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Full Frame: A doc-lover's guide 

106 films, five screens, four days and many, many folding chairs

One of the Triangle's annual rites of spring is the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the largest documentary-only showcase in the United States. The curtains rise in and around Durham's Carolina Theatre on Thursday, April 6 for the festival's ninth edition, featuring four days of over 100 films in competition and as part of their curated programs.

Regular attendees will enjoy the intimate, familiar configuration of this year's festival. The few noticeable alterations are primarily logistical in nature--gone is use of the venerable Durham Armory (and its rump-numbing folding chairs), replaced by the Durham Civic Center adjacent to the Carolina Theatre. For the second year, the renovated American Tobacco Campus will be a site for screenings. While perhaps laudable from a civic viewpoint, festival-goers may be frustrated by the muffled acoustics, uncomfortable seating and remote location (although there will again be free shuttles supplied by the city of Durham).

There was confusion at last year's festival as filmmakers were surprised to find out that the grand prize jury was only reviewing 10 films for the Full Frame Grand Jury prize. Although the festival had, in fact, made this disclosure in advance, this year they're not taking any chances. The festival will release the names of 16 finalists on Thursday, and the filmmakers have already been notified.

While Full Frame has always prided itself on its diversity, the most striking aspect of this year's four-day extravaganza is the breadth and expansiveness of its schedule, a collage of informative, personal and entertaining works. The films in competition span the globe, from assisted suicide in Switzerland (Exit) to an outdoor slaughterhouse in Nigeria (Workingman's Death) to "everyday" in Pyongyang (North Korea: A Day in the Life). Filmmakers explore subjects as varied as bull riding (Rank) and the state of personal finance in today's debtor culture (Maxed Out), together with biographical studies of Sacco and Venzetti, playwright Tony Kushner (Wrestling with Angels), and radio announcer Norman Corwin (A Note of Triumph), among others. And, while the films' subject matters remain decidedly left-leaning (you won't find any flicks supporting oil drilling in ANWAR), the world premiere of Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater supplies an intimate portrait of the Republican icon (Saturday, April 8, 6:30 p.m., Carolina Theatre).

After expanding from 66 films at the 2004 festival to 78 last year, this year's roster of films in competition retreats to a more manageable 72 short and feature-length works. Another 34 films will screen as a part of the festival's special programming. Fourteen will be shown in conjunction with this year's thematic program, Class in America. In addition, the theme of this year's Southern Sidebar series is the effects and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Nine premieres--some of the first docs on this subject, although none in competition at the festival--will detail everything from the physical damage wrought by the tragic storm to the effect transplanted victims have had on their host towns to the impact on New Orleans music and musicians. Capping the Katrina observances is a special program featuring a screening of St. Clair Bourne's New Orleans Brass, followed by a group panel discussion with Ellis Marsalis III and a performance by Branford Marsalis and his quartet in honor of Katrina victims and New Orleans (Friday, April 7, 5-7 p.m., Carolina Theatre).

click to enlarge Sydney Pollack snaps a shot of the Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project in Seattle - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

Much of Full Frame's recent notoriety has stemmed from the esteemed guests who annually trod the festival grounds. This year is no exception. The opening night film is Sketches of Frank Gehry (Thursday, April 6, 6:30 p.m., Carolina Theatre), about the titular, renowned architect and iconoclast, and the first documentary by Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa; The Interpreter). Pollack will participate in a post-screening Q&A session.

On Friday, April 7 at 8:30 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre, political satirist and U.S. Senate aspirant Al Franken will be on hand for the showing of Al Franken: God Spoke, co-directed by documentary mainstays Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob about the comedian's launch of the Air America radio network and his ongoing crusade against right-wing politicians and pundits. Franken will stoke the fires of the faithful and perhaps answer a few questions after the film.

On Saturday, April 8 at noon, filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker, Ross McElwee, Albert Maysles and Robert Drew will join Full Frame in honoring Richard Leacock, the acclaimed director and cinematographer. The tribute will be followed by Leacock's A Stravinsky Portrait (1965).

Several films and filmmakers in the festival have North Carolina roots. The condition of criminal justice in our state is assailed in The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Saturday, April 8, 3:45 p.m., Civic Center), the legal odyssey of a Winston-Salem man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1984. Following the screening will be a panel discussion involving Hunt, his attorney Mark Rabil, the film's directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, Winston-Salem State University professor Larry Little and former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr.

two headed cow (Saturday, April 8, 10:30 p.m., Carolina Theatre) spotlights the wild career of rocker Dexter Romweber, founder of the Chapel Hill-spawned Flat Duo Jets. The screening will be followed by separate performances by Romweber and his erstwhile bandmate Chris "Crow" Smith.

click to enlarge Aging prisoners doing their time in Gray Days - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

Four other North Carolina-themed films are shorts. In Gray Days, screening Friday evening, director Katherine Leggett explores North Carolina's elderly prisoner population by spotlighting two inmates--81-year-old Lonnie Laney and 67-year-old Shirley Lewallen. Mary's Gone Wild, by director Blaire Johnson, explores the magical garden of folk artist and Holden Beach native Mary Paulsen. Stand Like Still Living, by Duke graduate Peter Jordan, is a examination of the AIDS plight in Botswana. Duke Associate Professor William Noland directs Surveillance III, shot in New York City on the final night of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Trying to view all the noteworthy participants at Full Frame is a futile endeavor. However, in addition to the films mentioned above, there are a number of highly anticipated entries that festival-goers should look for:

Thursday, April 6

I for India (2:45 p.m., Carolina Theatre), a tribute to director Sandhya Suri's parents and their expatriation from their native India to London, has been garnering rave reviews, including a Grand Jury Prize nomination at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

A/K/A Tommy Chong (10:45 p.m., Carolina Theatre) follows the countercultural icon and stoner comedian on the eve of his arguably politically motivated incarceration for selling drug paraphernalia.

Friday, April 7

A Lion in the House (noon, Carolina Theatre), nominated for top honors at Sundance, is an epic, nearly four-hour saga about the struggles five children afflicted with cancer and their families face over six years battling the disease.

Renowned documentarian Ken Burns visits to present a work-in-progress screening of Episode 5 of his new project about World War II, titled The War (12:15 p.m., Carolina Theatre).

Iraq in Fragments (5:45 p.m., Carolina Theatre) is a harrowing portrayal of post-war Iraq, told from three different perspectives. The film won the Director's, Cinematography and Editing awards at Sundance this year.

The double feature The Boy in the Bubble and So Much So Fast (6 p.m., Durham Arts Council) tell the enthralling tales of two persons afflicted with life-threatening ailments, and how they and those around them struggle to balance dignity, hope and reality.

This Film is Not Yet Rated (10:30 p.m., Civic Center), by filmmaker Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith), is an insightful, eye-opening expose about the MPAA movie ratings system.

Saturday, April 8

click to enlarge "Hell no, we won't go." Waging peace in Sir! No Sir! - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

Show up early to catch one of the most anticipated films of the festival, Sir! No Sir! (9 a.m., Carolina Theatre), a sweeping account of the thousands of GIs who actively resisted the Vietnam War. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at last month's Independent Spirit Awards.

Thin (11:30 a.m., Carolina Theatre) is the harrowing, verite account of a group of young women battling eating disorders at an inpatient treatment facility.

The double-bill of The Intimacy of Strangers and Jack & Jane Toll-Free (8 p.m., Carolina Theatre) is quite intriguing. The former is a 90-minute tome on our technological society, constructed using cell phone conversations recorded in the public sphere. The latter looks at the outsourced call centers in India and those who work there, workers who gradually begin to assume the persona of their Western customers.

In the Pit (10:45 p.m., Carolina Theatre) follows the construction of a massive highway in Mexico City, contrasting the project with the lives of the laborers building it.

Sunday, April 9

The busiest Sunday in Full Frame history kicks off with an early morning screening of Time Piece (9 a.m., Carolina Theatre), the first foray into documentary production by the Full Frame Institute. In this experimental project, 12 acclaimed American and Turkish filmmakers--including Albert Maysles--contribute personal short films on the experience of time. Also screening this morning is El Immigrante (9:30 a.m., American Tobacco Campus), a complex film about the Tex-Mex border assembled against the backdrop of a young Mexican border crosser who is shot and killed by a Texas resident, purportedly in self-defense.

Two acclaimed films run concurrently. My Country, My Country (11:30 a.m., Carolina Theatre), directed by Laura Poitras (Flag Wars), captures the intricacies of Iraq's 2005 election. Wordplay (11:45 a.m., Carolina Theatre) is a breezy look at New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and his annual American Crossword Puzzle competition.

After the annual Southern-style BBQ luncheon and awards ceremony, a full slate of films includes the premiere of Terry Sanford and the New South (3:30 p.m., Carolina Theatre), a portrait of the North Carolina political legend. Following that is a panel discussion, hosted by journalist Judy Woodruff, that includes former Gov. Jim Hunt, former N.C. House Speaker Dan Blue, Washington journalist Al Hunt, and journalist and commentator Hodding Carter III.


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