‘Amazing Grace’ official trailer
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is a major cultural highlight for the Triangle. It’s also an increasingly important and prestigious event in the international filmmaking world.
Many films, having already debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, go on to become Oscar contenders. Several of last year’s Full Frame movies made this year’s Oscar shortlist with three becoming ultimate contenders.
Last year produced a bumper crop of marquee documentary films that went on to make a splash in the mainstream market. That includes the critically acclaimed “RBG,” about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about the beloved Mister Rogers. They were seen in Durham before heading to national theaters.
This year’s 22nd annual festival is April 4-7 in downtown Durham and will feature more than 60 documentaries from 28 different countries, with several films making their world premiere. “RBG,” which was one of those five Oscar-nominated films, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” on the Oscar shortlist, will be back, this time with free admission.
Centered around the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center, Full Frame has blossomed out in recent years to include additional venues throughout downtown Durham. Film screenings, panels, Q&As and other events will be held all over town, including the Durham Hotel, Motorco Music Hall, American Tobacco Campus and a free outdoor screening at Durham Central Park.
Unlike other big city film festivals, everything is within walking distance from each other. When the weather cooperates, Full Frame is a rolling four-day showcase for downtown Durham as film lovers stroll through the spring sunshine between the cool darkness of the film screenings.
Whether you’re new to Full Frame, a veteran or just curious, consider this your guide.
Full Frame has evolved to become one of the most important North American festivals in the film industry – narrative, documentary or otherwise. The range, depth and quality of the film lineup each year is formidable. Your best bet for browsing is to check out the Full Frame website, where you can navigate the busy schedule of films showing in and out of competition. The printed festival program, available on site, is also a wealth of detailed information on the individual films.
Several films in this year’s Full Frame lineup are poised to go the way of “RBG.” Now’s your chance to see these films and earn cool points before they hit theaters.
The highly anticipated film “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, profiles the famously enthusiastic sex therapist, now 90 years old. The film is directed by Ryan White, an alumnus of Duke University and the Center for Documentary Studies.
Double secret bonus tip from festival director Festival director Deirdre Haj: Dr Ruth herself may be in attendance for the Full Frame debut screening at 4:20 p.m. on Saturday.
Haj said the new film reveals details on Dr. Ruth’s largely unknown history as a Holocaust survivor, and also highlights the cultural significance of her work in the 1980s.
“She made sex OK to talk about, including homosexual sex, at a time when AIDS was ravaging the country,” Haj said. “She was doing important work.”
According to industry reports, “Ask Dr. Ruth” is slated to be released in theaters May 3, and will also debut on via streaming market via Hulu.
You’ll also find a few political films, including “Knock Down the House,” featuring a look at the campaigns of four women running for office for the first time, including the buzzy New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It will be released on Netflix May 1. There also is “Running With Beto,” about the Democratic presidential candidate’s failed Senate run against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Another film likely to break out this year is “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” a high-energy profile of the legendary jazz artist.
“This really is quintessential film about Miles Davis,” Haj said. “If you’re a fan, it’s a must-see.”
Newsmakers are the focus of other films: former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev (“Meeting Gorbachev”); “60 Minutes” journalist Mike Wallace in “Mike Wallace is Here”; and political columnist Molly Ivens (“Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivens”).
The opening film Thursday night is “American Factory,” about an Ohio plant that employs both American and Chinese workers and the culture clash that ensues. It’s directed by Full Frame regulars Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who won Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Directing Award. They also are Full Frame’s 2019 Tribute recipients and will attend the festival. In addition to screening their new film, they will curate their films to be shown during the weekend.
The closing film is “Amazing Grace,” which uses original 1972 footage of Aretha Franklin’s performance of “Amazing Grace,” which, according to the Full Frame website, is one of the best-selling gospel records in history.
North Carolina connections
Several films in this year’s festival also have local affiliations, whether by way of subject or the filmmakers involved.
The feature film “Always in Season” examines the painful legacy of lynchings in North Carolina and Georgia, as well as the more recent tragedy of Bladen County teenager Lennon Lacy, who was found hanging from a swing set in 2014. North Carolina filmmaker Jacqueline Olive and the film just picked up an award at the Sundance Film Festival — the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency.
Fans of regional bluegrass and old-time music will want to check out the feature-length documentary “You Gave Me a Song: The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard.” Gerrard, who lives in Durham, is a Grammy-nominated bluegrass Hall of Fame musician.
“F/11 and Be There” tells the story of North Carolina photographer Burk Uzzle, particularly his work documenting the African-American community in Eastern North Carolina. According to his biography on the film’s website, Uzzle was 23 when LIFE magazine hired him, the youngest photographer to be hired there. His career includes documenting Woodstock and the assassination and funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. A Q&A will follow.
In the short film category, “Santuario” profiles a Guatemalan immigrant who has taken refuge in a church in Greensboro. According to press materials, the film is about a woman who has been in sanctuary for almost two years. Filmmakers began documenting her experience during her first week of sanctuary, continuing for seven months. It won Best Documentary Short Jury Prize and the New Orleans Film Festival and will be seen nationally in May on PBS for “Reel South” Season 4.
“Edgecombe” follows three intertwining stories from an African-American community in Edgecombe County, about 100 miles east of Durham.
Haj notes that the films were not chosen for their local connections. They were selected on merit, just like everything else, from more than 1,700 submissions.
“They earned their way in,” Haj said.
Full Frame tickets and logistics
For local film nerds looking to make last-minute plans for the festival this year, there are a few key logistical changes you’ll want to know before you arrive downtown. Like most big film festivals, Full Frame uses a system of multi-day passes, individual tickets and last-minute options. The protocol can seem confusing if you haven’t planned ahead.
Let’s break it down: The various festival passes and multi-ticket packages are already sold out, so you don’t have to worry about those. But you can still buy individual tickets online and throughout the festival. Go to the Full Frame website for details. You can also purchase single tickets by phone through Tuesday via the Duke University Box Office at 919-684-4444.
You can also just show up at the fest and take your chances. For individual screenings that aren’t already sold out, tickets are available 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.
Festival organizers have made a significant change this year by introducing the $30 Rush Pass, which eliminates cash transactions in the popular Last Minute Line program. For each screening, festival volunteers set up a last minute line for those who don’t have a ticket in hand. After ticket holders are admitted, any remaining seats are sold on a first-come-first-served basis.
In previous years, you could pay $15 cash at the door to get into each individual screening. That system has now been replaced by the $30 Rush Pass, which can get you into any and all screenings that still have seats available just before the film the starts. (The Rush Pass doesn’t provide entry to special events, like the closing night reception.)
So if you want to take advantage of this program, just purchase your Rush Pass at the box office when you arrive at the festival. Then look for the color-coded Last Minute Line signs, string your pass around your neck, and queue up for the movie you want to see.
Haj said the last-minute program has been a popular option in past festivals.
“Usually we end up seating about 80 percent of the people in the Last Minute Line,” Haj said. “It’s a really good deal. You get seated last – and there’s a 20 percent chance you may not get seated at all – but otherwise you can get into everything for cost of two tickets.”
Latecomers will also want to note the Sunday 4-Pack deal, which gets you into all Sunday screenings for $25.
Full Frame will also host a series of free public screenings this year, plus various special events and discussion panels in cooperation with local venues and hotels.
Two of the most popular films from last year’s festival will screen over the weekend. “RBG” will screen Friday, April 5, at 8:30 p.m. at Motorco Music Hall.
This year’s free outdoor screening at Durham Central Park is a particularly good family-friendly option. On Saturday, April 6, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will screen at 8:30 p.m. It was one of several documentaries from last year to break out of the festival circuit and into the multiplexes.
The A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy series features panel conversations with filmmakers and industry representatives, typically themed around important issues in the documentary filmmaking world. All Speakeasy events this year will take place Friday and Saturday in the lobby of The Durham hotel. Details on these events tend to come together at the last minute, so check the festival program and on-site signs for times and topics. All events are free and open to the public.
A matter of context
For those looking to dig deep into this year’s festival, Full Frame has assembled a compelling Thematic Program, a specially curated series of films presented by an invited filmmaker. This year’s series is programmed by RaMell Ross, whose groundbreaking “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Ross will also be screening his new short film “Easter Snap,” about the Southern ritual of hog butchering, filmed in Alabama.