Full Frame Documentary Film Festival celebrates 20 years in North Carolina

By Bradley Bethel

April 4, 2017

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival begins this Thursday, and the festival is celebrating 20 years of bringing the best independent documentaries to downtown Durham. From year to year, Full Frame consistently programs films that go on to be nominated or win Best Documentary at the Oscars. This year will likely be no exception.

At least two documentaries showing at this year’s Full Frame already have the kind of buzz that foreshadows an Oscar nomination. City of Ghosts, by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman, chronicles the efforts of the brave citizen-journalists risking their lives in Syria to expose the atrocities wrought by ISIS. Quest, a subtle film shot over 10 years, documents the life of a North Philadelphia couple who opens their home music studio to a neighborhood plagued by inequality. Both premiered at Sundance and received universal praise from film critics.

Festival Director Deirdre Haj

How did Full Frame become a festival that could attract such excellent films? To find out, we asked festival director Deirdre Haj. We discussed Full Frame’s past, what makes the festival so great, and what she hopes for its future. If you weren’t already planning to attend the festival this year, you likely will after reading our interview.

CLTure: There are thousands of film festivals in the U.S., but few are as reputable as Full Frame. How has Full Frame become so distinguished in its 20 years?

Deirdre Haj: We truly bend over backwards to make the process of submitting and screening with us as easy as possible. Full Frame is known for its hospitality to filmmakers. One of the benefits of only showing documentaries is that the filmmakers are the stars; there is no red carpet. So we can devote a lot of energy and attention to those filmmakers screening with us. Where and when a film screens, knowing what audience will be able to find that film with the subject matter they are passionate about takes thoughtfulness. Assuring a robust audience is important for how a film screens. We don’t just show the most popular films of the year; we are showing films that we know our audience wants to see.

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CLTure: What are some of Full Frame’s most notable accomplishments?

DH: Becoming an Oscar-qualifying festival when the Academy first opened up their criteria was an enormous acknowledgement of our programming. Likewise, our School of Doc program, and our other educational programs are free to our community. This required allowing the community to own the festival; we belong to the filmmakers and the local community that supports us. We really are diversifying the field and launching new talent as well as new fans for the art form. And for such a small organization, we punch well above our weight, and drive over 4 million dollars in spending during just our four-day event.

CLTure: What are some ways documentary film has changed over the past 20 years, and how has Full Frame responded to those changes?

DH: There is more content than ever, for one thing, and more methods of seeing that content. One response is to try to limit how many submissions we get by keeping our platforms for entry small. We do this so we can ethically adjudicate all the content that we receive. Many festivals are just looking for as many submissions as they can take. Not so for us. In terms of access, we have stuck with theatrical exhibition screening in a theater with other people as our main way of showing content. We are sort of analog that way! But we feel strongly that drawing people together under one roof to watch and hear someone else’s story creates community and dialogue that is irreplaceable with other forms of seeing film.

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CLTure: What is the value of documentary film festivals to society? Why shouldn’t people just watch documentaries at home?

DH: I think the distinct difference of festivals, and documentary-only festivals in particular, is the ability to meet, hear from and speak with filmmakers as well as subjects (people) featured in those films. Documentaries are generally shot to be seen on a big screen. There is a fundamental difference in our physiological response to a story when we are in a public setting, and with a group of people. It takes energy, and gives energy back to you. I think of it a lot like church. Your point of view might be challenged. You may be shaken out of your comfort zone. You can’t press pause and grab something to eat. You can’t turn away and come back to the story later. You are a small presence in a sea of others witnessing someone else’s story for a period of time. You can hear people laugh or cry next to you and around you, and that feels good. That is what community is. I also think being able to meet filmmakers and the subjects from the films is the biggest most fundamental difference. These are brave people, both in front of and behind the camera. If you want to meet true life heroes, this is the place.

CLTure: What will be different about this year’s festival?

DH: There are more celebrations open to the public to honor our 20th birthday, both an opening and closing night party which is open to the public — and free! — and a great Closing Night film, also free, called STEP, which I think folks will love. And rather than our usual Thematic and Tribute programs, our own Artistic Director Sadie Tillery has drawn together a collection of films from the past 19 years. She is focusing on not what won awards, necessarily, but films that feel quintessentially “Full Frame.”

Opening night party at Full Frame 2016

CLTure: What goals do you have for Full Frame’s future? What is left for Full Frame to accomplish?

DH: I want to explore expanding our programing outside of our major cities, and sharing them in the rest of the state. If we believe these films and a festival draw communities together, we can share our mission in other regions of North Carolina. We have a local committee drawn together with folks from all over the state to set this up, and we are working with programs in other areas where relationships are established so we can make certain we are not imposing our own points of view on communities we may not know well ourselves. What would military families like to see in Fayetteville, or folks up in Mt. Airy? I think our next chapter may lie there. We are also hopeful that our new scholarship program for two School of Doc students to attend UNC School of the Arts in the summer may lead to a four-year scholarship to college. We would be thrilled if that came to pass, as well as expanding the School of Doc into a year round after-school program. There is always so much to do!

Happening April 6-9 in Durham check out more info on fullframefest.org.

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