Variety is the Spice of the 2019 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

We preview this year's festival, which will honor filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert and feature a program created by RaMell Ross.

American Factory
Full Frame

The 22nd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival begins this week, running April 4th through April 7th in Durham, North Carolina. The festival will screen 83 documentary films, 67 of which are new from all over the globe, chosen from nearly 1,700 submissions.

The Opening Night selection this year is American Factory, which is about a Chinese billionaire who set up a factory in the husk of an old General Motors plant in rural Ohio and in a wave of optimism employed 2,000 working class Americans. The film looks at a culture clash between high-tech China and the blue-collar US. Not only does the documentary sound enticing, but it’s being raved about and nominated for awards left and right, with directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert winning the Directing Award in their program at Sundance this year.

Adding to the excitement already surrounding American Factory, Full Frame’s 2019 Tribute is commending its two directors. Reichert and Bognar have an existing relationship with the festival; their previous works (together and separate) have been screening there for nearly 20 years. They curated 2010’s Thematic Program “Chair-Making, Ship-Breaking, Pole-Dancing, Coal-Mining, Thread-Cutting, Cart-Pushing, Cane-Cutting, Chain-Forging: Films on Work & Labor” which, as it seems, deepened the understanding of the labor movement and explored the relationship between work and identity. The tribute will include films made by the directors as a team, as well as the solo work they have done individually.

RaMell Ross, the writer, director, and photographer of recent Oscar nominee Hale County This Morning, This Evening will curate the 2019 Thematic Program, titled “Some Other Lives of Time.” Its aim is to highlight the distinctive experiences in documentary film and study the role of time in cinema. “I’m interested in the type of filmmaking where the film’s form is a unique body for the content’s life, where the work is of the filmmaker’s encrypted, personal language, where the poetic is inextricable from truth,” Ross said in regards to the curation. The approach is intricately investigative in its homage to films that live and breathe.

Among the main selection of films at Full Frame this year, there are a multitude of North American and world premieres screening at the festival that makes this four-day event impossible to overlook. One definite highlight of the New Docs section is Where We Belong, a film making its North American premiere that follows children of divorce as they are forced to live in two separate worlds when there used to be just one. The doc illustrates the fragility of a child but also their innocent and oftentimes heartwarming perspective.

A film that is sure to get the attention of audiences comes from director Penny Lane (Nuts). Hail Satan? is an exploration of the Satanic Temple — its start, its influences, and even its activism. The intention seems to be to give the organization a face and to de-stigmatize it in a very funny, poignant way. The film’s subjects bring a lot to the table, and we want to know why they do what they do. Hail Satan? earned a lot of acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And don’t you want to know, why the question mark?

One of the most notable among the many international films featured in this year’s Full Frame program comes out of both France and Brazil. Vincent Rimbaux and Patrizia Landi’Ressaca is about keeping art alive in a world devoid of color. The film shows the plight of those working in the Rio de Janeiro opera house amid the financial crisis in Brazil through beautiful black and white cinematography.

Irene’s Ghost is a film by debut director Iain Cunningham that follows a son’s journey to understand the story of his late mother. Its compelling storyline reminds us of our own familial connections, familiar or not. The documentary (pictured above) was nominated for the Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards last year and is now finally making its North American debut at Full Frame.

Out of the abundance of world premieres, The Watson’s Hotel strikes a nostalgic chord. The film details the extravagant, relished, and weathered life of the construction of one of India’s first luxury hotels in 1863. The building also housed the films of the Lumière brothers for a country whose eyes were newly being opened to the wonders of cinema. From the looks of it, the hotel was once “a dawn-to-dusk symphony of Mumbai contained within a single building,” according to Full Frame’s description of the film.

Another world premiere that has piqued my interest is one from the experimental genre. Kolmas Punkt is a film by Alina Taalman, the daughter of Estonian immigrants, that ponders a capricious family past as the filmmaker returns to her homeland. Much description online is compellingly elusive, making this one to keep an eye out for.

As obviously as you need an Opening Night film, you need a Closing Night film. The honor belongs to Amazing Grace, a film comprised of resurrected footage presenting Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performances with the choir of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. Franklin was one of the most timeless, accessible, and seminal figures in music, and this film aims to give the world an opportunity to see her at her best.

Aside from those films we’re looking forward to, Full Frame is screening a number of documentaries we’ve already seen, including Exit Music, which our own Luke Hicks raved about during the Camden International Film Festival last year. “The complexity is overwhelming. You’ll find yourself crying and you won’t even be sure why,” he wrote in his review of the portrait of a young man with cystic fibrosis. “Exit Music is a film you cannot prepare for.”

There’s also Midnight Family, a documentary about a family independently operating an ambulance in Mexico City, that Nonfics founding editor Christopher Campbell reviewed during Sundance. He called it  “the beginning of a discussion, either one to be had amongst viewers themselves or in the continuation of Lorentzen’s shared perspective through interviews and film festival Q&As,” which makes Full Frame sound like a perfect stop for its continued circulation.

Heddy Honigmann‘s Buddy, which our own Dylann Brennan called “a simple and beautiful portrait of love and appreciation,” is also screening as part of the Invited Program alongside Hail Satan?Knock Down the House, Werner Herzog and Andre Singer‘s Meeting Gorbachev, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which Campbell praised as being “a proper introduction to the legendary trumpeter,” and the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Sea of Shadows, which we likened to The Cove.

Overall, this year’s selections are sure to impress. The full lineup, which includes many of our most anticipated documentaries of the year, can be found on the festival’s website. Don’t feel limited to just these highlights — it was difficult to only pick only a handful.