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The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opens with Kings of Pastry

For its 13th installment, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opens with Kings of Pastry, about a French chef competition. The gastronomic theme pairs well with Full Frame's closing barbecue, a tradition that incarnates the Southern hospitality associated with this Durham, N.C., event, taking place April 8 to 11.

Yet not so long ago, a film celebrating quiche-eaters might not have enjoyed such a visible U.S. premiere. That this Gallic bakeoff by husband-and-wife filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus whets moviegoers' appetites suggests a cultural shift, since French fries were renamed "freedom fries" in the early days of the Iraq War.

America's battles, however, rage on, and one of the most highly anticipated films to be screened at this Full Frame follows a U.S. platoon in the deadly Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Titled Restrepo, this collaboration between Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger won the Grand Jury award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and is touted as a corrective to the liberties taken in The Hurt Locker.

Another combat-themed film at Full Frame is How to Fold a Flag (pictured on our front page). The fourth installment in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Iraq War series tracks the four U.S. soldiers introduced in Gunner Palace (2004) as they readjust to civilian life. An especially poignant scene concerns dishonorable discharge, which a vet suffering from post-traumatic disorders sees as a ruse to manage the demands on VA hospitals.

Compared against the recent past, programming director Sadie Tillery "would not say this year's films were especially bleak." The selection committee "culled together a mix from such a broad spectrum ... some celebratory, some grim," she commented.

Of the more than 1,200 submissions that swarmed the Festival inbox, only 57 made it to the 2010 "New Docs" section.

Alex Gibney - whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Oscar laureate Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) graced previous Full Frame editions - returns with Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The saga of lobbyist Jack Abramoff spans his early years as Republican cheerleader through his incarceration for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, by way of Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops and Mafia-style murder in Miami, Fla.

Yoruba Richen's Promised Land also vies in the "New Docs" competition. This study of land claims cases in South Africa follows two black communities struggling to reclaim their inheritance from white citizens who gained ownership under apartheid.

Screening alongside the competition will be a program of films about labor, identity and globalization. The series, which was curated by the directing team of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, includes China Blue. Micha X. Peled's clandestine exposé of blue-jeans manufacture in China squints the human aspects of globalization, and makes you rethink what really comes between you and your denims.

Bognar and Reichert's latest film, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, will be screened in the "Invited" category alongside such works as Michel Gondry's family album, The Thorn in the Heart, and Steven Soderbergh's look back on monologist Spaulding Grey, And Everything is Going Fine.

This year's Career Award honors Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy, makers of films on the legal system, AIDS, human rights and other social issues involving everyday heroes.

The four-day Festival, which is jointly presented with Duke University, offers conversations with filmmakers, workshops, parties and a handful of free community screenings.

For now, it has no plans to follow a small but growing roster of film festivals entering the distribution business. This could change under new executive director Dierdre Haj, though Tillery doesn't consider herself "a distributor or someone who can negotiate that deal."

"We made a conscious decision not to be a market," she adds. Nor does the Festival require premieres. "It's important for filmmakers to show as at many platforms as possible," explains Tillery.

The current thrust of Full Frame's industry ambitions is to allow "filmmakers to see one another's work and...have time to sit down with and enjoy coffee and discuss what they just saw." Set within a single downtown block, the Festival nurtures an atmosphere of sanity by the mere fact that "you're not running to the next shuttle or screening," says Tillery.

By Laura Blum

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