Full Frame part of growing Durham documentary scene

CorrespondentApril 2, 2013 

The annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival unspools this weekend in downtown Durham.

In recent years, Full Frame has grown to become of the leading documentary film festivals in North America, with a reputation for high-quality presentation and collegial Southern friendliness.

But Full Frame is just part of a larger local documentary filmmaking scene in Durham and the Triangle.

The festival itself is a program of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), which offers undergraduate classes, continuing education courses and an MFA program in documentary arts. Part of CDS’s stated mission is to bridge university and off-campus filmmaking communities.

Then there’s the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), a Durham-based nonprofit and an increasingly key component of the local documentary scene. Founded in 2002 by a collective of North Carolina filmmakers, the SDF provides both financial and artistic support to filmmakers in the Triangle, the state and all over the South.

Rachel Raney is the executive director of the SDF and a longtime veteran of documentary production and public broadcasting. Before moving to North Carolina, she worked for years in California on independent films and the PBS series “Frontline.”

Raney says the SDF works in part as a “fiscal sponsor” for documentary filmmaking projects. The nonprofit does not itself award grants, but instead administers funds from other sources. “In the documentary film world, if you want to raise money – from foundations, wealthy individuals, government entities – you’re usually required to put the money through a nonprofit,” Raney explained.

The Southern Documentary Fund currently has 48 sponsored projects on its roster. “The projects come to us in different stages,” Raney said. “Sometimes people come to us for sponsorship before they’ve even picked up a camera. Sometimes they’ve shot a lot of footage and want to do some fund raising. They want to get their work out into the world.”

The local loop

In the kind of closed system that’s healthy for any artistic community, many films that get their start at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies later receive funding through SDF, then premiere at Full Frame. In fact, for several years now SDF has presented a special screening event at the festival, with excerpts of projects currently in development.

This year, the SDF screening will feature 35-minute clips from two local feature films in the works: “Occupy the Imagination” by director Rodrigo Dorfman, and “So Help You God” by director Ashley York. The screenings – scheduled for 1:40 p.m. Sunday at the Durham Arts Council PSI Theater – will be followed by an audience Q&A with the filmmakers, moderated by Frank Stasio of WUNC’s “The State of Things.”

Two more recently completed feature films, sponsored by SDF, are also screening at this year’s festival. “Good Ol’ Freda” tells the story of Liverpudlian Freda Kelly, who worked as personal secretary for the Beatles throughout the band’s career. Directed by Ryan White, a graduate of the Duke documentary program, the film is generating huge buzz after its official premiere at the South by Southwest festival in March. “Good Ol’ Freda” plays at 2 p.m. Friday in the Carolina Theater’s Fletcher Hall.

Durham filmmaker Elisabeth Haviland James will premiere her new film, “In So Many Words,” at 5:10 p.m. Sunday in the Carolina Theatre. The film profiles Raleigh writer and clinical psychologist Lucy Daniels, born into the wealthy newspaper family that owned and operated The News & Observer for decades. Daniels became a bestselling author in the 1950s and 1960s after spending five years in psychiatric hospitals for treatment of severe anorexia. The film cuts between an extended interview with Daniels and impressionistic recreated scenes.

Speaking from her home in Durham, director James said that premiering “In So Many Words” at Full Frame is particularly rewarding because it’s a local story, using a largely local cast and crew, and debuting at a homegrown film festival. James’s production company, Thornapple Films, is located on Main Street downtown, and James holds a seat on the board of directors of the SDF.

“It’s definitely a growing community,” James said of the Triangle documentary scene. “You’ve got Full Frame, which is a world-class film festival. And you can go to the Center to learn how to make films.”

“The SDF is working really hard to be the nexus of the two,” James says. “We’re the stuff in the middle that supports the filmmaker and gives them the opportunity to raise money, get feedback and have work-in-progress screenings. It’s about building the community.”

Executive director Raney agrees that SDF’s role as a financial sponsor for films in only one aspect of the group’s mission.

“That’s obviously an important service, and it’s the way we’re kind of contractually bound to these projects,” Raney said. “But really what we’re doing is grabbing these artists by the hand and saying: ’Where are you at with your project? What are your needs? How can we help?’”

McDonald: glennmcdonald1@gmail.com

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