There’s a decrepit, charmless midcentury office building overlooking the main square of blighted downtown Durham. In the window, a sign: WE WANT OPRAH. It’s been up for a couple of years now. Oprah’s not coming.
Not yet. But that may change. With the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in its ninth year, there are more eyes on the city than usual. (And for reasons that go beyond basketball — or, um, lacrosse.) Oprah herself is reportedly interested in the festival’s ”Class in America” program. HBO promotes its documentaries here, among them the popular entries John & Jane Toll-Free (about the American and non-American dreams of customer-support operators in Mumbai) and 51 Birch St (about the spontaneous unraveling of a ”normal” suburban family). And sponsors are throwing themselves at the still-young fest: This year saw major contributions by A&E and Clickstar, Morgan Freeman’s fledgling movie-download company. A rather embarrassing Clickstar press conference — featuring awkward banter with partner Danny DeVito and no clearly discernible business plan — proved to be the low point of the festival, though it had the unintended consequence of raising healthy issues about corporate sponsorship and the duty of documentary film to tell truth to power.
The big awards went to the little guy, as is traditional. The audience award went to The Trials of Darryl Hunt, a harrowing account of a death-row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence. The grand-jury prize went to Iraq in Fragments, a gorgeous but very, well, fragmentary portrait of today’s Iraq. (Like the nation, it arguably lacks a unified soul, though its striking visuals are undeniably mesmerizing: It could be called Iraqaatsi.)
In my opinion, some of the fest’s best films went unrecognized at the awards ceremony. SAZ is a unique portrait of Arab life inside Israel, seen through the eyes of a budding Palestinian hip-hop star. Samekh ”Saz” Zakhut’s relationship with his grandfather, an aging Communist displaced by the ’48 war, is worth the price of admission, even if the doc itself never quite closes its thematic loops. Beyond Beats and Rhymes (pictured) has a cumbersome, dead-boring title that conceals a tough-minded, erudite dissection of misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop — in the tradition of Supersize Me, this is the one that has people buzzing, ”It should be taught in high schools!” Filthy Gorgeous: The Trannyshack Story, an account of the infamous Frisco drag sextravaganza, functions primarily as eye candy — though there’s an understated humanity behind all the spangles.
Finally, we come to my personal favorite, The Chances of the World Changing. It’s the story of Richard Ogust, a New York writer who, while dining in a Chinese restaurant over a decade ago, took pity on an endangered turtle bound for the soup pot and brought it home. A few years later, Richard was keeping over 1,200 rare specimens in his loft, with the idea of building what amounts to an Ark. Adorable? Heroic? Perhaps. But this is a story of failure. And not just the delusional failure we’ve come to expect from both documentary and its ratty cousin, reality TV. No, Richard fails with his eyes wide open, and his ordeal is required reading for both the good intentions camp and the can’t-be-bothered-que-sera-seras.
On that happy note, I take my leave. Keep it at least moderately real, and get it on film if you can. Oh, and if you see Oprah, tell her to visit Full Frame next year. It’s ready for her.