WHAT'S IN A NAME: Full Frame wasn't always Full Frame. It began as the Doubletake Documentary Film Festival in 1998, when it was one of just two documentary-only film festivals in the United States (now there are dozens), before becoming Full Frame in 2002.
AUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS: The festival was founded by Nancy Buirski, a documentary filmmaker who was formerly a Pulitzer-winning international photography editor at The New York Times. Buirski developed an advisory board from her connections in the filmmaking community and started strong: in its first two years, the festival already featured contributions and panel participation from legendary filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Lee Grant, and George Stoney. The first three-day event took place at the Carolina Theatre, where it still resides twenty years later, now ranging over four days and onto additional screens at the Durham Convention Center, the Durham Arts Council, and beyond.
INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCE: Full Frame doesn't neglect local filmmakers (see sidebar), and it offers public screenings in Durham year-round. But beyond the Triangle, it's been recognized by Indiewire as one of the world's top twelve documentary festivals, alongside the likes of Amsterdam's IDFA and Toronto's Hot Docs. Deirdre Haj, Full Frame's executive director, notes its recognition by the Academy Awards: "In 2012, when the academy decided that festivals would be added to the criteria for being considered for an Academy Award, we were one of the first festivals accredited," she says. "Likewise, when the academy decided to reinstate its grants program last year, it gave out a selective thirty-seven national grants, two coming straight to Durham's documentary programs." She's also had more personal experiences of Full Frame's influence, as when an aspiring filmmaker in Greece once told her the highlight of his career was a Full Frame rejection letter, because it meant the committee had watched his film.
THAT CERTAIN FULL FRAME MAGIC: "We are conscious of programming films that represent a wide scope of forms and styles," says Sadie Tillery, Full Frame's programming director. "Our selection committee is not concerned with the business of filmmaking; we are here to offer something unique to the filmmaking community by honing in on the artistry of filmmaking."
But more to the point, as Full Frame has grown, Tillery has stayed mindful of the original approach crafted by Buirski.
"It's an intimate festival," Tillery says. "The landmark achievement moments have been distilled through personal interaction with filmmakers and festivalgoers. We make sure to stay in touch with the artists we bring in. We look them in the eye and let them know we are here to take care of their work."
"We are intimate in our landscape," agrees Haj, who lives in Minneapolis since her husband, Joseph Haj, left PlayMakers Repertory Company for a job at the Guthrie Theater in 2015.
"That hasn't changed from day one," Haj continues. "Sometimes we joke about struggling to get filmmakers to participate in panels, because they all want to participate in the festival like everyone else. It's this amazing group of people that gets together in our house, making for a unique experience that just doesn't happen at other festivals. You know how you get to camp and you don't know anybody, but then, on the last day, you're crying and hugging as you get on the bus to go home? That's Full Frame." —Luke Hicks
This article appeared in print with the headline "Full Frame At A Glance."
LOCAL FILMMAKERS AND SUBJECTS GET THEIR CLOSE-UPS
ALL SKATE, EVERYBODY SKATE (U.S., 19 min.) Miss Doris sounds like a tall tale. For fifty years, she's been running a post office-slash-roller-skating rink in the tiny North Carolina beach town of Topsail Island. Her story is lovingly told by filmmaker Nicole Triche, an Elon University faculty member last seen at Full Frame in 2013 with another short doc about unconventional passions, Taxidermists. (Friday, April 7, 4:10 p.m.)
THE ORIGINAL RICHARD MCMAHAN (U.S., 21 min.) Chapel Hill filmmaker Olympia Stone turns the camera once again the art of the small. Two years ago, Full Frame screened Stone's Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck, a deep dive into the work of an artist who specializes in intricate kinetic sculptures that require intense miniature work. Similarly, this film follows Richard McMahan, an artist obsessed with re-creating classic works on a Lilliputian scale. The resulting mini-masterpieces are housed in his own Mini Museum, a collection of more than a thousand pieces spanning art history. (Friday, April 7, 10:20 a.m.)
PURPLE DREAMS (U.S., 73 min.) Being the first high school permitted to perform The Color Purple is a big deal for the students and faculty of Northwest School of the Arts, a public magnet school in Charlotte. The Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning novel carries high expectations. Filmmaker and Charlotte native Joanne Hock uses this frame to tell the story of the students' attempts to follow their dreams and deal with the realities of the play's hard-hitting themes. (Friday, April 7, 7:40 p.m.)
MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (U.S., 104 min.) It's no secret that the boys from Concord have done well for themselves. The Avett Brothers have been nominated for three Grammy Awards; they've played the late-night TV circuit and released nine albums. This film, codirected and produced by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, follows their soul-searching attempts to work on a new record with producer Rick Rubin in California. Is this a story of a chosen family fighting for creative sparks or one dispassionately removed from its N.C. roots? (Saturday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.) —Ashley Melzer
WOMEN'S STORIES FRONT AND CENTER
Who runs the world? Girls. Who just wants to have fun? Girls. Who's torn between feeling reductive about singling themselves out and the need to highlight their stories? Girls. Luckily, Full Frame this year offers a wide range of female experiences to explore, demonstrating how women navigate and surpass expectations.
MOMMY'S LAND (Cambodia/U.S., 68 min.) How do you turn "the personal is political" from an aphorism about legislative overreach into action? Say no. That's the lesson of one elderly grandmother who sparks a movement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's poorest area. The film portrays her stubbornness in the face of violent threats and economic upheaval. Is one woman's life enough to stand down the aggression? (Friday, April 7, 10:10 a.m.)
SHIVANI (U.S., 21 min.) For girls, expectations can be the enemy of identity—especially when you're dressed in bows, complimented on your beauty, and given a doll to ward for practice. What to make, then, of Shivani, the tiny, three-year-old prodigy archer whose family believes is the reincarnation of her dead brother? Can a girl carry the grief of her family and determine her own fate? (Friday, April 7, 1:10 p.m.)
STILL TOMORROW (China, 88 min.) Yu Xiuhua achieved viral success with her "frankly sexual" poem, "Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You." But the idea that this poem would even be of note were she not a forty-year-old woman with cerebral palsy is "frankly" absurd. For better and worse, a viral sensation brings attention to this artful, outspoken woman for the ways in which she breaks societal norms and embraces her individuality. (Thursday, April 6, 1:20 p.m.)
DINA (U.S., 101 min.) This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning doc tells the story of Dina—forty-nine, newly engaged, and ready to ascend to the romance she's come to expect from watching Sex and the City. It might sound like a glib look at a stereotype-obsessed suburbanite, but it's actually a reserved character study about love and mental disability. (Friday, April 7, 7:20 pm)
ASIYEH (Iran, 34 min.) While setting a patient's broken bone, Asiyeh gently, matter-of-factly draws the truth to the surface: the patient's husband, who brought her in, also abused her. It's just one scene in this portrait of a bonesetter in Northwestern Iran. Asiyeh's skill with her work and persistence in her council keep her in demand in her community. The film brings to light how healing is so often a function of comfort and confrontation. (Thursday, April 6, 4:00 p.m.) —Ashley Melzer