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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 Shutterstock.com.

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?

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