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  issue 3.2 |  

Journal Issue 3.2
Fall 2011
Edited by Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, Agatha Beins, Karen Alexander and Deanna Utroske
Editorial Assistants: A.J. Barks and Anna Zailik


Report from the Full Frame Documentary Festival, 2011

By Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell


The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, is the nation's largest annual film festival solely dedicated to the documentary form. Typically showing between fifty and sixty new films during its Thursday-Sunday run every April, the festival is the nation's premier showcase for nonfiction film.
         Full Frame was founded in 1998 by former New York Times photo editor Nancy Buirski as the DoubleTake Film Festival and was associated with the now-defunct, critically acclaimed photography and literary journal DoubleTake, of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In 2011, after years as a independent festival, Full Frame was once again taken under the aegis of the Center for Documentary Studies. Throughout its history, the festival has maintained a track record of female leadership, from founding director Buirksi to current Executive Director Deirdre Haj and Program Director Sadie Tillery.
     With little of the glitz of Cannes or Sundance, Full Frame nevertheless capitalizes on its location in Durham, a city of about 230 thousand residents, and the Triangle (a region including the cities Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Cary). The Triangle has been lauded as one of the nation's "creative capitals" for its unusually high number of PhDs and universities, arts entrepreneurs, and concentration of biomedical industry. While many of the festivalgoers come from out of town--with a significant contingent of film producers and programmers from organizations spanning the National Endowment for the Arts to PBS's POV documentary series--they brush shoulders with locals at the festival's venues in downtown Durham. Visitors are attracted to the low cost of attendance (festival passes range from $75 for students to a $500 pass with admission to twenty films and hospitality suite); reasonably priced hotel rooms; and the Southern spring, which reliably yields warm enough temperatures to host one of the festival's signature events--an awards-night barbecue on Sunday--outside the historic Carolina Theatre. Dedicated urbanites, however, miss the extensive public transportation networks of big cities and bemoan the relatively small number of eateries within walking distance, a dearth that Full Frame addresses with outdoor kiosks and food trucks serving everything from the ubiquitous Southern pulled pork to gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
       But far from the madding crowds of larger film events, Full Frame has hosted some of the documentary genre's giants--including Ken Burns, Martin Scorsese, and D.A. Pennebaker--as well as their films. Each year it offers a career award that celebrates select filmmakers' bodies of work. Women filmmakers have been well-represented among the honorees, with Chris Hegedus, Rory Kennedy, and Barbara Kopple among them.
    Each year in February, filmmakers can submit their work to a selection committee made up of festival staff, filmmakers, visual archivists, university professors, and pop-culture gurus of all kinds. For the 2011 festival, the committee culled more than 1,200 submissions down to a schedule of sixty new documentaries eligible to compete for various audience and curated awards.
     The result is an array of full-length and short documentaries that range from the experimental to more traditional narrative films appropriate for PBS's American Experience. Overall, film selections reflect the documentary's historical focus on social justice and injustice, and cover various topics including racism (Sud, a French meditation of the death-by-dragging of African American James Byrd in Jasper, Texas); physician-assisted suicide (To Die in Oregon); environmental degradation (Sweet Crude, on the impact of oil drilling in Nigeria's Delta region, or The Cove, an expose of Japan's violent dolphin fishing practices); child abuse; social movements (The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, which uses Swedish archival footage to document the political and community effects of black nationalism); and immigration (such as Los Trabajadores, about Mexican day laborers in Austin, Texas, or Maid in America, about the demographic transformation of domestic service, an industry once dominated by black Americans, to one in which Latinos increasingly find employment). Full Frame also organizes thematic "sidebars" that focused, in recent festival years, on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, interpretations of space, and Southern U.S. identity. These sidebars combine older, classic, or little-known films with newer media, and thus serve as both useful introductions to a given topic and surveys with content likely to be unfamiliar even to documentary-philes.
       Full Frame regularly showcases films that contextualize the worldwide status of women and girls, global beauty culture, and women breaking new ground. The 2011 festival offered a number of films, including veteran documentarian Anne Makepeace's new film, We Still Live Here / As Nutayunean, a moving portrait of how American Indian linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird almost single-handedly ignites a movement to reconstruct and teach the "extinct" Wampanoag language; Position Among the Stars, a film about an Indonesian family's sacrifices made for the education of twenty-first-century teenybopper Tari; and An Encounter with Simone Weil, about the French philosopher who tried to explain human suffering while grappling with her own traumas. Its diverse catalog of films on gender includes Live Nude Girls UNITE! about exotic dancers' attempts to organize; Stonewall Uprising; Hair India, on the global beauty economy that encourages young Indian women to grow and sell their hair for export; and Bitch Academy, which teaches young Russian women to manipulate their sexuality and men.
    Other programming includes workshops for first-time filmmakers, post-film question-and-answer sessions, and workshops about trends in filmmaking featuring high-profile speakers such as Sheila Nevins, who acquires films for HBO and Cinemax. The festival is increasing its community screenings throughout the year and has extended its reach in previous years by releasing a DVD with notable short films from the festival.


Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell is a doctoral candidate in history and a freelance journalist.




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