Durham, North Carolina—
Southern hospitality can't fully account for the warm vibe at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a down-home reality check whose 10th annual edition recently culminated in an awards ceremony that included a smokin' barbecue buffet and a bluegrass band. (The musicians genially offered soundtrack services to the filmmakers in trade for whiskey and a hot meal.) Despite the Full Frame's growing number of world premieres, market action remains minimal here, which helps explain the unusual sense of calm at this festival, one where academics and activists outnumber autograph-seekers 10 to one, and where legendary documentarians can be seen lining up alongside ordinary folks for both film and food. Nearly ubiquitous here, D.A. Pennebaker threaded up his new collection of Dont Look Back outtakes, 65 Revisited, a B-side of a movie whose mellow groove finally proves after 40 years that Bob Dylan wasn't only an electrified prick in '65.
More wistful hipster footage could be seen in the Pennebaker-picked revival of La vie commence demain, an obscure French intellectual primer from 1950 in which the likes of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre appear eminently approachable to our host, a film-noirish tough guy who scratches his head and shows up on the Parisian doorsteps of various implausibly gracious geniuses. Before taking a seat all by his lonesome in the front row, Penny—aware that his beloved "doc" wouldn't likely wow the vérité set—made the Dylanesque suggestion that viewers could "stone" him if they wished, and he'd "take it like a man."
Onscreen and off, the rich and famous are awful darn nice down here. Hell, even Larry Flynt appears downright cuddly in The Right to Be Left Alone, a meager bio-doc that put a little sex in the otherwise scholarly Full Frame program—and I mean a little, like almost none. Director Joan Brooker-Marks includes the feminist complaint that Milos Forman's 10-year-old Flynt flick airbrushed porn without seeming to realize that her own film eliminates it altogether.
Nice has its downside, in other words. Enron director Alex Gibney kindly accepted the fest's invitation to screen a work-in-progress version of Gonzo, wherein gun-luvin' bad boy Hunter S. Thompson looks harmless, too. But judging from the cut, so rough that the title card "Johnny Depp appears" takes the place of footage more than once, the director probably should've passed. The good news for Gibney is that the other film he screened here—as a "sneak preview" in advance of its Tribeca "premiere"—looks a lot like the work of a master. Taxi to the Dark Side, which Gibney teasingly introduced to the crowd as a "murder mystery that leads from Afghanistan to Washington," is an indictment of U.S. torture culture that employs much of the same material as Rory Kennedy's recent Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, although its approach is less psychological than brutalizing. To its credit, Dark Side's eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye tale forgoes intellectualism in favor of blunt trauma; the only appropriate response to its punishing litany of abuses, unmistakably ordered by Pentagon and White House bullies, is...well, rage.
The complications of healing, including forgiveness, came in for scrutiny in three other Full Frame standouts. Macky Alston's aptly indecisive, provocatively cinematic The Killer Within wonders whether an old psychology professor can be trusted after confessing that he shot a rival schoolmate to death in his sleep some 50 years before. Liz Garbus's harrowing Coma initially seems to tackle the medical side of therapy in its study of four brain-injured patients, though its real story is how devastated family members manage to treat their own wounds. (The film will air on HBO.) And the tender Moving Midway finds film critic Godfrey Cheshire charting the progression of his family's North Carolina plantation—literally, as the house is hauled away to allow the paving of paradise, and politically, as the descendents of slaves are invited to participate in a housewarming party and a reconstructed vision of the South. (Full-frame disclosure: I've been friendly with Cheshire for 10 years.)
Finally, after the bluegrass and the barbeque had cooled, The Monastery emerged as the fest's big winner, as it scooped up two major prizes, including the Grand Jury Award. This infinitely engaging Danish doc follows the efforts of a stern, crabby, domineering octogenarian named Mr. Vig to donate his ancient Hesbjerg castle to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose visiting rep, a hardheaded nun, has control-freak issues of her own. Like Moving Midway, The Monastery observes the passing of an old house and an antiquated way of life—hardly smooth in the case of the latter film. Maybe Vig and the nun would've come to God more quickly over a plate of baked beans and ribs?