The annual slogan for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is "How much reality can you handle?" After attending the 2007 festival, I left pondering a quote from Salman Rushdie: "Reality is a question of perspective."
By almost all accounts, Full Frame's 10th anniversary was a smashing success. A record number of tickets were sold or issued for 123 films screened at seven venues in downtown Durham. Thirteen awards were handed out, including the Grand Jury Award to The Monastery, the Audience Award to War/Dance, and two other awards to Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's The Devil Came on Horseback. (Last year, Sundberg and Stern took the Audience Award for The Trials of Darryl Hunt.)
Yet, the record turnout does not jibe with the feeling of many perennial attendees that there was a perceptible drop in the energy level at this year's festival. Admittedly, most of the evidence of this ebb is anecdotal, but there are several objective findings to support this hypothesis. In 2004, roughly 15,000 tickets were issued for 98 films, resulting in a ticket-to-film average of 153. The next year that average grew to 180 when the number of films increased to 105 and the festival jettisoned Cinema Two for the 350-seat American Tobacco Campus venue. And last year, although the total number of films remained nearly the same (106), the addition of a 475-seat Civic Center venue boosted Full Frame's burgeoning growth to 22,661 tickets issued, resulting in a whopping 214 ticket-to-film average.
Full Frame, which assumed responsibility for ticket sales and tabulation from the Carolina Theatre for the first time this year, reports 26,828 tickets sold or issued for the 2007 festival. However, since the number of screened films grew to 123, the ticket-to-film average remains nearly unchanged (218) for the first time in years, despite the addition of another 475-seat Civic Center theater. Some might might conclude that ticket sales are keeping up with the festival's growth. However, since the total ticket figure comprises the aggregate attendance for all events and not distinct festival patrons, it is also arguable that at least part of this year's ticket increase stems from merely adding a slate of films to the schedule for audiences already at the festival.
Two of the biggest documentary names to attend did not have their new films officially in the festival: Michael Moore, who visited Full Frame in 2004, returned to participate in several events that did not include any of his upcoming works, such as the health care polemic Sicko or his college campus tour doc The Great '04 Slacker Uprising, both of which the maverick director previewed at last year's Toronto Film Festival. One of the festival's best films was one that could not officially appear on the program: Filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) presented a "sneak peek" of his new film, Taxi to the Dark Side, an exposé of America's clandestine torture practices. Unfortunately, the screening, which occurred Sunday morning, could not be advertised by name because Gibney is contractually obligated to "officially" premiere the film in two weeks at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. (Another unadvertised screening was Todd Haynes' legendary student short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which can't be shown commercially for copyright reasons.)
Still, filmmakers continue to compare Full Frame's efficiency and atmosphere quite favorably to other festivals (although many of them still grouse privately about the remote location of the American Tobacco venue). Even Manda Bala's director, Jason Kohn, who remarked in last week's Independent that he had no desire to make another documentary, told me that he preferred Full Frame's enthusiastic and educated audiences over Sundance's "market-driven crowd."
My personal highlights include the visually stunning Manda Bala and Ghosts, the best films I saw, as well as Gibney's provocative sneak. The emotional texture of Indy critic Godfrey Cheshire's Moving Midway was both unexpected and poignant. And, where else but Full Frame could you be driving down the street and suddenly find actor-screenwriter L.M. "Kit" Carson (Paris, Texas) riding in the back seat of your Honda Accord?
Restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias again provided tasty food during the festival, which reminds me of a Groucho Marx line: "I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal."