Whenever Deirdre Haj goes to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, she makes a point of wearing something bearing the logo of the festival she runs. That’s Full Frame, the documentary film festival in Durham, the 18th edition of which starts on Thursday.
“People out there will look at it and say things like, ‘That’s what Sundance used to be like,’” said Haj, Full Frame’s executive director since 2010. “Another time when my husband and I were in Greece, our tour guide told us he was trying to become a documentary filmmaker. He said he had a rejection letter from Full Frame, which he described as ‘such an honor.’”
Everybody has heard of the behemoth commercial film festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and South By Southwest. But as far as specialty festivals, Full Frame is among the elite.
From its beginnings in 1998 as the Doubletake Film Festival, when it showed a handful of films to several hundred people, Full Frame has become a signature event for Durham. Last year’s festival presented 89 films, sold out 48 screenings, drew more than 12,000 people and generated $96,000 in tax revenue for the city (according to the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau).
Many of Full Frame’s patrons come from far beyond the city, too, because Full Frame has established itself as one of the top stops on the nationwide festival circuit. This year’s schedule has more than 100 films, many of them contenders for Academy Award nominations in the documentary categories.
Since 2013, Full Frame has been an Oscar-qualifying festival in the category of short documentary. Any short (40 minutes or less) documentary that receives the festival’s Jury Award automatically qualifies for Oscar consideration without having to play a standard theatrical run, a major stumbling block for many independent films.
“I’d say Full Frame is really important, one of the most important festivals in the country,” said Bill Guentzler, artistic director of the Cleveland International Film Festival. “When I think of documentary festivals in the U.S., Full Frame and True/False in Missouri are the first two that come to mind.”
So many successes
It’s not unusual for independently made films to break through at Full Frame before going on to large-scale success. “Man on Wire,” the 2008 documentary about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers, was an Audience Award Winner at Full Frame before winning the best-documentary Oscar.
“Scenes of a Crime,” which premiered at Full Frame in 2011, didn’t just win awards. It brought attention to the case of Adrian P. Thomas, who had been convicted for the 2008 murder of his infant son, generating enough interest for legal-aid groups to take on his case. Thomas won a new trial and was acquitted in 2014.
Then there’s the case of Marshall Curry. A dozen years ago, Curry had yet to release a movie of his own and was a face in the Full Frame crowd, coming down from his home in Brooklyn as an attendee.
By 2005, Curry had made a film called “Street Fight,” chronicling a bare-knuckles political campaign in New Jersey. “Street Fight” played at Full Frame, and it was Curry’s first public showing of any kind.
“That was a crazy experience, that this little movie I’d shot myself and edited in my apartment was showing for a crowd,” Curry said. “I remember sitting in the back thinking, ‘Please, at least don’t everybody walk out.’ But people liked it, and it really set my career in motion.”
“Street Fight” would go on to play the Tribeca Film Festival and air on PBS, eventually receiving an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Curry has released a half-dozen films by now and he’s still a Full Frame regular. This year he’ll receive the festival’s annual Full Frame Tribute Award, given to rising stars in the field.
“I’ve always loved Full Frame and the way it’s kind of the anti-Sundance,” Curry said. “It’s always been very informal and not too business-heavy. To spend all day watching great films and then find the filmmakers hanging out in the courtyard where you can just go introduce yourself is super-inspirational. Making documentaries is really hard and we all spend most of the year struggling with it. Then you go down to Full Frame for a few days and come back with your batteries recharged.”
This year’s festival finds Full Frame at a potential moment of transition. In February, it was announced that Joseph Haj – artistic director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, and Deirdre Haj’s husband – was moving to Minneapolis to take a similar role at the Guthrie Theater.
Everyone in the Haj household is bound for Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean Full Frame will be changing executive directors. Deirdre Haj will continue running the festival by long-distance telecommuting, said Wesley Hogan, director of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (which oversees Full Frame).
“As with many successful film festivals, it is not unusual for the director to live apart from the festival landscape,” Hogan said in a statement. “So we look forward to building on Full Frame’s achievements with Deirdre and the excellent festival staff we have in place.”
Such an arrangement is not unprecedented for Full Frame, either. Nancy Buirski, Full Frame’s original founder and director, ran the festival from New York for a number of years.
“My colleagues are so good that running Full Frame is not that hard,” Haj said. “When I became executive director, it was suffering economically from the recession. So we’ve tried to become more outward-directed toward the community, and to professionalize the operation by making it more about positions than personalities. It’s clearer what everyone’s functions are. There are days nobody ever sees me. If I’m doing my job right, I’m not at my desk. It’s more about articulating a vision.”
The 18th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival begins on Thursday at various venues in Durham. For information about screenings and tickets, see fullframefest.org.