Durham County

Full Frame celebrates 20 years of non-fiction films

Carl Wetter checks the lighting in Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre in preparation for the Thursday, April 6 opening of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Carl Wetter checks the lighting in Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre in preparation for the Thursday, April 6 opening of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The Herald-Sun

Terry Sanford, Mavis Staples and Hunter S. Thompson — a governor, a singer and a writer — may not be a list that casual observers conjure, but the lives of all three have been chronicled in about 2,000 films that the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has screened since it began in 1998.

The 20th festival, which begins Thursday, April 6, will have 71 new documentaries competing for various awards, along with “DoubleTake,” a retrospective series of screenings of films from each year of the festival. In honor of its 20th season, this year’s festival will present a free late night birthday party Thursday at 21c Museum Hotel.

The festival was originally called DoubleTake before organizers changed the name to Full Frame in 2002. During its history, the festival has watched the many changes downtown has undergone. Before the downtown renaissance began, Full Frame was one of the first annual festivals to commit to using downtown venues. In 1998, Durham Bulls Athletic Park and Carolina Theatre had been in operation for about four years, but American Tobacco still sat vacant, and restaurants, bars, music halls and other venues were scarce. Now, the film festival has its offices and a theater in American Tobacco, and once empty businesses are the home for retail stores, offices, as well as restaurants and bars.

The profile of documentary films also has changed. The number of distributors of documentaries has produced “a plethora of more content,” said Deirdre Haj, who became the festival’s executive director in 2010. The festival’s founder, Nancy Buirski, left the festival in 2007 to concentrate on documentary work. More documentary filmmakers also are rising through the ranks faster and seeing their work screened for more viewers, Haj said. “The unexpected joy of that is you’re seeing the form broaden,” Haj said. “You’re seeing animation” and good re-enactments to tell stories, elements that were not part of documentary films years ago.

Among the films Full Frame has screened are “February One,” about the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” about a North Carolinian who was falsely accused of a crime and later exonerated, and “Mavis!,” about gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples. Other films were “Terry Sanford and the New South” and “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” Full Frame attendees also saw a sneak preview of Ken Burns’ series “Jazz,” which ran on PBS.

The festival also has screened curated series, some of which are filmmakers’ responses to national and international events. Series titles have included “Why War?,” “Work and Labor,” “Tolerance” and “Migrations.”

Those curated film blocks are a response to what filmmakers submit to the festival, Haj said. “If we’re good curators, we’re responding to what filmmakers send us.” At this year’s festival, Haj sees several themes among the films that were submitted. Documentarians are looking at the desire of people in countries like Syria for democracy, the migration of refugees from Africa and the Middle East (“City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo”), this country’s experience with long-running wars, and more films about the Holocaust (“116 Cameras,” “Dysphoria: Inside the Mind of a Holocaust Survivor”).

“I think there’s a reflectiveness in these artists” who are looking at these topics, she said. “That’s coming through in the work. At the same time there are voices of overcoming and triumph ... beautiful characters who do things like go and visit the ocean for the first time.... That’s what I love about the form. ... The smallest incident in our lives” can become a subject for great documentary, Haj said.

In its earlier years, the festival featured guests like Martin Scorsese, Michael Moore, and Al Franken (who was profiled in a documentary that screened at the festival). Without any public fanfare, the festival, particularly after the recession of 2008, began focusing more on the films and filmmakers. “For me personally, I think so much of our culture looks at famous people. I’m very proud to [present] art that shines a light on people you may not know,” said Sadie Tillery, Full Frame artistic director. She prefers to commit the festival’s resources to “carving out a space” for the filmmakers, Tillery said.

“Part of what’s special about Full Frame is it’s such an intimate festival-going experience,” Tillery said. She cited the closeness of the venues, and the opportunity visitors have to talk with the filmmakers. “I think the festival can allow artists to recharge and make connections in a way that is organic,” she said. “It’s rewarding for me that we are able to establish that kind of atmosphere.”

Watching documentaries and asking questions of the filmmakers as part of an audience also are central to the festival experience, Haj said. Watching with an audience “is a vastly different experience than renting a movie on Saturday night,” she said. In contemporary America, there are not many public, communal experiences left, Haj said. “That’s why it’s so powerful to me.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Go and Do

WHAT: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

WHEN: Thursday, April 6 through Sunday, April 9

WHERE: The Carolina Theatre and other downtown venues

ADMISSION: For tickets, visit www.fullframefest.org