As the Triangle’s documentary film scene continues to grow and evolve, a new monthly series debuting Friday aims to bring local filmmakers and audiences together for mutual benefit.
The Fresh Docs series, co-presented by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Southern Documentary Fund, is designed to let local filmmakers screen in-progress and newly completed films to a local audience. Previously an intermittent series hosted on the Duke campus, the Fresh Docs series is now set to run monthly through May at the new Full Frame Theater space on the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.
The Fresh Docs series is free and open to the public, and each event includes a moderated discussion with the filmmaker after the screening. For audiences, it’s a chance to learn about the documentary process as it happens, and potentially even influence the direction of a film in the making.
And for filmmakers, the series provides a critical feedback opportunity. The Fresh Docs screenings are, for many projects, the first time a film has been shown to a general audience in a theater setting.
Ironing Board Sam
Rachel Raney, executive director of the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), said such screenings can be hugely helpful to filmmakers. A Durham-based nonprofit, the SDF acts as a “fiscal sponsor” for documentary projects, administering funds from other sources and providing support to filmmakers in the Triangle, the state and all over the South.
“The idea behind Fresh Docs is to give our sponsored filmmakers the opportunity to screen the films that they’re working on, straight out of the edit suite,” Raney said. “They work for months on editing their films, and they might show them to collaborators or family or friends. But it’s important to put the film in front of an audience that will come at it with fresh eyes.”
Tonight’s featured film is director Tom Ciaburri’s “Ironing Board Sam’s Tenth,” a two-years-in-the-making musical documentary about the 74-year-old R&B performer known as Ironing Board Sam and his unlikely late-career renaissance.
Sam – born Sammie Moore – was a blues prodigy in the 1960s, playing his homemade electronic keyboard with luminaries such as Jimi Hendrix and recording for marquee labels such as Atlantic and Chess. But Sam fell on hard times and faded into obscurity, before moving to Chapel Hill and returning to the stage with the help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Filmmaker Ciaburri, then working with the foundation, became fascinated with Sam’s story and moved to North Carolina himself to complete the film. The two became close friends and collaborators, and tonight’s screening will be the first public presentation of the completed work.
“The crazy part of the story is I came down here to finish the film quite a while ago,” Ciaburri said. “I lived in a closet beside Ironing Board Sam’s apartment, with four French guys who were his backing band. And I still live next door to Sam. It’s been a real journey.”
Ciaburri said tonight’s screening is not only helpful to him as director, it’s good for anyone interested in documentary films. “A work-in-progress screening is a great resource for any filmmaker or anyone interested in the filmmaking process,” Ciaburri said. “It’s the rare opportunity to see something on the big screen that isn’t done, that’s still on its way to becoming a finished story.
“For a filmmmaker to know where the audience reacts or doesn’t react – that’s really crucial,” Ciaburri said. “Hollywood has been trying to figure out the perfect formula for this for many, many years.”
The Fresh Docs series isn’t the only program to take advantage of the new Full Frame Theater space, which opened in the spring during this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The 100-seat theater, located in the old Power Plant building in the center of the American Tobacco Campus, hosts year-round programming, classes and screenings.
Full Frame’s popular Third Friday series – also free and open to the public – screens high-profile documentaries that are unlikely to play at any other venue in town. Recent films such as “Let The Fire Burn” and “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” have drawn standing-room-only crowds to the small theater space.
“We’re still trying to navigate this and see what makes sense,” said Ryan Helsel, Full Frame’s director of marketing. “The theater is only 100 seats and, depending on the subject and the film, there are times that we’re turning away another 80 people.”
In November, the final Third Fridays screening of the season will feature the high school basketball documentary “Medora.” On Nov. 1, Full Frame’s Pop Docs series will present a special screening of director Morgan Spurlock’s film “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” in conjunction with North Carolina Comicon.
Then, starting in December, Full Frame will present its Winter Series at the Carolina Theater, featuring documentaries short-listed for Academy Award consideration.
A growing creative class
It all makes for an active year-round calendar of programming by Full Frame, which is itself a program of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. And it’s a healthy ecosystem for local documentary films, said SDF’s Raney. The SDF currently has 60 sponsored documentary films on the books, with 80 percent of the filmmakers from North Carolina.
“I mean, the Triangle is growing in general, the creative class here is growing, and the independent filmmaking community is growing along with it,” Raney said. “I just feel like, the stronger the community here gets, the more people think ‘I don’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to make my work. I can stay right here.’”