Movie News & Reviews

Durham film festival carries on, minus a key sponsor

The 12th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicks off on Thursday with its traditional wide-ranging spectrum of stories about human nature, revealed in nonfiction form.

This year's topics run from fashion to food to pranks, with a special mini-fest collection of sports films and a tribute to a key figure in African-American film.

The four-day festival has always drawn crowds to downtown Durham, and organizers are expecting the same this year, even as the economy casts a shadow of uncertainty of the future of the event.

Only weeks before the festival opens, The New York Times announced it would no longer be a presenting sponsor, a role that gave Full Frame a high-profile partner for most of the past decade.

"The New York Times offered us opportunities to work with films and filmmakers, and to work with the industry," Sadie Tillery, the festival programming director, said Thursday. "So some of that we may lose, but we're really not clear what it will mean for the future."

A spokesman for the Times couldn't be reached for comment. But for now, the paper's prestige will rub off for a while longer, as several New York Times employees are scheduled to appear at the festival. That includes Jason Stallman, assistant to the sports editor, who will moderate the Sunday-morning filmmaker panel for "This Sporting Life," this year's special program of sports-oriented documentaries and features.

In another component of the festival, the late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne will be posthumously honored with a career award ceremony on Saturday. Several of his films will be screened throughout the festival.

Boxing and fashion

On Thursday, the opening-night film will be "Sons of Cuba," which follows the young pupils of the Havana Boxing Academy. Afterward, filmmaker Steve James, who directed "Hoop Dreams" and is the curator of "This Sporting Life," will moderate a question-and-answer session with director Andrew Lang. Earlier in the day, students can attend a free screening of "Shooting Beauty," about an aspiring fashion photographer who begins snapping portraits of people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

Full Frame also has three "Center Frame" screenings. On Friday, Mike Bonanno, one-half of the culture-jamming pranksters The Yes Men, will attend a showing of their latest film, "The Yes Men Fix the World." Director Robert Kenner will discuss his film "Food, Inc.,"a look at how food is produced in America, after it's shown.

On Saturday night, "The September Issue," R.J. Cutler's documentary on the people of Vogue putting together the annual issue that gives the film its title, will be shown. Cutler and Vogue editor-at-large (and Durham native) Andre Leon Talley will also be there to show the film. Tickets for that screening have already sold out.

A lot to see

Of course, a substantial number of documentary features and shorts will be playing throughout the festival. They'll be seen, as always, at the Carolina Theatre as well as three other venues that are nearby. There are 83 films in all; and 55 new documentaries, culled from more than 1,200 submissions, will be in competition.

Following a practice begun last year, the festival is scaling back and not screening so many films in four days. "It added a little bit of breathing room to the program," Tillery says, "and allowed us to really support and focus in on the films we had selected, instead of stretching ourselves across so many programs."

Chuck Tryon, a Fayetteville State University professor and blogger, is looking forward not only to the films, but also the panels, such as "State of the Doc," moderated by Nancy Buirski, the founder of Full Frame, and "Wanted for Review," dealing with the lack of documentary film critics. Tryon hopes to find out how the documentary genre is staying afloat during these downsizing times.

"That's one of the big questions that I'm interested in," says Tryon, "just how, given some of the reshufflings that are taking place in the entertainment industry, documentary filmmakers are navigating that. I think festivals are a good place for addressing that question."

With the festival a few days away, Full Frame programmers are opting to think positive -- and not just for this year.

"I'm hoping that everything could get back to normal next year," Tillery says. "Wouldn't it be great if [the Times] came back and were healthy enough to include Full Frame in their sponsorships again? I don't think anything's impossible."