The Southern Documentary Fund celebrates a half-decade of documentary leadership | Film Review | Indy Week
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The Southern Documentary Fund celebrates a half-decade of documentary leadership 

Plus: A Full Frame update and remembering Heath Ledger

click to enlarge The Bouncing Bulldogs will appear on film and in person at the SDF gala. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHANIE JOHNES
  • Photo courtesy of Stephanie Johnes
  • The Bouncing Bulldogs will appear on film and in person at the SDF gala.

While the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has justly garnered accolades for its decade of achievement, another organization has quietly contributed to Durham's ever-growing status as an epicenter for documentary filmmaking.

It is fair to say the success of the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) is partly due to its proximity to both Full Frame and Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. But, for five years SDF has evolved from an invention born out of necessity into an independent, influential name in the regional documentary community.

On Feb. 1, SDF will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a gala event at Durham's Carolina Theatre. After an opening reception, SDF will screen Stephanie Johnes' film, Doubletime, an SDF-sponsored project about the Chapel Hill-based champion jump-rope team the Bouncing Bulldogs, which will also be on-hand to entertain those in attendance.

Besides a chance to bask in the glow of past achievements, the Feb. 1 event is yet another opportunity to raise SDF's profile and promote their mission of encouraging documentary media projects made within or about the American South. SDF serves as the fundraising entity for film projects soliciting much-needed support from outside organizations. SDF's function is to provide the 501(c)(3) nonprofit cover for nascent documentary projects as they begin to raise money. In addition, SDF collects all funds for a project, disburses them as necessary, and helps provide screening opportunities, Web site space and fiscal consultation.

Since its founding by Cynthia Hill and Steve Channing, both Durham documentary makers, SDF has grown into a fully functioning, nonprofit corporate entity with an advisory council, governing board and operations manager. From its first two films—Hill's Tobacco Money Feeds My Family and Channing and Rebecca Cerese's February One—SDF has supported nearly 60 projects, including 42 currently in production.

Board President Diana Newton says beyond SDF's fiscal sponsorship, it is now trying to foster a network for documentary artists to access production resources. It is also exploring ways to distribute their films, such as Channing's recent Durham: A Self-Portrait.

"In trying to cultivate an audience for documentaries," says Newton, "you already have the high-end spectrum occupied by filmmakers like Michael Moore and Ken Burns. Then, you have episodic festival opportunities like Full Frame. But that still leaves many other fine documentaries crying for a way to be seen."

To that end, SDF is instituting a series of regular programming for entertainment, educational and training purposes. The debut program is called Reel Stories, a yearlong series comprising the screening of six SDF-sponsored projects. The first screening is scheduled to take place in April at the Durham Arts Council. Also in the works are various screenings for school children across the state.

Asked about the similarities with Full Frame's effort at year-round programming, Newton is quick to praise Full Frame's good intentions, but "as far as scope, they tried to shoot much higher. By contrast, we want to start at the grassroots level and grow big." Judging by its first five years of growth, this sounds like a winning formula.

Tickets for the screening and reception on Feb. 1 can be purchased from The Carolina Theatre box office or at

In an article last month ("Changing of the guard," Dec. 26, 2007), we reported the departure of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival director Nancy Buirski, who founded the event a decade ago as the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. Earlier this month, Durham's Peg Palmer was tapped as the new executive director of the festival, removing her interim status. Buirski remains on staff as "advisor to the festival."

As we reported, the festival faces new financial challenges as it enters its second decade. Palmer has a long résumé with local nonprofits and seems to be a strong choice to lead Full Frame as it prepares for its 11th edition, which runs April 3-6.

click to enlarge Heath Ledger in the 2002 film The Four Feathers - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

The premature death of Heath Ledger has rightly generated reams of copy lauding the young actor's accomplishments and mourning not only his passing but a talent that will forever remain burgeoning. Everyone has mentioned his Oscar-nominated performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, which indeed is one of the most textured, sublime film performances this decade. And, notwithstanding Cate Blanchett's deserved praise for her role in the Bob Dylan quasi-biopic I'm Not There, Ledger's turn as a James Dean-like movie actor was that film's most complex—and, it turns out, prescient—performance.

In adding to the reminiscence, I'd like to recall one of Ledger's most overlooked parts, which naturally comes in one of his most underrated films, the 2002 remake of The Four Feathers. When I reviewed the film in September of that year, I was one month into my film critic career, but even through the haze of my inexperience, Ledger stood out as an actor mature beyond his then-23 years. After expressing faint praise for the other cast members, I wrote the following for the Sanford Herald:

"However, special commendation goes to Heath Ledger. His previous work in 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight's Tale, The Patriot and Monster's Ball hinted at the aptitude of this Australian import. But, the task of depicting Harry Faversham was an ambitious and risky proposition. Ledger doesn't miss a beat as Harry evolves from wide-eyed youth to tormented soul to courageous expatriate. His performance is a tour de force, the type of effort few actors of his generation could accomplish."

No mere pretty face, Ledger was a genuine talent, and his death is a real loss.

  • Plus: A Full Frame update and remembering Heath Ledger


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