Making the Cut: The 17th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Isaac Miller and Jyllian Gunther

This year, in addition to film reviews, we're honoring the unsung heroes of documentary filmmaking by exploring and celebrating what it is that editors do.

Above: Film strip background image from

This year, in addition to film reviews, we're honoring the unsung heroes of documentary filmmaking by exploring and celebrating what it is that editors do.

After 17 years, Full Frame still has that ‘somethin somethin’. We’ve been dating this festival pretty steadily for the past ten years and it always gives us a rise. If you’re excited by the idea of four days spent slamming back fistfulls of documentary films, ranging from the commercial confections headed for HBO to the decades-long obsessions and passions of people with cameras, then this festival is your dream girl.

And we’re not the only ones who think so. The cliché, repeated tirelessly by directors introducing their films, is that they love screening at this festival because it is a “filmmakers’ festival”. Full Frame is affiliated with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Many attending are filmmakers, knowledgeable and serious about the craft and power of documentary film.

But lest we forget, film ‘makers’ are not just directors, even though they get most of the glory. Ask any documentary director around (which we did) and they will tell you that the editor is truly a co-maker of the film. We spent much of the festival watching films, speaking and drinking with a large group of award-winning editors who, like us, have been coming to Full Frame every year, whether or not they have a dog in the fight. They say Full Frame is their version of summer camp and the ideal place to admire each others work, which, they often say, goes rather unappreciated outside of the edit room.

Very few festivals give “craft” awards to cinematographers, composers, and editors. Sundance only started to give an editing award in 2005 and it was at the insistence of the jury that year. When Sundance announced the award, which went to Geoffrey Richman for Murderball, he was not in the audience. It turns out he couldn’t get in, and was in the “overflow” room. That was a case in point that recognition was definitely needed, says documentary director, Steve James, who was on the jury that year.

Last year a petition signed by about 20 editors was sent to Full Frame requesting an editing award, but it was denied. To be fair, Full Frame doesn’t offer a best director award, either. The films are recognized as a whole, but the directors and producers generally are the ones who accept these accolades. When we asked audience members this year what they thought of the editing of a particular film they’d seen, they commented primarily on the film’s length (too long!) and the order of the scenes, but were not really aware of the collaborative nature between the director and editor.

In light of this, we decided that this year, in addition to our usual film reviews, we would honor these unsung heroes of documentary filmmaking by exploring and celebrating what it is that editors do. We polled the editor regulars in attendance to give us their top picks for notable editing in the films they saw at Full Frame this year and to tell us which docs of all time they wished they had edited. We also spoke to five award-winning veteran documentary directors with films at the festival (Steve James, Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman, Doug Block, and Jesse Moss) about that crucial director/editor relationship and what exactly the editor does.

You can read their picks and actually hear audio clips of these directors (thanks to award-winning documentary editor, Penelope Falk, who edited their interviews for your listening pleasure) at the end of this article =, but first, let’s get romantic.

Relationships Are a Give and Take: Part One

112 Weddings

The opening night film of a festival has to be like Cheesecake: unobjectionable, broadly pleasing, soft and creamy. The world premier of 112 Weddings (dir. Doug Block, ed. Maeve O’Boyle) nestled easily into this role. Block is a regular at Full Frame and his other first person docs (51 Birch Street; The Kids Grow Up) have screened there at past festivals. 112 Weddings builds on a great cache of material: 20 years of footage shot for a day job as a wedding videographer. 112 Weddings uses that footage as a foundation for a longitudinal approach: revisiting the couples to see how the marriage is faring through the corrosive effects of time. The characters are strong and the interviews capture relationship dynamics, compromise, tension, and loss in clear and often captivating scenes that balance the then of youthful promise with the now of, well, something else.

The first person conventions did not help the film. The personal musings and reflections of the director sounded like attempts to imitate Ross McElwee, but without the layered depth of McElwee’s cinematic essays. We get the point that good weddings don’t make for good marriages (rabbinic wisdom from the film: booze and money are a boon for weddings, not marriages), but that point is neither surprising nor the result of any real pondering.

The music was also a distraction. Welling harps of enchantment seem to be luring us into a Disney fairytale. The music could have been meant ironically, as in don’t trust the glitter of the wedding; but it felt sincere, as in all of these joys and sorrows belong to the wonder of human experience. Cheesecake.

Where is My Son?

A different sort of relationship is the focus of Where is My Son? (dir. Chai-Min Ahn, eds. Jin-Sik Hyun and Hyo-Min Jin), a film from South Korea having its North American premiere at Full Frame. This slow, meditative, intimate, almost painterly film concedes nothing to the forces of commercialism. A son in his 60s suspends his life to take care of his mother in her 90s. That is the basic plot, without narration or cards to distance the viewer from the immediacy of the scenes.

The cinematography is lovely, assisted by the traditional wooden, light filled building where the mother lives. The house frames many of the shots so that the film has the aesthetic richness of a painting. There is a big theme to the film, filial piety, an abstract cultural value enacted in this specific relationship. Symbolic motifs of gardening and seasonal change reinforce the idea of give and take between successive generations.

Interestingly, Where is My Son? is not about personal character. It does not interrogate the personal motivations, attitudes or ambivalences of the two subjects. The film is an observational study of a relationship. It is touching and emotional, but not in any way that attempts to dramatize the material through conventions that we already understand. It may be difficult to find this film outside festival like Full Frame, but it is well worth finding.

Love Is Blind

The Case of the Three Sided Dream

The Case of the Three Sided Dream (dir. Adam Kahan, eds. Adam Kahan and Liv Barratier) is a love song to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind virtuoso jazz musician in the ‘60s and ‘70s most readily associated with playing three saxophones simultaneously. The film immediately shuts down the notion that this was a gimmick or parlour trick. If there is an overarching theme to the film and the character it is that of overcoming limits, beginning with blindness that was the result of a botched eyedrop job in the hospital at birth.

Rahsaan evolves in the world as a force of musical possibility, every object an instrument, every sound part of the score, his entire body musically productive. The generous concert footage finds him strewn around the neck with bunches of instruments, playing several at a time at full tilt, sometimes with his nose. Mind boggling.

The style of the film playfully matches Rahsaan’s inventiveness: blending nicely-framed interviews, flickering super 8 footage of his home movies, live performances, and original animated graphics that have been described as “Fat Albert meets Yellow Submarine”.

The theme of overcoming limitation works on social and political levels, as well. Rahsaan challenged the categorization of musical form and the way those categories get mapped onto race. He referred to jazz as “black classical music”. He also exploited the possibilities of live television in that era. He summoned groups, called “the jazz and people’s movement”, to sit in the audience of live broadcasts and disrupt them with noise. In some amazing archival footage we see Rahsaan on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971, supposed to play “My Cherie Amour” (apparently suitably ethnic for a television audience), but instead, with a band of all stars including Charles Mingus, blasting uncontained through a free form improvisation. Ed was pissed.

This film is an ear opener. The big question is: who will play Rahsaan in the narrative feature?

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.