The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, unspooling in downtown Durham April 5-8, is one of the film industry's most prestigious and popular annual events.
This is no home-town hyperbole, either. Full Frame is one of only a handful of film festivals worldwide dedicated solely to documentaries. In 2013, it was chosen as a qualifying festival for short-form docs with the Academy Awards. Full Frame is generally acknowledged as the place to be, come springtime, if you want to see the best documentary films of the past, present and future.
It's also well regarded as a particularly friendly and well-organized film festival. Full Frame has a secret weapon in this regard: Each April, the festival deploys a small army of volunteers that keep everything running smoothly and on time. These are the people staffing the screening venues, shuttling filmmakers around, recycling everything, and generally making things tick.
So whether you have tickets in hand, or you plan to drop in last-minute and try your luck, feel free to approach anyone on site in a Full Frame Volunteer T-shirt. They're energetic, knowledgeable and rather impossibly friendly. Asking volunteers is the best way to navigate Full Frame while you're downtown.
Meanwhile, here are some additional tips and tricks for enjoying the 2018 Full Frame party, with some inside dope from festival director Deirdre Haj.
Tickets and passes
Nearly 100 films will be screened throughout this year's four-day festival, both feature length and short documentaries. In addition to the main program — the films in competition for prizes — the festival curators have several additional movies in rotation for the fest's Thematic, Tribute and Invited categories. Check the Full Frame schedule for details at fullframefest.org
Like most film festivals, Full Frame uses a system of passes and individual tickets that can be confusing to first-time or last-minute visitors.
Let's simplify things: Festival passes and multi-ticket packages are already sold out, so you don't have to worry about that. But you can still buy individual tickets to film screenings, up until 30 minutes before showtime, at the Festival Box Office in the Durham Convention Center, located near the Marriott City Center lobby.
Individual tickets are $16, with discounted rates for educators, students, military members and senior citizens. For groups, note that there is an 8-ticket limit per film. Check the online FAQ for more specifics.
If the film you want to see is sold out, be sure to ask about the Last Minute Line, one of Full Frame's most successful concepts. It works like it sounds: For each screening, volunteers organize, yes, a last-minute line using a system of mobile queue partitions and color-coded signs.
After ticket-holders are seated, any remaining seats are sold on a first-come-first-served basis – $15, at the door, cash only. Just look for the Last Minute placard, get in line, and start people-watching. (Here's a tip: The best way to spot out-of-town filmmakers is to watch for expensive-looking eyeglasses.)
“You can almost always get into a film using the Last Minute Line,” Haj said. “Only rarely, with some of the very popular films, do we ever have to turn people away.”
All films are equal upon entering a film festival, of course. But some films are more equal than others, in terms of that elusive industry attribute known as buzz.
Among the most anticipated feature films at this year's Full Frame is “RBG” (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Fletcher Hall), a lively and thorough profile of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen chronicle pivotal moments in Ginsberg's personal and professional life, with a focus on her tenacious advocacy for women's rights. Scheduled into this year's prestigious Opening Night Film slot, “RBG” is already sold out but you can still try the Last Minute Line.
On the groovier end of things – not that Justice Ginsberg isn't groovy – director Matt Tyrnauer's “Studio 54” (Friday, 7 p.m., Cinema One) tracks the rise and fall of the famous Manhattan disco. Advance buzz suggests the film has some very compelling archival footage for anyone who remembers the 1970s. This also is sold out, but the Last Minute Line is an option.
If you could use some cheering up these days, check out the inspirational “Inventing Tomorrow” (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Fletcher Hall). The film follows six high school citizen-scientists at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — basically the world's best science fair — as they propose next-generation solutions for our planet's various ecological crises.
And "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" about the late Fred Rogers and his iconic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" children's TV show just won raves at the Sundance Film Festival for its message of kindness and love. Variety describes it as a "gentle documentary for adults who need a hug."
As is the custom at Full Frame, this year's Closing Night film is presented free, though you will still need to pick up a ticket in advance at the on-site box office. “America to Me” (Sunday, 7:30 pm, Fletcher Hall) is actually a preview of the upcoming Starz TV series from director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”). The series is the end result of a year-long immersion into one of Chicago's most progressive and diverse public schools. The Sunday screening will feature the first two episodes of the 10-part series. James, the director, will attend for a post-screening Q&A.
Free screenings and events
Each year, Full Frame hosts free outdoor public screenings plus various special events and parties in cooperation with local venues and hotels. “We've developed these series specifically for people in the Triangle,” Haj said.
Check the festival website and printed program for all the details, but meanwhile make time for the two free outdoor screenings at Durham Central Park on Friday and Saturday at 8:30 pm.
Friday's film is “Step” – the popular doc on high school dance teams. On Saturday, the foodie film “Kings of Pastry” chronicles a world-class French cooking competition. Fittingly, food trucks will be stationed around the perimeter of the park both nights starting at 5:30 p.m.
Full Frame also will present a series of panel discussions throughout the weekend. The A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy events are at the Durham Hotel, 315 East Chapel Hill St.. Of special interest: “Documentary in the Time of Fake News,” Friday at 3:15 pm. Downtown hotels Unscripted and 21c Hotel will also host special events.
North Carolina films
This year's Full Frame festival will feature films from around the world, quite literally. As it happens, several of the invited films have North Carolina connections, as well. Here's a sampling of the local fare. You can find more details at the Full Frame website or in the printed programs distributed on site.
Friday, 10:30 a.m. , Fletcher Hall
This film from former Durham resident Giorgio Angelini has its world premiere at Full Frame, which is only fitting since he and his bands The Rosebuds and Bishop Allen once toured through the Triangle. (He was a bassist and drummer.) The film, which Angelini spent five years making, looks at the impact of the country's housing policies that affect home ownership and have created socioeconomic and racial divides in major cities like Baltimore and in the suburbs of Orange County, California.
Saturday, 4:30 pm, Fletcher Hall
Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski returns with her latest film, an examination of America's history of sexual assault against black women. Buirski and local cinematographer Rex Miller (“A Chef's Life”) will participate in a post-screening discussion.
Saturday, 10 pm, Cinema Four
Sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund, a Durham nonprofit for regional filmmakers, this oddball ecological doc tells the story of how nutria — the big rodents in question — were first imported to the U.S.
Sunday, 10:10 am, Cinema Four
During the Cold War, the U.S. recruited jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie in a PR blitz to counter negative Soviet propaganda about racial inequality in America. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights struggle raged. Adriane Lentz-Smith, professor of history and cultural studies at Duke University, collaborated on the film as historical adviser.
Saturday, 1:20 pm, Cinema Three
Atlanta's first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson Jr. attended North Carolina Central University Law School before before embarking on his remarkable political career. The film making team also has deep roots in the Carolinas and the old “New South.”
Sunday, 2:00 pm, Fletcher Hall
A story with deep relevance to recent events, in the South and in the nation, “Flag” tells the story of Election Day 2016 from the perspective of a diverse team of volunteer voter protection workers dispatched to Fayetteville.
Pro tip: Sunday encores
Haj has a particularly useful tip for locals or first-timers who might want to swing by Full Frame this year: Come on Sunday.
“What a lot of people don't know is that we re-screen the award-winning films on Sunday,” Haj said. “This is the only time we really show a film twice.”
In other words, the festival's most popular movies essentially get an encore presentation at the end of the festival. The time and place for these TBA screenings are listed in the main schedule. The nice thing, for locals, is that by Sunday afternoon most of the out-of-town attendees have already cleared out. Getting a seat at the Sunday screenings is never a problem.
“There's a lot more room,” Haj said. “For the local folks that can drive in, Sunday is the real deal.”
To further encourage Sunday crowds, the festival is offering a new Sunday Pass this year that includes tickets to four Sunday film screenings for $25.
Alas, word is getting out: The Sunday Pass package has already sold out for this year. But dedicated planner-aheaders will want to keep this in mind for next year.
Glenn McDonald is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennmcdonald1.
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
Info: Box office is at 919-684-4444. fullframefest.org
Where to park, how to get there
Last year, parking at Full Frame was a, hmm, “issue” is probably the polite term. Various construction projects complicated things and Durham had just installed new downtown parking meters with two-hour limits. “We were the canary in the coal mine for that,” Haj said.
▪ This year, the city has agreed to extend metered parking limits during the festival, allowing up to 11 hours of paid parking on designated streets. Check the Full Frame website for a parking map, complete with recommended area parking lots and structures.
▪ The GoDurham bus system has three routes going directly to the festival. For those who appreciate pedal power, the downtown bike rental service LimeBike is offering a special discount code during this year's festival: Use the code LIMEBIKEFF for a $3 credit.
▪ Ride-sharing service Lyft is also an official transportation partner at this year's fest. Use the code FULLFRAME18 to get $5 off two rides.