Full Frame Festival Recap and Review

Posted on 21 April 2017

Thank you to our special Full Frame correspondent Pilar Timpane for her recap of an enriching 20th-anniversary festival experience. If you did not have the opportunity to catch the documentaries at this year's festival, get a small taste for them here and track them down in future showings in theaters and digital releases.

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This April in Durham, on a chilly Spring weekend, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary of nonfiction film programming. This year’s festival, drawing a typically bustling and diverse crowd, was celebrated with special edition Runaway designs on shirts and posters.

The rich 2017 film lineup continued the Full Frame tradition of beautiful, deep, and socially-conscious content. Several films resonated as vital pictures of their current context where the characters’ dramas reflect a larger trend of daunting social issues and the passionate, albeit limited, power of individuals and communities to stand up against them. In a world that is crying out for justice, these stories of Davids vs. Goliaths are visions of how change happens by compelled personalities, sometimes slowly and sometimes not at all.

In Tonislav Hristov’s film The Good Postman, an 80-minute documentary that has been noted as not entirely “verite” due to a variety of liberties taken by the filmmakers, is a perfect example of an individual trying with all his tiny might to make change in his community.

Ivan, a well-known postman in a small Bulgarian town, has decided to run for mayor. His platform? Allow the Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country to settle in and repopulate his dying town with their youth and growing families. Cinematographer Orlin Ruevski creates a pastiche of stunning panoramic views of the town, with the golden lit Bulgarian countryside providing a beautiful backdrop to the provincial/universal tale. Scenes often contain characters walking unpaved, grassy roads, to and from small established restaurants to shabby domiciles, showing a blight that has fallen there as younger generations have abandoned the town for better work opportunities abroad.

As Ivan begs his neighbors, mostly elderly, to vote for him, they agree that the town needs a refreshment, to come alive. But with these Syrian asylum seekers? They don’t know. At the same time Ivan touts this social welfare plan and compassionate resettlement program, his best friend, an unemployed chain-smoking Communist, also goes after voters and tries to gain followers through populist tactics that paint the Syrians as villains and security risks. Ivan’s feeble but courageous attempts to form a symbiotic compromise between his town and the refugees is a simple but profound act of heroism to try and save people on two sides of scarcity.

This film, which was an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, seems perfectly timed and edited to make us feel that Ivan is all of us who want to see progress accomplished.

This year’s winner of the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award at Full Frame was QUEST by Jonathan Olshefski. QUEST is a triumphant picture of love and family. This film was close to my heart as a piece out of North Philadelphia (I’m from next door in Central New Jersey). Olshefski followed the Rainey family for 10 years using multiple cameras but mostly Canon DSLRs. The camera is often handheld or simply stationary as life plays out before it; the editor (Lindsay Utz) clearly had hours of footage to work with for every scene. Olshefski’s connection and complete trust with the family allowed for access to both bright and dark moments, but most of all–as a successful vérité piece–truthful moments of a family growing and changing. Similar to the sprawling text of Boyhood (2014) or the intimate triptych of Moonlight (2016), QUEST captures the years-long growth of a child into a “real” person and the family that surrounds her through the best and worst moments of life together.

QUEST is titled thus for the main character Quest Rainey, the father of the Rainey family who, like Ivan in his Bulgarian town, is working to make his piece of earth better for future generations. Through a music studio open to teens and engaged community building in his neighborhood, Quest is the magnanimous man. On the streets of North Philly people greet him by name, inquiring about his daughter when something goes horribly wrong.

At the Awards Barbeque, where QUEST took home not only the Grand Jury Award but also the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, the entire Rainey family came up with Olshefski to accept the award. The young daughter of Quest and Christine Rainey, PJ, got up to the mic and said, “I’m thankful for this film helping me to get closure on all I’ve been through.” Even people who hadn’t seen the film were in tears.

Whose Streets has to be mentioned in this wrap up of films about struggle and communities fighting to be heard. As a document of a movement, Streets does the work that not many films about post-Ferguson protest have yet to accomplish.

In 2014, after unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot by police officer Darren Wilson, protests began to go off throughout Ferguson that reverberated across the world. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis skillfully wove together the exact footage which made the movement happen: the mobile phone videos of passersby and protesters that ignited the nation. The stories of a young lesbian couple’s family were perhaps the most moving character arc; interweaving their love story with the story of coming to terms with the activist lifestyle as a new normal was unique and inspiring. This film also focuses in on the way that women and families in Ferguson are teaching their children now that from day one they must be activists, ready to take back their streets.

Although there were many films with this universal message of persistence and resilience–stories of single actors or small groups trying with all their hearts to challenge the dominating trends of the world around them–perhaps the most heartbreaking was the story of The Last Men in Aleppo. This film was given an honorary mention for the Grand Prize and also awarded the Full Frame Inspiration Award. The now world-renowned White Helmets make their way through the rubble of an apocalyptic wasteland as the volunteer first-responders in a devastated Aleppo. After five years of rebel fighting, the city of Aleppo is under siege by the Assad regime. Government bombs and Russian military attack them constantly. The Last Men in Aleppo chronicles the lives of a handful of young men who have chosen not to leave the city and, amidst tearing out both lifeless and injured bodies of civilians from the dusty ruins, determinedly swear that they will not leave before they die.

The journey through this film is like tunnel vision. The world outside Aleppo completely disappeared while I watched; I felt entirely immersed inside the frame of the White Helmet’s lives. At one point, when they have excavated a recently-bombed building and torn a young boy, still alive, from his would-be grave, he is bleeding from the head and they rush him to the hospital. Later, sitting with the same boy, stroking the huge scar across his delicate scalp, he begs them to tell him the story of his rescue. “How did you save me?”

Aleppo is perhaps the most like David & Goliath where, given the enormity and power of the enemy and the isolation and helplessness of the hero, victory seems so impossible. The White Helmets stand in a world like Purgatory, and yet they find strength in supporting and rescuing together as a team. It’s hard to know whether it is better to keep living or to die, but the heroes continue to fight for life.

Aleppo was the last film I watched at Full Frame, an encore showing as it had won awards on Sunday. The room at the end of a Full Frame screening usually erupts into applause. But this one was quiet. Half the room didn’t know what else to do and clapped slowly and quietly, and the other half sheepishly got up and walked out, silent.

In a written acceptance speech to Full Frame, director Feras Fayyad wrote, “This is no need for more killing.”

In such a lineup, in such a year and global-political context, these films brought together subjects and viewers from across worlds. Through powerful narratives, these documentaries deepened the viewer’s understanding and compassion for those in the midst of the struggle against oppression. These characters who are fighting for representation, fighting for the underdog, fighting to live happy lives, fighting to live life at all, are all pure visions of the human essence that, even if shadowed by colossally dark circumstances, will continue to reach for the light. And sharing their stories gives viewers a chance to reach them.  


For the full list of winners from this year’s Full Frame, see: https://www.fullframefest.org/2017-award-winners/

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Pilar Timpane is a filmmaker, photographer, and freelance writer. She was an associate producer and editor of the award-winning oceanography documentary "Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission," (2010) and is recently producing "The Last Partera" (in prod.) about Costa Rican midwives. In 2017, Pilar created "Una Mala Hierba/A Bad Weed" (dir. Monica Wise), a short documentary about a female farm worker in Southern California. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, The Economist, MSNBC.com, and elsewhere. She has lived in various locations including New Jersey, France, and Mexico, but currently resides in Durham, North Carolina. More of her work can be seen at pilartimpane.com.

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