The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, unspooling this weekend in downtown Durham, features films from two dozen different countries and has become a world-class venue for filmmakers to showcase their latest work.
In addition to the main program of new documentaries, the festival also hosts an annual Thematic Program, in which a guest filmmaker is invited to curate a series of films dedicated to a particular concept or theme.
This year’s curator is RaMell Ross, the director, photographer and writer who made a serious splash in the documentary world last year. Ross’ debut feature, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” was nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary and won the Grand Jury Award at last year’s Full Frame festival.
The critically acclaimed film, shot over five years, chronicles everyday life in a rural black community in Alabama. Subtly powerful and artistically groundbreaking, “Hale County” deploys innovative visual strategies that tinker with the very fundamentals of the documentary form.
Ross has picked films for Full Frame that examine the process of watching — that mysterious transaction between filmmaker and audience that occurs whenever viewers sit down in front of a screen. Previous programs have explored general topic areas, such as political films or true crime stories.
Ross, speaking by phone while traveling in Georgia, said the films leverage the power of visual storytelling to communicate ideas that defy synopsis; those slippery kinds of truth that are beyond a reductive narrative tagline or quick description. That quality makes such films compelling, but also a little tricky to talk about, Ross said with a laugh.
“What I can say is that these were the kinds of films that were influential in making ‘Hale County,’” he said. “I can watch these films multiple times and have a sense of truth and reality, which I think is one of the best uses of cinema.”
Ross is particularly interested in the type of documentary where the film’s form — its structure and shape — communicates something in and of itself. When a film can successfully resonate on this frequency, it can impart a different kind of experience to the viewer.
With Ross’ own film “Hale County,” for instance, he makes deliberate choices in the visual language – like sequencing and perspective – to put the viewer among his subjects on the screen. The camera is often startlingly close to people, or is placed in a way that upends conventional technique. The idea is to generate a different perspective, of the everyday experiences of an African-American community in the contemporary rural South.
“The film itself, the form and the ideas in it, are a consequence of the perspective of an African-American,” Ross said. “A person who is not a black person – an American black person – could not have made this film.”
Ross said his intention with “Hale County” was, in part, to counter the deluge of negative imagery of black people.
“A lot of our notions of what makes others different from us, that comes from how films and media have functioned over the years,” Ross said. “And that process is way more visceral and unconscious than language.”
Just as “Hale County” brings a singular point of view, the seven films in this year’s Thematic Program, titled “Some Other Lives of Time,” use different techniques to illuminate their various subjects. The program also explores the passage of time onscreen.
The films include the 1982 documentary classic “Koyaanisqatsi,” which uses time-lapse photography and jarring juxtapositions to create a visual tone poem of environmental degradation. (The title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance.”) The program also includes the dystopian sci-fi vision of “La Jetée” (1962) and the London dreamscape “Twilight City” (1989).
Ross is also debuting his new short film, “Easter Snap,” a meditation on transaction and consumption in a time-honored Southern tradition of hog butchering. (It screens April 6 at 4:30 p.m. followed by a Q&A.)
Full circle at Full Frame
Ross has a longstanding relationship with the Full Frame festival. In 2014, several years before he completed “Hale County,” Ross was a recipient of the Full Frame’s Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant.
“I wasn’t in the documentary world at all when I made the film, or even halfway through the film.” Ross said. “I had a professor suggest the Full Frame grant, and she said if you get it, which is unlikely, it would be a great introduction to the documentary community.”
Ross was awarded the grant, but it almost didn’t happen. “I found out about the grant 24 hours before it was due, so I couldn’t mail the application,” he said. “I had to drive it down from Rhode Island.”
As part of that program, Ross screened “Hale County” as a work-in-progress at the 2014 festival.
“It was the first time that I’d seen it on the big screen,” Ross said. “That’s an underappreciated aspect, watching an audience watch the film.
“The full-circle nature of all this is bizarre,” he said. “It’s like a small-world thing, or an everything-is-meant-to-be thing, or one of those things that I don’t believe in.”
This year’s 22nd annual festival is April 4-7 in downtown Durham and will feature more than 60 documentaries from 28 different countries, with several films making their world premieres. Go to fullframefest.org/.
Two of the most popular films from last year’s festival will screen for free. “RBG” will screen Friday, April 5, at 8:30 p.m. at Motorco Music Hall. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is Saturday, April 6, at 8:30 p.m. at Durham Central Park.
Festival passes and multi-ticket packages are already sold out. For individual screenings that aren’t already sold out, tickets are available up until 30 minutes before showtime at the festival box office in the Durham Convention Center, located near the Marriott City Center lobby. Individual tickets are $16, with discounted rates for educators, students, military members and senior citizens.
A $30 Rush Pass applies to the Last Minute Line. The Sunday 4-Pack deal covers Sunday screenings for $25. Go to the Full Frame website at fullframefest.org or call 919-684-4444.