The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a four-day long annual celebration of documentary filmmaking hosted here in Durham, North Carolina, is turning 15 this weekend. It’s safe to say, though, that its age hasn’t begun to show.
The festival, which will be screening 57 competing films in different locations across Durham, has only increased in popularity since its inception in 1998. Films are either invited or are selected from a pool of over 1200 by committees of local artists, educators and curators over a period of about three months. The films to make it past the final stage of selection are included under the “New Docs” program, and are eligible to win the Full Frame Audience Award, among others.
This year’s New Docs films span a wide swath of topical material. Films like Detropia (Dir. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady) and Eating Alabama (Dir. Andrew Beck Grace) are driven by meditation on specific American locales, whereas others such as Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (Dir. Matthew Heineman, Susan Froemke) engage more explicitly with large scale political issues. There are also entries like Duke professor Josh Gibson’s Light Plate that focus on the aesthetic aspects of film. In celebration of its 15th anniversary, the festival will be supplementing these regular selections with a new program known as Vault, in which a short film from each of the festival’s previous fourteen years has been selected for rescreening. The Vault selections are showing on multiple occasions over the course of the weekend, and will be screened outdoors, free of charge, in Durham Central Park.
In addition to the films in competition, a number of other programs will be available at Full Frame this year. Influential documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, for example, will be curating the 2012 Thematic Program, called “Family Affairs.” A collection of eight feature films and two short films, the “Family Affairs” films are special in that they all focus on the families of the filmmakers themselves, a dynamic that adds considerable depth and complexity to the viewing—not to mention filming—experience. Similarly prominent filmmaker Stanley Nelson will also be honored with the festival’s annual tribute. As this year’s recipient, Nelson will take part in a moderated conversation with filmmaker Laurens Grant following the screening of this year’s opening night film—Grant’s Jesse Owens—and will be in attendance for screenings of four of his own films over the course of the weekend.
Documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, who has been working in documentary film and non-fiction for the past ten years, expressed enthusiasm for the tribute program, citing the formative influence of filmmakers like McElwee and Nelson on his own work.
“Sherman’s March is—probably for a lot of people, not just me—a watershed film. I saw that film when I was in my twenties, working already in production, and working in a very prescribed way on PBS shows,” Ruiz said. “When I saw that film, it really cracked everything open for me.”
One of Ruiz’s own films, Reportero, will be in competition at the festival this weekend. The project began as a portrait of an overlooked region of the U.S.-Mexico border, Ruiz said, before a series of conversations with writer Sergio Haro began to take things in an unanticipated direction. Ruiz’s meetings with Haro centered increasingly on his work with Semanario ZETA, a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly determined to resist censorship and preserve free press in a region that has been plagued by drug traffickers, violent criminals and corrupt politicians. The final cut of the film finds Ruiz following Haro and his colleagues in their efforts to publish information that others try to suppress—the names and faces of known offenders are frequently printed by ZETA—and chronicling the death threats and assassinations that haunt the reporters. Reportero has been on a 12-city tour of Mexico in recent weeks, but makes its U.S. premiere at Full Frame this weekend.
“I’m very excited about it, because it’s a small, very critical, special community of people. In some ways, it’s one of the best places to screen the kind of work that I do...[at] some of the bigger festivals, documentary films are diluted by the presence of other things going on.”
Sadie Tillery, now in her fourth year as the Director of Programming for Full Frame, said in an e-mail that there are elements of this festival that set it apart from other, similar events that are put on around the country.
“I think filmmakers feel prioritized at this festival,” Tillery said. “We do our best to take really good care of our guests. Some festivals are about marketing and selling work; Full Frame is really about celebrating it.”
The festival owes its unique atmosphere, at least in part, to the city of Durham itself, she added. Its location away from bigger cities actually enhances the experiences of those involved, since a more walkable city means easier accommodations, greater accessibility and fewer distractions for filmmakers and moviegoers alike. On top of that, Durham’s relatively small size means that the festival can take over and dominate the scene from Thursday to Sunday, creating a concentrated and immersive experience that would not be possible in a larger city. This is part of the power of Full Frame and, after fifteen years together, the festival and the city have become inseparable, working themselves into the fabric of one another.
“Durham is a big part of Full Frame’s identity,” Tillery said.
Tillery added that students and citizens from the area should feel encouraged to attend the festival, even if they have little background or experience with documentary film. And Ruiz, for one, insists that even the inexperienced will find great familiarity at the festival, as well as in documentary film in general.
“At its core, it’s about storytelling and it’s about illuminating and heightening our awareness of reality,” he said, likening the documentary film fan to the skeptic who must see something to believe it. “It’s no different than sitting around a campfire and hearing a relative or friends tell you a really great story about their past, about American history, or about their lives.”