Yesterday morning, I sat in the balcony of the Carolina Theatre next to a row of sweet old white women. We exchanged pleasantries before our film began, crying together as scenes of violence, emotion, and heavily militarized policing flashed across the screen. The artful craft of documentary film is celebrated each year at the Full Frame Film Festival right here in downtown Durham, and we had chosen to kick off the 20th anniversary of the event by attending “Whose Streets?”
“Whose Streets?” documents the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement immediately following the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. It is a gripping and compelling story of activism, hope and a new generation of political organizing. It presents to its viewers a thoroughly new narrative on Ferguson: one that does not sensationalize “looting and rioting,” but rather focuses on the struggle of living in an effective police state and the strategies being used to fight it. Our audience even had the opportunity to speak with the directors of the film, to probe them and laud them and question them.
This is not a rarity at Full Frame. The festival brings the most pressing issue of our day to life in film and creates critical conversations within the Durham community. I have been volunteering since my junior year of high school, just to get the chance to see a couple of life-changing films every year. It does a lot of good, and its attendees are brilliantly committed to absorbing new information that often sparks progressive action. Yet as I looked around the audience, I could not help but notice the overwhelming demographic of the festival. Most of the people filling the seats were like the group beside me: old and white.
Not to discredit the gravity of the films nor the excellence of Full Frame, but the event suffers from an accessibility issue. The people who desperately need to see “Whose Streets” and other movies of the like are students, young people, poor people and many other peoples who weren’t in the audience yesterday. Passes are expensive and time is hard to come by, especially for young, working people. While it is exciting that old people get the chance to passionately discuss matters of race, gender, and global violence, it is the high school and college students of our generation who would benefit most from such discussions.
Duke has a hand in the culture of Full Frame, and could play a major part in bringing these films to the masses. As Full Frame’s largest sponsor, Duke has been a huge source of support for the festival, which partners with our Center for Documentary Studies. Though the festival offers a student fellowship that offers budding filmmakers a chance to explore the weekend of documentaries, these spaces are limited and reserved for college students. Over the next few years, Duke should move to help Full Frame expand programs like the annual “Youth Screening” and “Teach the Teachers”, which bring the issues presented in modern documentary films to grade school teachers and students around the nation. Additionally, we can help to subsidize tickets and passes, so that less affluent community members are still able to be present and be a part of the crucial conversations that take place at Full Frame. And, perhaps most importantly, we students can advocate for the screening of such films right on campus. Through education beyond the classroom, we can find energy, motivation and new outlets for global and civic engagement.
The anatomy of the festival is especially potent in Durham, given its racial and economic history. However empathetic, kind and passionate the crowds of ex-hippy attendees are, they are not black kids living in Section 8, and are therefore less personally affected by the films on black activism that are often screened over the weekend.
There is no shortage of topics in which to engage through film. In the years that I have attended Full Frame, I have learned about the Black Panther Party, The Nation magazine, a 28-year wrongful incarceration, and Duke professor Dan Ariely’s research on dishonesty. Even a short introduction to these themes yields a spark of passion and deep thought in viewers, and if we could bring such films to marginalized youth across the country, we could inspire a generation of thinkers and doers.
The creators of “Whose Streets?” are doing just that. Despite high honors from boujee film festivals like Full Frame, they acknowledge that in order for their film to fulfill its purpose, it needs to reach a wider audience. You can (and should) find it in theaters this August. Hopefully, Full Frame will follow its lead and expand its reach as well.
Leah Abrams is a Trinity freshman. Her column, “cut the bull,” runs on alternate Fridays.
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