Nothing in Frank Ferrante’s slim frame, mane of graying hair and relaxed manner allude to his former colossal dimensions. Instead, he looks like any other health-conscious diner as he sits down at the vegan restaurant Café Gratitude on Harrison Street.
But four years ago, the 54-year-old carpenter from Brooklyn was an unlikely candidate to stumble into Café Gratitude. “I was 300 pounds, addicted to drugs, I had hepatitis C, I was depressed, I was dying, really,” Ferrante recalls.
He stuck around for a meal after that first visit, a decision that catapulted him into an unusual ride back to health. When he confessed to Ryland Engelhart, one of the café’s managers, that he wanted to be loved before he died, Engelhart, with his friends and colleagues Cary Mosier and Conor Gaffney, decided to put Frank on a regime of raw food and spiritual coaching and take a camera along for the ride. The result is “May I Be Frank,” one of the local documentaries screening at the ninth SF DocFest, a two-week-long documentary film festival that plays at the Roxie Theater.
Ferrante’s journey to a slimmer version of himself fits in with the popular demand for authentic personal stories. Karen Everett, a documentary story consultant and owner of New Doc Editing, says it was the 1994 box office hit “Hoop Dreams” that put the character-driven documentary on the map. The tale of two young prodigies who hope to escape poverty through basketball “showed documentaries could be as exciting and entertaining as feature films,” Everett says.
Much like fiction, character-driven documentaries follow all the rules of a classic drama, including a challenge, climax and resolution. “May I Be Frank” contains all these ingredients.
Initially, Ferrante thought his main hurdle would be Gratitude’s raw vegan diet. The worst part of it, he recalls, was the daily shots of wheatgrass. “It’s like taking a bite out of your lawn.”
The colonic treatment he went through weekly wasn’t much better. But as the pounds melted away, Ferrante’s strained relationships with his ex-wife and his family became the centerpiece of the story.
Another growing trend in documentary film-making is the packaging. Where documentaries once had a single run on television or at festivals, they now have turned into multimedia showcases. “Twenty years ago you would not see a documentary accompanied by a website, featured on late-night talk shows or be shown at grass-root organized screenings,” says Everett.
“May I Be Frank” has all that and more. The film is being shown to a variety of communities interested in health and spirituality. The celebrity endorsements from singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, who wrote a song for the film, also added to the buzz. Overall, Ferrante is the film’s strongest spokesperson, and his agenda is currently packed with requests to talk at film festivals and screenings.
Though Ferrante admits that staying healthy on tour is challenging (North Carolina was the most difficult), he still travels to deliver his message. “’May I Be Frank’ really shows you can take control of your health and relationships can be mended.”
These are lessons he’s still learning to apply off-screen. He found love, and discovered it’s not all that easy. He’s still reeling from a painful breakup. “I was hoping it [weight loss] would change me,” he confesses, adding that he was also not drinking, taking drugs or smoking. “Why was life not perfect?”
Ultimately, he is coming to grips with the grittiest-tasting lesson of all: “What I needed to do was to be content who I was.”
“May I Be Frank” is showing at the Roxie Theater on Monday, October 25, at 7:15 p.m.
For other screenings, see the film’s website.