Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Werner Herzog’s sprawling documentary about the Internet was divided into ten parts, which explored the power and vulnerability of a human-made contraption and how it now influences the people who use it. Apparently, “LO”—the two letters of “LOGIN,” which a hulking beige computer managed to send before crashing—was the first transmission ever sent through the Internet, way back in 1969.

Before the film, the audience was instructed to holster its cellphones. As the majority of Herzog’s footage is of people using or talking about digital devices, Lo should have come with a trigger warning. Incredibly, I didn’t catch a single soul sneaking a peek at a cellphone (though maybe they all have covert smart watches).

Watches or no, Lo and Behold was delightful and engaging. Herzog’s deadpan narration kept the crowd in stitches, and one particularly tickled man in the balcony emitted such a cackle that it routinely set off a chain reaction of laughter in response. For a documentary about the often solitary Internet, the experience felt surprisingly communal.

Between films, I stopped by the awards ceremony (see winners below) at the Durham Armory to grab some coleslaw and perch on a set of slate steps, since the long family-style tables were jam-packed. I was amazed to discover people still had applause left in them—there is a lot of clapping at Full Frame—though one of the biggest reactions came during a short speech lamenting the economic, personal, and political impacts of HB 2.

Before long, I had to scurry to a makeshift theater in the Durham Convention Center to catch Very Semi-Serious, an offbeat documentary about New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and his legion of cartoonists. Though the film is an intimate look at Mankoff and old-guard cartoonists like Roz Chast and Mort Gerberg (plus the magazine’s very necessary effort to be more inclusive of younger, more diverse voices), rarely did a minute pass without a shot of the kind of single-panel cartoon that the magazine is known for. I imagine the Venn diagram of New Yorker readers and Full Frame attendees features a pretty heavy overlap, and the room was lively and energetic. People sloughed off piles of clothes like butterflies breaking from their casings, and were quick to offer handshakes and opinions.

It was a lively, lighthearted finish to a festival that demands much of its audience, mentally and emotionally. And, despite my fear, I surprised myself: I realized my cellphone was dead only as I shuffled back to the parking deck to return to the world of cars and traffic, the world that requires navigation routes in and out of Durham.

2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Award Winners

The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award:
Starless Dreams, dir. Mehrdad Oskouei

Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short:
Clínica de Migrantes: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, dir. Maxim Pozdorovkin

Full Frame Audience Award–Feature:
Life, Animated, dir. Roger Ross Williams

Full Frame Audience Award–Short:
Pickle, dir. Amy Nicholson

Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award:
Sonita, dir. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award:
Call Me Marianna, dir. Karolina Bielawska

Full Frame Inspiration Award:
Starless Dreams, dir. Mehrdad Oskouei

Full Frame President’s Award:
The Mute’s House, dir. Tamar Kay

Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights:
Kiki, dir. Sara Jordenö