Downtown Durham has returned to normal with the ending of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The annual event draws thousands to the city center for four days of non-stop viewing of documentaries and conversations with makers and movers. Devoted fans return every year for an advance look at offerings which will then make the commercial circuit and other festivals in the months following.
This year had some powerful programming. Special tribute was paid to Steve James, best known for "Hoop Dreams" which drew a full house in the heart of basketball country. The panel "Hoop Dreams at 20" offered some rarely seen footage and commentary on the film's 20th anniversary.
History got a full nod with some remarkable footage. Stanley Nelson's "Freedom Summer" had archival footage of the 1964 Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Rory Kennedy's "Last Days in Vietnam" compiled previously unseen clips and accounts of the April 1975 evacuation of Saigon. Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein offered the U.S. premiere of "Our Man in Tehran" which explored Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's part in the rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis.
Visionaries got a nod with two films. The North American premiere of Maurice O'Brien's "Buffalo Dreams" followed a Scotsman who tried to raise a herd of bison in inhospitable northern Scotland. Sandy McLeod's "Seeds of Time" told the story of one man's attempts to warehouse seeds of every known plant in a safe place in Norway where they can be retrieved if the earth ever suffers a total catastrophe.
Water issues were the theme of several films. Rebecca Ferris and Jason Ferris offered "Can't Stop the Water" which looks at the Choctaw people of Isle de Jean Charles, a small Louisiana town disappearing beneath the water. Margaret Brown's "The Great Invisible" is a portrait of people affected by the Deepwater oil spill. The world premiere of John Rash's "Yangtze Drift" was a beautiful black and white journey down the famous Chinese river. Travis Rummel and Ben Knight offered "DamNation" which follows the move to replace America's dams with fisheries.
Working class issues were highlighted by some excellent films. The world premiere of Rachel Lears' "The Hand That Feeds" lauded New York City restaurant workers who fought for their rights at risk of losing their jobs. Christian Jensen's "White Earth" followed the plight of an immigrant family affected by the oil boom in North Dakota. Jesse Moss' "The Overnighters" also takes on the issues of boomtowns, this time from the perspective of a pastor who takes in homeless jobseekers.
Among the many other films, two are worth note. Thomas Allen Harris' "Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People" follows African-American history through the images in a family album. A beautiful restoration of the black and white classic, Lionel Rogosin's "On the Bowery" was a reminder of the longevity of the documentary tradition.