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I didn’t realize until a short time ago that Durham, North Carolina is home to one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the USA.  It takes place over four days, and it just wrapped up this Sunday.  By using superhuman powers of self control, I managed to limit myself to nine films.  Considering the fact that I had over 100 films to choose from, I thought that was reasonably restrained behavior.

This is the thirteenth year of the Full Frame Film Festival, and it seems to be going strong.  We are fortunate to be living at a time when anyone with access to a high definition camera and editing software can make a film.  He or she will not necessarily create a work of art, but it will be the expression of an idiosyncratic, individual voice, rather than a Hollywooden product that comes out of the collective consciousness of Los Angeles.

I fell in love with films when things were very different, back when all films were shot, edited and released on celluloid. For a short time, I worked in the chemical soup of a film processing place, which seemed to specialize in soft core porn. This was followed by a year of film school before it became a fashion statement.  The most successful film I worked on there was an impressionistic, wordless film about a canal that threads through the heart of London.  I was amazed and delighted to see that the images and music we assembled could create something akin to a religious experience, a Catholic mass without the incense.

Even though some of the subject matter of the films I chose to watch during the festival was dark and a few were difficult to watch at times, I felt invigorated by the experience.  I was transported by the stories and images, from the incredibly hard, but rewarding lives of nomads on the plateau of the Kham region of Tibet to the horrific intensity of the most intense fighting in Afghanistan.  A handful of the filmmakers were on hand for Q/A sessions after the shows.

I went on a slick, brilliant, roller coast ride of a documentary about Jack Abramoff, the uber lobbyist who took advantage of his political connections to play for high stakes in the ultimate casino– the United States Congress.  A handycam took me on another, very personal ride with a bright kid who lands a job with Columbia House Records in New York.  The job soon sucks him in, and he morphs from a happy-go-lucky, skeptical kid  into a paranoid workaholic before making one last attempt to make the workplace creative and fun again.

There were emotionally wrenching stories as well.  “The Last Train Home” wove a narrative about the mass migration of the Chinese workers during the New Year from their jobs in the city to their old homes in the countryside.  It is about the impact of modern factory work on the lives of peasants, who leave their children to grow up with grandparents, then discover that they have teenage children who are strangers, just as angst ridden as American adolescents, and equally unhappy with their parents.

In “Born Sweet,” Vinh is revealed as “arsenic boy.” His village in Cambodia has been contaminated by the water from a new well dug for the villagers by Westerners.  They have acidentally tapped into deposits of arsenic distributed by volcanoes thousands of years ago.  Vinh is only fifteen and he’s dying.  He dreams of being a karaoke star.  In another film set in Laos, I watch two young boys, best friends in a rural village, as they are forced by circumstances to split up and start to lead very different lives.  “Videocracy” has me  transfixed by the spectacle of Italy’s intense devotion to television, and the revolting impact it has had on politics and everyday life.

The most personal, unwaveringly bleak documentary I watched was a static film about the impact of rampant capitalism on the town of Butte in my home state-  Montana.  It is called “An Injury to One.”  It centers on the the dangerous work of mining and the murder of Frank Little, a union organizer for the Wobblies.  It tells of the decimation of the union and reveals the devastation of the city itself as it is turned into little more than a hole in the ground slowly filling with acid. Its harsh shadows depict the unrelenting rape of the land for the copper buried in that one particular place on the planet.

Documentaries don’t necessarily paint a pretty picture, but they can show us the world we need to see.  And they bring people out of the woodwork and into downtown Durham, and that is a wonderful thing.

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