Movie News & Reviews

In election year, Durham’s Full Frame examines political process

R.J. Cutler’s Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary “The War Room” will screen at Full Frame on Saturday.
R.J. Cutler’s Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary “The War Room” will screen at Full Frame on Saturday. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Kicking off Thursday in downtown Durham, the 19th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is a major cultural event for the Triangle and an annual gathering-of-the-tribes for the worldwide documentary filmmaking community.

Established as a small film series in 1998, Full Frame has grown into one of the industry’s most prestigious and popular festivals. Less overtly commercial than other film festivals, which often operate as distribution marketplaces, Full Frame enjoys a sterling reputation as a professionally organized showcase for the art and craft of documentary filmmaking.

More than 90 films will be screened at Full Frame through Sunday, including 13 selections in the specially curated Thematic Program. Focused on political campaigns and the electoral process, this election-year series was assembled by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who will also attend the festival.

As director and producer, Cutler has made several acclaimed films on the American electoral process, including “A Perfect Candidate,” “The World According to Dick Cheney” and the Oscar-nominated doc “The War Room,” chronicling Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. He spoke to the N&O about Full Frame, the cyclical nature of elections, and the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

Q: The Thematic Program this year covers 50 years of filmmaking and has an intriguing title: “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” What’s the thinking behind that name?

A: Well, it’s partly an allusion to a film I made in 1996, “A Perfect Candidate,” which explores in part what we are looking for in our leaders. That’s a theme that runs through all the films in the program, really. It’s an interesting aspect of our democratic process. We choose the women and men who run our country, and that’s a specific burden on the electorate, but also reflects on the electorate. It’s about the search for ideal leadership, and what that says about us.

Q: This year’s presidential race seems particularly bananas, but you write in the program materials about specific resonances with past elections. What are some of those echoes?

A: Sure, for instance if you consider the movie “America is Hard to See” – which is featured in the thematic program – you have an outside candidate relying on the 25-and-under voting population. He comes out of nowhere to take the New Hampshire primary and throws the entire process on its head. You might think I was talking about Bernie Sanders, but it’s Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

Or there’s another film that’s a good example: If I told you I was making a film about an African-American running for president, and also the first woman running for president, you might think I was talking about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and their campaigns eight years ago.

But in fact the film we’re showing – “Chisolm ’72” – is about Shirley Chisolm, who in 1972 was both the first African-American and the first woman to launch a major campaign for president. And she took it all the way to the Democratic Convention.

Throughout all these films there are resonances with our own circumstances, our own time. Although, there is no movie about Benito Mussolini, so we’re lacking a direct reference to the Donald Trump campaign and his shocking success (laughs). His particular mix of buffoonery and genuine darkness is not directly paralleled in the program.

Q: You’ve also talked about the worrying influence of electronic media in elections.

A: Right, another major character in all of these films in the television set. To a degree, each film explores the notion of the really astounding extent to which the media plays a role in our modern elections.

The candidate most of us see is an electronic presence. It’s a projected character on the screen. In the thematic program, I tried to trace the evolution of that from its earliest incarnations. One of the films, “Primary,” is about Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in 1960.

With each passing cycle, television plays a greater and greater role. In our current moment, you can make the case that Donald Trump only exists as a television character. We see the power of this in his success to date.

Q: How do you go about assembling a film series like this? Have you done this before?

A: You know, I haven’t, outside of recommending films to colleagues and friends. I’ve never done anything like this for a film festival. I simply started by making a list of my favorite films. Then I thought about which sequence could provide a kind of coherent look at the theme over time. Factor in the time constraints, add and subtract, and lo and behold, you have a thematic program.

I’ve always appreciated the hard work it takes to put a festival together. This gave me a keener insight into the monumental task that’s involved.

Q: You’ve been to film festivals all over the world – is there anything in particular about Full Frame that you appreciate?

A: Well, there are a few things. We’re coming up on Full Frame’s 20 year anniversary, and 20 years ago there weren’t hundreds of festivals all over the world. There were a few tent poles, but there wasn’t a tent yet. Full Frame was one of those tent poles – and it was the only one devoted exclusively to documentaries.

It’s maintained a unique status as the festival that shows all of the year’s most important documentary films. And it’s also an annual gathering for the community. The competition element is, I think, secondary to the communal gathering and the opportunity to see each other’s work every year. It’s always a highlight of the year.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

When: April 7-10

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

Cost: $16 for individual tickets, $27 for special events, $14 for educators, students and military