Erica's Dispatch from Full Frame: Day One

It€™s been a few years since I€™ve been to Full Frame in Durham, North Carolina. America€™s first all-documentary festival, Full Frame is now entering its 13th year. As in the past, it draws documentary industry from across the United States, as well as a healthy number of locals from the Research Triangle area who appreciate documentary film. This is my fourth time at the festival in the past 10 years and I must say that Full Frame continues to be one of my favorite film festivals for the fact that, as it grows larger, it remains true to its small-town spirit.


Which is not to say that it has not experienced some growing pains. Pass and ticket sales this year were brisk. With passholders this year having the option of reserving all their tickets at one time instead of the day-of, lines were long at the registration room upon my arrival at the festival. So long that I decided to opt for the last-minute line for a film I wanted to see within 30 minutes of arriving at the festival. This decision allowed me to get in to that film, but also meant that when I went back 2 hours later to the registration room where the crowds had died down, I also discovered that tickets to the Opening Night film had all been allocated (in spite of the fact that passholders were supposed to be guaranteed a seat at the film). This meant a long and uncertain wait in the last-minute line for Opening Night. Thankfully I got in. Still the slight logistical issues paled by comparison to Sundance where earlier this year I noticed that many people who had purchased tickets in advance (tickets, mind you - not passes) were shut out of screenings even though they arrived in line long before the recommended time.

In spite of this little kerfuffle, Full Frame still remains a destination festival which I would recommend to all the emerging filmmakers who come through the doors of Docs in Progress (especially since it is an easy 1 hour flight or 5 hour drive south of Washington DC).  It is a relaxing environment - one in which you can schmooze with some industry, but have time with other filmmakers and get to see other films. The weather is relatively pleasant (though sometimes prone to humidity, rain, or €” this year, high pollen counts, not that much different from unpredictable springtime Washington where we have already had a taste of swampy summer). Plus the venues are all within a walkable zone. There are plenty of places to mix and mingle with other filmmakers and industry since the festival has its own cafe and an outdoor area for lunch. But most of all, people seem relaxed. First time filmmakers can easily mix with funders, distributors, and some of the top names in American documentary.

Speaking of which, the Opening Night film happened to be Kings of Pastry by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. While it was not their strongest film ever (if you were to compare it to documentary classics like or The War Room), this film about French pastry chefs competing for master honors was certainly a crowd-pleaser and therefore appropriate to kick off the first night of the festival. In fact though, there were a number of other screenings during the day on Thursday and I managed to catch two.

Last Train Home

, which has been wowing festival audiences since it premiered at IDFA in 2009, is an excellent example of a documentary which manages to capture a macrocosm and microcosm in one. Lixin Fan€™s film explores one of the unexpected consequences of our global economy - the fact that more than 130 million Chinese workers leave their rural towns and villages for industrialized cities to work in factories producing goods for the international market. Every New Year€™s, these workers become part of the world€™s largest mass migration when they return to their homes. The film captures incredible images of the throngs at the train station, attempting to make it on to one of the few trains which may carry them on a 2-3 day journey back home to spend it with the families they left behind €” very often elders who are raising the workers€™ children. This could easily have become a film with incredible images which speak to the size of the world€™s most populous countries, the images becoming so overwhelming that they could become dehumanizing, the filmmaker chose to focus on one family who makes this migration over the course of three years. With intimate access, Fan is able to capture how the decision to work far from home has a direct impact on family relationships and particularly that between two migrant parents and their teenage daughter whose normal teen angst is exacerbated by the separation and her own experiences leaving school to work in the same town as her parents.

I also saw Generation Exile which also looks at the hidden consequences of adult choices on children. Directed by Rodrigo Dorfman (son of the noted Chilean author and exile Ariel Dorfman), the film examines the experience of the younger Dorfman€™s exile identity from childhood until his own parenthood. With this story as the skeleton of the film, Generation Exile also weaves in the stories of other exiled children €” not all of them political exiles. While the film goes a bit too much into Sufi mysticism for my tastes, this was also an important part of Dorfman€™s journey. While there were lots of interesting visual and aural elements in the film €“archival materials, typewriter sounds, a piano piece from one of the film€™s subjects, mystical quotations, and a repeated image of nails being driven into the picture of Chilean dictator Pinochet €” they felt at times like they brought too much attention to themselves and detracted from the story of the film. Dorfman admitted himself at the screening that he would probably continue to explore this theme of exile in future films €” whether fiction or nonfiction €” so time will tell whether this film is more of a promise of what is to come than a fully realized standalone piece.

And that was just Day One.  More reports from Full Frame to come€¦

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