At Full Frame, filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev explores the stories of storytelling

CorrespondentApril 4, 2013 

Amir Bar-Lev


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    What: 16th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

    When: Friday-Sunday

    Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham, and other venues around town.

    Cost: All films $15, Sunday encores $10. Tickets can be purchased at the Full Frame Box Office in the Durham Convention Center, or online at


Amir Bar-Lev is familiar with the “observer effect,” a concept in physics that states that just by observing something, you are affecting it.

A documentary filmmaker and curator of the “Stories About Stories” thematic sidebar at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Bar-Lev understands that the observer effect is at work while shooting docs, “but the fact that we affect everything we are trying to document doesn’t mean that what is captured is untrue. Some of the most truthful storytelling is the storytelling that acknowledges the effect we have on what we are trying to capture.”

That’s sort of the point of “Stories About Stories,” which features a series of films that, says Bar-Lev, “in their storytelling, they examine storytelling itself. Documentary is a complex medium that combines journalism and art, and sometimes in a problematic way. And it bears some scrutiny by its own practitioners.”

Take, for example, Nick Broomfield’s “Driving Me Crazy,” one of the films in the sidebar. “It’s a film about what Nick does when the film he’s trying to make (about the making of a glitzy musical) blows up in his face,” says Bar-Lev. “And I was excited about the idea that you can find story even when the story you’re expecting doesn’t come to fruition. It felt like a metaphor for life.”

Bar-Lev is familiar with the “truth may not be what it seems” concept from his own work. His film “The Tillman Story” documented how the death of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman was not caused by enemy fire, as first reported, but actually the result of friendly fire. And his “My Kid Could Paint That,” which is in the festival sidebar, is about a young girl acclaimed as an artist who becomes embroiled in controversy when it appears her work might have been completed with her parents’ assistance.

“I’m not interested in stories with very clear white hats and black hats,” says Bar-Lev. “Those stories just reassure me my values are all in place. I’m interested in stories that provoke thorny questions, and cause me to evaluate and poke and prod at my belief system. That’s what good documentary filmmaking does.”

And that’s a good reason why Bar-Lev’s next film, “Happy Valley,” is about the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal. But it’s not that Bar-Lev is particularly interested in Sandusky.

“I’m more interested in how we relate to Jerry Sandusky, the mythological nature of Sandusky and (former Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno,” he says. “We call the film ‘Happy Valley’ because we’re interested in how the town is reckoning with itself in the aftermath of the scandal.”

That movie is still in the production stage. In the meantime, Bar-Lev is more than happy to be returning to Full Frame, where a film he co-produced, “Trouble the Water,” won the 2008 Grand Jury Award. At the festival, he says, “you are immersed in the different approaches filmmakers take in this medium. The differences in approaches, even more than the subject matter, are what I find inspiring in Full Frame.”

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