Finding the Full Focus of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

We took a trip to the 2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and found an event that really represents and celebrates the full range of nonfiction cinema.
By  · Published on April 11th, 2016

Yet another colleague told me over the weekend that Robert Greene’s acclaimed film Kate Plays Christine is not a documentary. This happened at a festival that only plays documentaries, so I’m not sure how such a statement can be uttered with an air of certainty. What is and isn’t a documentary isn’t really up for debate. We don’t get to have an opinion on the definition of the word, which originated in a review of a movie that was entirely staged fabrication of reality. We can only have limited ideas of what kinds of documentaries we prefer. Or, like the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, we can recognize the wide variety of what nonfiction cinema entails.

Full Frame is an annual four-day event held in Durham, North Carolina, presented as a program of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. I fantasize that the CDS is a place where people spend their days literally hunched over, poring over and dissecting documentary films with a fine-toothed comb. They and the festival certainly appreciate when filmmakers do that to and through their own craft, as this year they honored cinematographer Kirsten Johnson with a tribute, primarily in celebration of her new, doc-deconstructing feature Cameraperson. Anyone who thinks they know how documentaries are or should be made ought to be required to see that film.

The festival itself would actually be a good requirement for students, as it manages to be a lesson in media literacy by way of its diverse offering of films, old and new. There is something for everyone at Full Frame, but I’d argue that everything is for everyone, not necessarily that we should all like every film or even genre or style they showcase but that we should be so well-rounded in what we watch and are familiar with. The festival has no gimmicky screenings nor an obligation to the local tourism board, and I find that a rare situation these days. Everything is very centrally located so you don’t even have to go outside. There’s a real focus on attendees watching the films and that’s it.

With only about 100 titles shown over the extended weekend event, Full Frame can’t show everything. But it does show the latest essentials. The best documentaries of the year so far this year include Kate Plays Christine, CamerapersonNutsGleason and Weiner, which opened the festival. All five made their debuts at Sundance, as did Roger Ross Williams’s very popular Life, Animated, which seems to be a frontrunner for the Oscar based on the buzz I encountered (I unfortunately had to miss it for a panel I moderated). Also there: Sundance winner The Bad Kids, which I found to be a mess of observational cinema, an indistinct, story-less look at a school helping poor, troubled teens to graduate.

Again, we all have our own tastes, and perhaps I’m just tired of the kind of doc that presents, without much in the way of comment, poor, troubled teens. Another such film, the more locally relevant Raising Bertie, premiered at Full Frame to multiple standing ovations. I think it’s just aimless character study. But I wouldn’t want these films and their kind to go unrepresented, nor would I want to miss them, even if I think they’re weaker than other likeminded docs including 2014’s Rich Hill. Although I’m sure the fest aims to show only docs it believes meet a level of excellence, I more appreciate that it offers such scope in its programming and provides audiences with a place to discuss what we think works and what doesn’t.

Not that Greene thinks his film is a hybrid or that he is veering ever closer to making fully dramatized or fiction features, but it’s his and other documentaries that people question the documentary-ness of that are most in need of inclusion in nonfiction-focused festivals like Full Frame. There may be those who think classification is futile for cinema these days, but the more general film festivals still tend to receive more attention for their selections that are unmistakably fiction films. And as a result, the conversations at those fests are far less enlightening. I want a fest where it’s easy to strike up discussion of comedy in Finnish documentary cinema or of kinds of artifice and directorial manipulations used in different types of docs or have a public debate on the dangerousness of Vaxxed.

The only thing I wish that Full Frame didn’t focus on at all is awards. Festivalgoers love the idea of awards, especially the ability to vote for audience prizes and just finding out what they need to catch up with on a fest’s final day, as that’s always a time when winners receive encore screenings. For an event celebrating such a range of style and form, it’s not exactly the place for competition. If for no other reason than it’s so difficult to compare different kinds of docs. Kate Plays Christine shouldn’t have to be weighed against a more “conventional” film as perfectly produced as Unlocking the Cage or a more lighthearted archive-based feature like Following Seas or the animation heavy Nuts. And it’s not even totally clear to me what makes a film a contender for Full Frame prizes.

Below I highlight five films of varying sort and quality that I saw during Full Frame. I think they’ve been somewhat overshadowed by the idea of awards consideration and the tendency for flashier or more groundbreaking works (including Kate Plays Christine) or more “important” subjects to break through when it comes to buzz. The following films help to represent the full focus of Full Frame and I hope they continue to be recognized further by other documentary festivals and fans.

Following Seas: Starting off as a real-life Swiss Family Robinson and continuing with one riveting adventure story after another, this feature, a Full Frame world premiere, compiles 16mm footage shot by an amazing family living on sailboats through the 1960s and 1970s. Although archive-based, this kin to Kon-Tiki and Maidentrip is still the sort of experiential thrill ride I want more of in nonfiction cinema.

Golden AgeShown in one of the shorts program blocks, this experimental Finnish documentary actually makes an excellent companion piece to Cameraperson. It’s similarly comprised of old footage shot for other projects and then joined and repurposed for something new. Director Maija Blafield says it’s a “film about forgetting, remembering and documentary film making itself,” which also sounds like a description of Johnson’s feature.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru: The latest from Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) doesn’t dive very deep, but it is fascinating when thought of as a concert film about a six-day self-help seminar and with Berlinger’s admission that this is him sharing his impression of the Robbins-led event. It seems like an infomercial, but its intentions are hardly different from any other doc’s.

Two Trains Runnin’: Another standard TV-ready history lesson from Sam Pollard (Slavery By Another Name), this doc, which had its world premiere at Full Frame, chronicles an intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the rediscovery of Mississippi blues icons (the 50-year-old story is reminiscent of Searching for Sugar Man). Despite its conventional structure, it does stand out for injecting new performances of old blues songs, making for a minor musical film event. I’m dying for a copy of a soundtrack for this one.

Unlocking the Cage: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) are documentary legends, yet their new film about a lawyer seeking personhood status for chimpanzees hasn’t gotten much notice since its debut at Sundance. I think it’s because audiences are taking for granted just how expertly crafted it is. It’s a doc that presents difficult legal proceedings in an impressively digestible story that’s part animal rights issue film, part character portrait, and in full, a flawless yet otherwise unremarkably straightforward piece of nonfiction storytelling.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.