Sometimes it just takes one movie to define your experience at a film festival. And Peace Officer, about small-town Utah sheriff William “Dub” Lawrence and his campaign to put the brakes on the nation-wide militarization of U.S. police forces, would be that film for me regarding this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which took place this weekend. The documentary, which just won the grand jury prize as well as the audience award at SXSW, has got it all: it’s well told; it has Dub, an upstanding, self-deprecating hero with a twinkle in his eye and a determined sense of justice, as its central character; it’s incredibly relevant, given what’s been happening, including events in Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina; it’s a top-notch production, with strong visuals, good camera work and gripping imagery; and, essentially, although directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber clearly have a point to make, they show enough restraint to avoid making it a tired polemic.

But I have to say, as great as Peace Officer is, I wasn’t immune to other strong impressions of the festival from seeping in. It was that good of an experience. I was consistently surprised and fascinated by films and conversations with people in attendance.

In a previous post, I indicated my wariness about Abandoned Goods, which I only saw because it was a short paired with Saving Mes Aynak, but it turned out to not be the unwieldy, meandering “meditation,” I feared, but instead a beautiful, clear, reflection on aesthetics, perception and the workings of the mind, as it depicts the art rendered by the patients of the Netherne asylum in England.

Full Frame organizers were smart to match it up with Saving Mes Aynak, which has a more imperative mission; to save a 5,000 year old archaeological site in Afghanistan from imminent destruction by the Chinese copper company that intends to destroy it all, beginning at the end of this year. I couldn’t help thinking of Indiana Jones as the film depicts archaeologists scraping away in the dust and sand. The film is also well paced, and the images are gripping.

At the film’s center is Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori, who is working valiantly but without much support, to save the site. Director Brent Huffman seems to be the only person this side of the Turkmenistan who cares about the site, which just seems crazy. Can’t a guy like Richard Gere step up? What about the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or its wealthy patrons)? The film briefly depicts the Taliban’s destruction, in 2001, of the 1,500-year old Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. I literally flinched when I watched them blow up. The stupidity of man! But what’s it going to take for people to care about Mes Aynak? The actual visual of it being obliterated? Before it happens, we can’t muster up the indignation? Stupid. (You can learn more about the film, which is being broadcast on Al Jazeera in July, and launching an Indiegogo campaign, here.)

There were several other films that impressed me, including two biographies. To the credit of both director Jessica Edwards and subject Mavis Staples, Mavis! features a ridiculously impressive spectrum of interview subjects — including Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Chuck D and civil rights leader Julian Bond — who create a multi-layered tribute to the lady who sang, “I’ll Take you There,” and other classics.

I just filled my schedule with Listen to Me Marlon, about actor Marlon Brando, not expecting much from a film put together from old clips and the audio tapings that Brando himself recorded. But the film is such an evocative narrative of a remarkable actor, and it becomes even more than that; a disquisition on acting, identity, fate and giving one’s life meaning.

Between popping in and out of great movies, there was a constant flow of documentary filmmakers in a fairly small area, so every time I turned, there was someone great to talk with, whether they were legends (Barbara Kopple, Robb Moss), new leaders (Marshall Curry, Gary Hustwit), hot shots (Maxim Pozdorovkin, Sam Cullman) or vital, behind-the-scenes players (Josh Braun, Marilyn Ness).

There were also the many documentary subjects — I was particularly excited to meet Dub, from Peace Officer whose eyes truly do sparkle (I’ll be writing about him more in the future) and Daniel McGowan, from If A Tree Falls (POV 2011) and a whole gaggle of film editors, which I’d contend is the greatest indicator of a film festival’s coolness quotient you could ask for.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen