Martin Scorsese has come and gone, and so has the close-knit community of documentary filmmakers who descended on Durham last weekend for the 8th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. By most measures, the festival was a roaring success, with strong ticket sales and the opportunity for a first glimpse at such stellar films as After Innocence, Be Here to Love Me, Why We Fight and the festival’s multiple winners, Murderball and The Education of Shelby Knox. Despite some confusion about the judging procedure for the Grand Jury Award for features, the festival seemed to enter a new era of institutional stability, both in the global documentary community and as a Durham cultural event.
A big part of the new confidence is due to the addition of the American Tobacco Warehouse as a venue. With the assistance of the building’s owner, Capital Broadcasting, a 375-seat theater was erected in a large gallery space in the facility. The practical effect of this–in addition to adding another large screening room–was to showcase the commercial and cultural possibilities of Durham, particularly to out-of-towners (e.g. New Yorkers) who may have some skepticism about the cultural vitality of the community.
According to Executive Director Nancy Buirski, the addition of the Tobacco Warehouse, while successful logistically, was a strenuous and complicated endeavor. “It ended up costing more than we’d originally anticipated,” she said in a telephone conversation Monday afternoon. “It took an enormous amount of time for [festival director] Robin Smith and the technical crew to prepare it. We had to buy the pipes and drapes and risers,” she said.
Buses donated by the city of Durham provided transportation for festival goers, but many chose to walk. For the first time, the expanded footprint made the festival seem integrated into Durham. The Southern Documentary Fund hosted a party in a raw retail space on Main Street that many–visitors and locals alike–found time to attend, and pedestrians with festival badges were seen strolling around the bars of Brightleaf Square.
The festival also announced that they’d landed an important patron in Duke University, which has pledged $100,000 of cash support for the next three years, making the school the festival’s single largest cash sponsor. The school will also expand its institutional support of the Full Frame Fellows program and the panels. As Buirski noted in a Friday press conference, this support will stabilize the future of the festival, which formally separated from its original incubator, Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, in 2002. In an interview Friday evening, Tom Rankin, Full Frame board member and Center director, said that the change will also strengthen the Center’s continued involvement with the festival.
But if the festival was a cultural and financial success, an unfortunate and avoidable controversy over the judging procedure emerged. Although the issue seemed to resolve itself, it also hints at new challenges ahead for the festival.
One of the festival’s virtues is its intimacy, with fans, journalists and upstart filmmakers mingling with the likes of famed documentary makers like D.A. Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple on the street and at cocktail parties. But this intimacy came with a price when some filmmakers approached members of the grand jury and asked for their thoughts on their own films.
A typical story was that of Peter Friedman, co-producer of Mana: Beyond Belief, who approached grand jury member John Pierson at the HBO-sponsored party at Fowler’s on Friday night. Pierson informed Friedman that not only had he not seen his film, but that Mana was not being considered for the Grand Jury Award because the jury had already received a short list of 12 films for consideration.
Pierson is a veteran of the indie film scene who is best known for his representation of the early work of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. In a conversation Saturday night, Pierson acknowledged that he understood the impulse to create a short list so the jurors would not have to watch all 57 features in competition. Like everyone else, he stressed the need for transparency. “My bottom line is that if some other entity is creating a short list, people need to know about it,” Pierson said.
Pierson said he planned to discuss the issue with other jurors during their Sunday morning deliberations. (The other three jurors were Kopple, Chris Hegedus and Linda Goode Bryant, all excellent filmmakers.)
As it turns out, the festival did disclose its judging procedure for the Grand Jury Award in acceptance letters sent by e-mail in mid-February.
On Monday morning, Durham’s Cynthia Hill, whose film The Guestworker, co-produced with Charles Thompson, was in competition at the festival but not on the short list, provided a copy of her acceptance letter. On the second page of a two-page missive from Director of Programming Connie Di Cicco, the policy is set forth: “Not all films are eligible for all awards. Specifically, the Grand Jury Award will be chosen from a selected number of finalists, determined by the Programming Department.” (This programming department consisted of Di Cicco, Buirski, Full Frame programming and panel coordinator Phoebe Brush and the chairs of the selection committee, Nancy Kalow and David Paletz.)
On Sunday, the issue came out into the open as filmmakers began to voice their concerns to members of the Full Frame staff. Buirski addressed the issue publicly at the afternoon awards barbecue with an apology and a clarification. But as Buirski concluded her remarks, one filmmaker, Dan Geller of Ballets Russes, called out, “What were the 12 films, Nancy?” Buirski responded that the titles would be released in a later press announcement.
On Monday, the festival released those titles: The 3 Rooms of Melancholia; After Innocence; Be Here to Love Me; The Color of Love; Murderball ; Pack Strap Swallow; The Ritchie Boys; Same Sex America; Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire; Shape of the Moon; Street Fight; and Why We Fight. (Following an afternoon-long trend of prize-splitting, the Grand Jury Award was shared by Murderball and Shape of the Moon.)
Like many others, Cynthia Hill said that she didn’t realize that there was a two-stage process. “We just don’t read enough,” she said with a laugh. Although Hill didn’t expect her film to contend for the Grand Jury prize, she still went into the festival assuming that her film would be seen by the blue ribbon jurors. “I was happy we were in the festival, and happy to participate,” Hill said, “but it was a little frustrating to have to explain to jurors that your film is in the festival and what your film is about.” Hill notes that Barbara Kopple asked her for a copy of The Guestworker for later viewing.
For Buirski’s part, she said, “I’m not going to stand on principle and say ‘We put it in the letter, so there.’” Instead, she and the festival planners plan to take a variety of steps to make the process clearer next year, for filmmakers and festival goers alike.
The intensity of the issue, Buirski and filmmakers agree, is a symptom of the burgeoning interest in documentaries. There are more festivals showcasing the form now, and filmmakers now have to strategize about where to show their films, and also where to spend their (usually) meager funds on plane tickets.
Another concern is the issue of world premieres. A filmmaker only gets one shot at a world premiere, and some of those premiering at Full Frame may not have realized that their work wouldn’t necessarily get reviewed by Pierson, Kopple, Hegedus and Bryant. In the increasingly tough world of film festivals, once the “world premiere” moment has been exploited, the exhibition options begin to narrow. This year, there were 11 world premiere features, three of which ended up on the short list.
“One thing we’re going to do now is start conversations with other festivals in proximity to ours,” Buirski said. “We want to take the pressure off of filmmakers and give them the opportunity to show in as many festivals as possible.” Such market-driven pressures are a consequence of the increased demand for documentaries and subsequent proliferation of documentary film festivals (a development that Full Frame helped ignite).
Despite his outburst at the Sunday awards ceremony, Dan Geller was conciliatory afterward, voicing a common sentiment. “We don’t really care about the awards, we’re just concerned about transparency,” he said. “Like other filmmakers, we feel that just getting in is the prize.”