Full Frame 1: Enlightenment Sought in Darkened Theatres


By the time you read this we suspect we’ll have seen at least 14 films, grazed at three parties, attended two panels, and met at least one hustler posing as, say, a press person in order to meet industry honchos and cut deals for his own doc in the works about something (exactly) like the West Bank’s plummeting real estate market. In other words, even at a festival where the climate really does feel less like a commodities market and more like a forum for ideas, there are still “day traders”, if you will, working the floor.

We should know. Two of us happily brand ourselves as hustlers and over the course of these four days, we plan to show the third in our party some of our best moves. But enough about us.

Full Frame – But Not Full

of Itself

Although this internationally renowned Film festival is currently the foremost venue for doc films and has had a decade to grow into a monstrous celebrity naval cleanse, we are thrilled to report that there is still no red carpet, no aggressive paparazzi, and no hob snobbery in sight. In fact, there goes Michael Moore, disheveled in his signature baseball cap, accompanied only by what appears to be a giant slurpy. Greer dares Gunther to show Miller how to hustle digits from the doc world’s most infamous celebrity. Gunther approaches Moore. Words are exchanged. Gunther returns with slurpy. No digits. Miller is still impressed. He was thirsty.

Crème Fraiche

Full Frame embraces documentary as an essential art and champions the documentary filmmaker as an important witness to society. It is dedicated to creating a forum for filmmakers to share their work in an environment that stimulates conversation and community between their peers, industry, and the general public. We might add that it is also one of the freshest places for doc film amorists to find some of the crème that might not ultimately make it to the top where it deserves to be due to the politics of “the industry”.

To the 10th Power

In its 10th year the festival boasts a record 120 screenings (compared to the 45 it exhibited in its first). They are really feeling the power of 10, and that’s why they’re celebrating it with a thematic program of the same name. The Power of Ten is comprised of 10 films chosen by 10 curators who have been involved with Full Frame over the last 10 years. They include director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala); D.A. Pennebaker, pioneer of direct cinema; Bill Clinton’s favorite author, Walter Mosley (Devil In A Blue Dress); not to mention Sundance Institute Doc Film Program Director Cara Mertes; and putting in his 10 cents, Michael Moore. All share the goal of choosing a film that reflects a decade of change in cinema and in the world it portrays.

It’s too early to tell, but what is clearly reflected is how far you can go with the conceit of a theme. We hope the content of this theme is as weighty as the concept. (Last year’s theme was Class in America, which was less clever but 10 times more coherent.)

In addition to the Power of Ten theme, there is the annual career award. This year it will be given to director Ross McElwee, (a favorite of both Gunther and Miller) best known for his groundbreaking doc Sherman’s March and for his autobiographical filmmaking style. There is also what is called a sidebar of films about Africa, as well as the mainstay Southern Sidebar (even though the South lost the Civil War, it gained a documentary film festival in Durham, North Carolina). Unfortunately, outside of the awards barbeque, the only thing southern we expect to experience this weekend is a flask of Bourbon, (a favorite of Greer’s from his early Arkansas childhood) as we will be holed up the entire time inside one of eight venues where the screenings take place. Luckily, the seats are very comfortable…


The Business of Strangers

Last night’s opening night party was Catalonian-themed, (Catalonia being the location of the opening night film, Gereon Wetzel’s Castells). In other words, a generic (yet talented) salsa band played Santana covers and had many of the 40 and 50 somethings (almost everyone) nostalgically singing along under their breath as they piled free (yet delicious) paella onto their plates and drank sangria (but not so much as to get sloppy).

Here we met our young hustler, call him Hustler D., who either saw himself in us, or (mistakenly) saw an opportunity in us. He let us know immediately that although he was here as press, he was really a filmmaker looking to take a meeting with a woman he had met at Sundance, or with anyone else who would listen. Equipped with various pairs of eyeglasses from flashy to thoughtful, (actually he had two pairs, one flashy, one thoughtful) he told us that he perceived everything as a business opportunity, artistic, altruistic, or otherwise. We look forward to charting his progress over the course of the weekend.

He was also a surfer — of couches, that is — and had found southern hospitality via CouchSurfing.com right here in Durham. This site is in the business of “making connections between the travelers and the local communities they visit.” Perfect for today’s young DIY businessman. So keep this in mind for when you need a couch to crash on in the area, or anywhere in the world for that matter, even Catalonia (we checked).

Someone (not Hustler D.), couch crashing. Photo from Chronarcy.com

Homage to Catalonia

Now, about that opening night film. Wetzel’s Castells is one of those documentary films that is hard to describe or explain because it introduces you to a character, situation, or cultural feature that is so singular it falls outside any experience you have to compare with. We saw two films like this, which left us feeling like kids at the aquarium. Castells is about social clubs in Catalonia that pursue the traditional art/sport of human tower building. The other, The Monastery, by Pernille Rose Gronkjaer is about an elderly Danish loner who donates his castle to the Russian Orthodox Church for a monastery, and then has to live with that decision.

Castells presents us with a group of people possessed of an extraordinary drive to construct human towers with nothing but their bodies. Despite the lack of obvious meaning or message here, there is, in fact, a lot to be said about this activity as it appears in the film.

These human towers are really tall. People standing on other people rise up to nine tiers high. And they frequently fall. It is both frightening and thrilling to see bodies fall from significant heights, especially when those bodies are the significant heights from which they fall. In the apt line by Steve Earle (no doubt never heard by any of our Catalan tower bodies) “every tower ever built tumbles, no matter how strong no matter how tall” (“Ashes to Ashes”). In this case the towers fall pretty much immediately after they go up and the effect is visually compelling and oddly profound.


From the product (not production) point of view Castells is a pretty flawless verité film. It captures the action seemingly without the filmmakers intruding on it. There is no voice over, there are no black cards, and there’s only one actual interview scene in which a group of elders discuss the history and significance of tower building in their community.

And yet the film is also punctuated by playful cinematic interjections. We see shots of the Catalan towns in which these people live and build: old narrow streets and imposing (sometimes towering) stone buildings. These images are stark compositions of shadow and light, as if the towns were from another era or as if the shots themselves were pulled from older films. The musical score for these scenes is like the soundtrack to a ’40s noir thriller, suggesting that a drama of intrigue, mischief and suspense is taking place. The mysterious appearances of a stack of logs or a pig’s head in front of a doorway linger like clues in a detective novel, their significance revealed just as you’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten them. The tower builders utter an amazing collection of sentences that make no sense out of context: “Back Men Move into the Lowers”, “Let’s switch the crutches and be done with it”, “It’s a 3/9 without basis 2”. In context, however, these expressions illuminate the ways in which communities develop unique languages of understanding.

Photo from Columbia University

Although we were delighted by the physical spectacle of people climbing upon each other to achieve seemingly impossible heights, the more we watched of this activity the deeper we appreciated its cultural significance.

Arguments, debates, accusations, promises, rewards, and punishments form the social foundation around the corporeal foundation of the structures. Small children claw their way up to form the tops of the towers and the hulky guys stand at the base. In one poignant moment, an elderly man, who had clearly spent his life building and watching these human towers rise and fall, proudly recounts having watched small children who once formed the spires at the top gradually grow up to stand at the base. The human tower business is strange and unfamiliar, just like human life.

From Castelles to Castles

If Castells is about cultural glue so thick you can’t imagine it ever becoming unstuck, The Monastery is about a joining of people so unlikely that you can’t imagine it ever happening at all. Pernille Rose Gronkjaer’s film is beautiful, funny and touching. It won the Juris Ivens Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. This film is worth the admission fee and then some.

The basic scenario is that an 82-year-old Danish loner realizes his long-standing dream of donating a massive but dilapidated castle to the Russian Orthodox Church for use as a monastery. In part, the film is a character study of Vig, a man who never fell in love and wants to establish a surviving monument on earth before he moves along. He looks something like an old-testament prophet as depicted by William Blake. He is misanthropic (never met a girl with a nose perfect enough to suit his taste), but also very funny and possessed of that uncensored candor of the elderly. His pronouncements drift effortlessly from monastic ideals to the distaste he always felt for his mother’s nose.

The Monastery

The other central character of this film is Sister Ambrosija, a quiet, determined and persistent Russian nun who arrives to establish the monastery in the castle. These two personalities share an ideal but have divergent ideas about how it should be realized. The core of the drama is the battle of wills between them to make the reality of the castle into the dream of the monastery. There are shades of a tenant / landlord dispute when Sister Ambrisija repeatedly demands that he fix the heating system, and Vig, grumbling, lurches around the pipes and fires of his hopelessly unrenovated castle. There are disgruntled theological disputes about the propriety of the Russian Orthodox cross and the irrevocability of the room selected for a chapel. There is a letter writing campaign that threatens to slide into a legal morass.

The Monastery, however, is neither about an ideal corrupted by all too human failings, nor is it about human shortcomings transcending themselves in the service of divine perfection. Heaven and Earth role along in this film like a tire with a wobble. Somehow, these two personalities push and pull one another to create a social bond despite and because of their inherent disagreements. The film is also a beautiful visual document, the castle forming a fairytale backdrop to the ornate ceremony of the nuns and to the towering, if occasionally quibbling, judgments of Vig.

Both Castells and The Monastery occupy the niche of nicheless documentaries. Other films we caught on day two belong to the center of documentary endeavors by, for instance, drawing us out of our climate-controlled theatres and into the harrowing human crises of our climatically uncontrolled globe.


Stay tuned next week for parts 2 and 3 of the trio’s coverage of Full Frame.

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