The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicks off Thursday in Durham, bringing more than 100 films to various downtown venues through Sunday.
Now in its 21st year, Full Frame is one of the region's premier arts events, attracting thousands of serious documentary fans and film industry professionals to downtown Durham.
You can put Joe Berlinger on both of those lists. As a director and producer, Berlinger has been among the most influential filmmakers of his generation.
He's assembled several important documentaries over the last 25 years, including his debut film “Brother's Keeper”; the oil industry expose “Crude”; and the heralded rock doc “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” Along with longtime collaborator Bruce Sinofsky, Berlinger also brought us the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, concerning the infamous trials of the West Memphis Three.
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Berlinger has screened several of his films at Full Frame over the years. But this time, he's helping throw the party as curator of the festival's Thematic Program, a special annual program featuring a series of documentary films focused on a particular theme or topic.
This year's program focuses on the true crime genre. Berlinger will attend the festival April 7 and 8 and will host post-screening Q and A sessions after each film.
We spoke with him about the popular true crime genre, the “post-truth” era, and the enduring popularity of the Full Frame festival.
Q: You've curated a fascinating program this year around the theme of true crime. How did you arrive at this subject?
A: I was asked to come up with the theme, and I thought it would be a good time to examine the true crime genre. It's been my focus over the years – most of my stuff has been crime-related. Also, there's been such an explosion in this genre in recent years. It's never been more popular.
I wanted to focus on those films that have both a social justice component and a true crime orientation. I thought it would be interesting to show some of the films that influenced me as a filmmaker, the great classics of the genre, as well as newer films that I admire. But I was only given eight slots. There are more movies that I admire than I can program.
Q: Still, you've got a formidable lineup of films here, including one film that isn't a documentary at all.
A: Right, one of the films I chose is the 1967 version of “In Cold Blood,” which is actually a scripted movie. It's an odd choice for a documentary film festival, but it's based on the Truman Capote book, which I feel is like the Big Bang of true crime. Capote is the grandfather of what has been called the “non-fiction novel.” He synthesized, for the first time, narrative technique with journalist technique.
You know, it's rare that a book and movie, both on the same subject, are each genre busters in their own right. The film was groundbreaking in its day for its authenticity. Not only was it a location shoot, it was filmed in the house where the murders took place. It was revolutionary.
I see it as a kind of mirror image of what I try to do in my films. “In Cold Blood” is taking the scripted format and trying to make it as real as possible. I'm taking the documentary format and trying to make it as narrative as possible.
Q: What are some other highlights of the series?
A: “The Thin Blue Line,” the groundbreaking documentary by Errol Morris, is another of the films that made me want to become a filmmaker. I chose that because it was the first time that anyone used stylized recreation to tell the story. It was very controversial. Errol was the first one to do it, and now it's a very commonplace technique.
I couldn't do a series on true crime without doing my own stuff, so we've got “Brother's Keeper,” “Paradise Lost” and a recent series I did called “Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio,” which is about an investigation into a suspected serial killer in southern Ohio. We found out there was no serial killer. Instead it was a flourishing drug and human trafficking trade that some corrupt officials in Ohio were allowing to happen.
Q: You've been credited with bringing certain narrative storytelling techniques to the documentary format. Why is that important to your work?
A: I think that all film making, whether narrative or documentary, is highly subjective. All media, really. The story is always colored by the views of the person telling the story. You're relying on the filmmaker to condense reality to arrive at an emotional truth.
Narrative film making techniques allow you to do that. Because when you emulate the dramatic structure of fiction, when you use music to enhance a mood, these things pull you into the story. It allows the viewer to connect with the subject and see some deeper truth about a situation. I'm looking for these deeper truths, whether I'm doing a fiction or a non-fiction film.
Q: There's this very disturbing idea in circulation just now, that with all the spin and disinformation online, we're entering a kind of “post-truth” era. It feels like independent investigations and the free press have become so critically important. Can independent documentaries help see us through this crisis?
A: Well, these are some very complex and important questions. I don't know that they will see us through. I hope so. But I will say that I personally think it's never never been more important for documentarians to be doing their thing.
We live in an environment where most of the media is controlled by a handful of corporations. As a result, certain stories never see the light of day. Most of the true reporting concerning social ills and social justice, this is happening at the documentary level.
The good news is that here are so many more platforms for exhibition. The downside is there is so much product out there, so many people making media, it takes a lot for your film to cut through and make some noise.
Q: You've attended the Full Frame festival before with your own films, right?
A: Oh, yeah. I love Full Frame. That's why I was thrilled to be asked to do the thematic program. I've shown quite a few films there since its inception. The Metallica movie, “Whitey,” the Tony Robbins film. It's a terrific festival.
And the audiences down there really seem to appreciate the form. I've always been extremely impressed at how full the screenings are, how great the Q and A sessions are. As a documentarian it's nice to have a festival that's exclusively devoted to this craft.
What: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
When: April 5-8
Where: Venues in downtown Durham, including the Carolina Theatre, Durham Convention Center, Durham Arts Council and Full Frame Theater
Tickets: Passes are sold out. Single tickets go on sale March 29 at 11 a.m.
Info: Box office is at 919-684-4444. fullframefest.org