Docs get day in Southern sun

Three Oscar-nommed pix screened at fest last year

HOLLYWOOD — For four days every spring, Durham, North Carolina turns into Realitywood. Now in its ninth year, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) has gained a reputation as must stop on the fest circuit for pics building buzz for a theatrical release and potential Oscar recognition.

Fest awards 11 prizes, some with cash up to $5,000 and in-kind booty.

Oscar doc winner “Born Into Brothels” was a Full Frame winner first, and three out of the five Oscar-nommed feature docs screened at the fest last year well before they were on the Academy radar.

“The festival was founded to champion documentary film and filmmakers when not a lot of documentary films were seen outside of TV,” says the fest’s founder, CEO and artistic director Nancy Buirski. “We wanted to bring more people into the theater and have them experience documentary on a bigscreen,” Buirski says.

Fest, which was known as the Double Take fest when it launched in 1998, has seen submissions grow from 100 to 1,100 this year. Auds have grown, too, with more than 20,000 tickets tallied at last year’s edition. Even nine years ago, docs were still treated as an afterthought or sidebar at most festivals, Buirski says, adding, “We wanted to support the artistry and power of these films and give a home to documentary filmmakers themselves.”

Event opens with the first docu by Sydney Pollack, “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” at the city’s historic 1,000-seat Carolina Theater.

Competitive segment includes 53 docs, with another 50 pics in special sections and retrospectives.

Special screenings include a tribute to direct cinema pioneer Richard Leacock, two segments from Ken Burns’ upcoming series “WWII” shown as a work-in-progress, and Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob’s portrait of comedian-turned-prospective politico Al Franken, “Al Franken: God Spoke.”

This isn’t the fest where Paris Hilton is going to be parading around in her UGG boots; rather, the fest concentrates on fostering conversations about weighty issues such as this year’s Class in America sidebar. “Part of our mission is to draw attention to the ideas that are at the foundation of documentaries,” Buirski says.

Another sidebar features nine films that recount the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The fest will unspool its first commissioned work, “Time Piece,” an omnibus digital film from six Turkish and six American filmmakers, with each segment examining a different time of day. Docu godfather Albert Maysles took on early morning. “At long last, we’re doing something sensible that gives us a connection with another culture,” says the vet filmmaker, who’s attending Full Frame for the second time.

“It’s one of the very best run festivals,” Maysles says. “Nancy Buirski really understands how to do a festival and film.”

Key to the festival’s appeal to filmmakers and industryites is its intimacy. “By the end of the four days, it’s like they’ve been on a cruise together,” Buirski says.

Fest has a distinctly regional flavor, and attracts plenty of local attention, thanks to three major universities, biotech and high-tech firms in the area.

Unlike other festivals, each film screens only once; auds, press, and industry must choose judiciously. “It has a deserved reputation with documentaries because it helps build the buzz factor and gives them outside-the-beltway exposure,” says Jonathan Dana, a producer and producer’s rep who attended the 2005 fest to help position his docu “Ballets Russes.” “Full Frame does have a good spot on the rotation,” Dana notes.

Even better, it’s not even necessary to be in Durham to take advantage of Full Frame’s programming. Gotham’s Emerging Pictures is partnering on a 15 city U.S. tour of 10 fest films as a movable four-day fest. “It’s still tough for documentaries to be onscreen in many parts of the country,” says Emerging Pictures prexy Ira Deutchman. “The truth is that it’s still not a habit most people are in. A lot of docs do belong on a bigscreen, and especially as production is evolving toward hi-def, they demand to be seen on the bigscreen.”

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