In the world of documentary filmmaking, Durham’s annual Full Frame Festival is a prestigious showcase with international reach. Last year, Full Frame became a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards for best documentary short, and the Producer’s Guild of America awards for best documentary.
For local film audiences, it’s a chance to see the best new documentaries from around the world. Or maybe from just around the corner.
Five feature-length films and several shorts screening at this year’s event were made by North Carolina filmmakers, or otherwise have direct connections to the state and the Triangle’s flourishing documentary film community.
That’s a strong showing, considering the festival will screen just 48 films in the competitive New Docs series – out of more than 1,200 submissions – and around 100 films in all.
“I’m incredibly proud that we have these local films to show,” said Sadie Tillery, director of programming. “The films get in on their own merits – we don’t hold spots for local work. It’s really exciting to me when the films made here are strong enough to rise to the very top.”
The Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), a Durham-based nonprofit that helps films secure funding and artistic support, has three affiliated films at this year’s festival.
“Private Violence,” by local filmmaker Cynthia Hill, recently held its world premiere at the Sundance film festival, as one of only 16 films selected for the U.S. documentary competition. A compelling and urgent examination of domestic violence, the film focuses on a handful of North Carolina women – victims, survivors and case workers – and tells their stories in detail.
“It’s unique in that it’s a film about women, by women,” said Hill, who has deep roots in the Triangle documentary scene. Hill co-founded SDF and is also director of the popular North Carolina-based PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.”
Another SDF-sponsored film, “The Case Against 8,” chronicles the fight to overturn California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. “Case” won the 2014 Sundance directing award in the documentary category. Co-director Ryan White studied at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and the university’s Program in Arts of the Moving Image.
Both “Private Violence” and “The Case Against 8” have been picked up by HBO Documentary Films, and HBO recently announced that “Case” will get a theatrical release in June.
In the short film category, the SDF-sponsored “Can’t Stop the Water” is a 33-minute film regarding a Louisiana community of Native American Cajuns, whose way of life is threatened by coastal erosion and rising sea levels.
In addition, SDF will present excerpts from two upcoming films at its annual In-The-Works event: “Old South” by Danielle Beverly and “Trapped” by Dawn Porter. Executive director Rachel Raney said SDF will also be announcing the creation of a new fund specifically for North Carolina filmmakers working on projects in or about North Carolina. The grants will be funded with support from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
“We want to foster this documentary ecosystem that continues to grow and thrive,” Raney said. “In the 12 years previous that SDF has been around, we hadn’t had a single film at Sundance. This year we had two.”
Festival founder returns
Another film has connections that go back to the beginning of Full Frame itself. Nancy Buirski, who founded the festival 17 years ago, returns with her latest film, “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq.”
The documentary tells the tragic story of a famous 1950s New York City Ballet dancer who was stricken with polio in the prime of her career and never danced – or walked – again. It was well-received at the New York and Berlin film festivals and is making a theatrical run in more than 30 markets across the U.S. The Full Frame screening will mark its North Carolina premiere.
Buirski’s last film to screen at Full Frame, “The Loving Story,” profiled the interracial couple at the center of the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that overturned laws banning interracial marriage in America. The film premiered at Full Frame and was cablecast by HBO in 2012.
Buirski said she found many parallels in making the two films.
“You really have to be passionate about your subject if you’re going to commit three, four, five years to it,” she said. “In both of these cases, I kind of fell in love with these subjects. I wanted to help them tell their stories.”
‘Rich with stories to tell’
Still another Full Frame premiere with strong North Carolina ties is director Kenneth Price’s “The Hip-Hop Fellow.” The documentary follows Winston-Salem native and Grammy-winning producer Patrick Douthit – aka 9th Wonder – and his recent teaching fellowship at Harvard University.
As both an in-demand producer and a dedicated scholar of hip-hop, Douthit has collaborated with artists including Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, and has previously taught courses at Duke and N.C. Central University. He and director Price also collaborated on the 2011 documentary “The Wonder Year.”
“The Hip-Hop Fellow” includes interviews with Henry Louis Gates, DJ Premier and rappers Phonte and Big Pooh – 9th Wonder’s former collaborators in the acclaimed Durham hip-hop group Little Brother.
Director Price said his film is a North Carolina story through and through.
“I grew up in Raleigh, and Patrick’s from Winston-Salem,” Price said. “People think he went off to New York or wherever, but he’s never left North Carolina and his studio is right in downtown Raleigh. He has a stable of artists that are all Carolina natives. We both very much claim this area as home.”
Price, who studied film and video production at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington, said he hopes to keep making films locally.
“I think North Carolina is just so rich with stories to tell,” Price said. “There’s no reason to leave.”
River journey, clown’s life
Several other films with North Carolina connections will screen at this year’s festival.
Hillsborough photographer and filmmaker John Rash debuts his new short film, “Yangtze Drift,” a black-and-white tour of sights and sounds along China’s famous river. Rash is enrolled in Duke’s MFA program in experimental and documentary arts.
Director Sandy McLeod’s feature film “Seeds of Time” spotlights the work of agricultural researcher Cary Fowler and his efforts to preserve food staple seeds on the brink of extinction. Fowler lived in the Triangle for more than 20 years and has worked with Durham’s Institute for Southern Studies and the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International.
Finally, keep an eye peeled for the documentary short “Ronald,” concerning North Carolina native Joe Maggard and his curious employment record. Maggard’s claim to fame? He was America’s fast-food clown, Ronald McDonald, in TV commercials from 1995 to 2007.
Expanding film community
The number of local films at this year’s Full Frame suggests that the Triangle isn’t just home to a respected film festival – it’s become a place where those respected films get made.
That makes it different from a festival like Sundance. You don’t hear about many Park City, Utah, films making the cut at that event.
Looking back over the 17 years since she founded Full Frame, Buirski said she’s seen the state’s documentary filmmaking community evolve and expand.
“I think it’s been a gradual buildup,” Buirski said. “There was a film scene here when I arrived, or I wouldn’t have felt that it was such a perfect place for a festival. There are a lot of intelligent, curious people here, and it keeps building. I’ve always felt the energy here.”