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Full Frame 2013: Four fine documentaries by Durham filmmakers

Thursday-Sunday

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Full Frame began its life late last century, conceived at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies. In the ensuing years, the festival grew to international renown; meanwhile, the city of Durham became a home base for filmmakers themselves.

This year, several Durham filmmakers have finished work in the festival. The sole feature filmmaker, Elisabeth Haviland James, is also the newest arrival to the Bull City. In 2011, she produced festival founder Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story, which premiered at Full Frame and went on to achieve great acclaim, an HBO broadcast and the Academy Award shortlist. James' new film, In So Many Words, also takes the South as its setting, but otherwise it bears little resemblance to The Loving Story.

James is a transplanted Southerner. She studied documentary-making at Stanford before a stint working with prominent filmmaker George Butler (Pumping Iron). She and her husband moved from Brooklyn to Durham four and half years ago. "We were tired of 80-hour work weeks. We were looking for better weather and a better quality of life," she says.

In So Many Words is a striking, often audacious story of a single woman's life, narrated by that woman. With relatively little in the way of archival material, James pursued a strategy of styled, highly idiosyncratic re-enactments and symbolic props, all the while using the subject's insistent, articulate and literate voice-over. And the subject? Lucy Daniels, who began her life as a cloistered daughter of one of Raleigh's most famous families, the one that owned the Raleigh News & Observer. (In her words, the family was "prominent but not proper.")

The film's focus is on Daniels' struggle with severe anorexia, the years she spent in psychiatric institutions, her youthful success as a novelist and her midlife discovery of psychoanalysis. It's that last preoccupation that forms the core of James' film, which finds considerable inspiration in Daniels' memories, dreams, fiction and poetry. "The camera keeps moving, never really settling," says James. "It keeps the audience connected at a subconscious level with Lucy."

It's a documentary that required dramatic structure and production design, and James shares creative input with cinematographer Andreas Burgess and writer Lindsay Devlin, along with her husband Revere La Noue, who served as co-producer and art director. [Disclosure: INDY freelancer Ashley Melzer, who contributed to this section's festival coverage, is an associate producer of In So Many Words.]

While James was still working on The Loving Story, CDS director Tom Rankin introduced her to one of Daniels' children, Patrick Inman (who would serve as consultant). Another offspring, Lucy Noble Inman, became a producer of the film, but James says of the family, "They gave me a wide berth to do as I saw fit. I started by reading Lucy's memoir, and I got to the part about having a memory when she was 20 months old and went, 'Wow!'"

Durham's Phoebe Brush is making her first appearance at Full Frame... with a film, that is. She was a longtime staff member of the fest, eventually becoming programming director, a position she held until 2008. Around the same time, she began work on Yucca Mtn Tally, her 21-minute meditation on nuclear waste and the scale of time. The U.S. Department of Energy planned to store nuclear waste in a facility deep within the 6,700-foot Yucca Mountain, Nev., perhaps a final insult to a region that endured hundreds of underground nuclear explosions. Initially, the facility was designed to hold waste safely for 10,000 years. Brush was struck by this as she considered how long ago 10,000 years was.

"The 'tally' in the film's title refers to a tally stick," she says. It's the oldest known method of recording information with symbols—one that dates back 30,000 years. "That time period is within the scope of the time they're storing the waste," she says.

But the film isn't entirely abstract. Brush speaks to residents of the area—a white man who was exposed to radiation from the underground testing and is now battling cancer, and a Shoshone elder. The violence done to the land has also been done to them.

Nicole Triche's Taxidermists takes a straightforward approach to a quirky subculture—the classic documentary short subject. Two years ago, she visited St. Charles, Mo., for the World Taxidermy and Fish Carving Championship. There, she encountered passionate professionals working at an extraordinary level of craft.

Triche interviewed about 10 taxidermists before settling on Dennis Harris and Wendy Christensen-Senk as her subjects. Harris' piece is the showstopper of her film—a tableau of a moose being attacked by eight wolves. The moose is in mid-stumble, while teeth-baring wolves are clambering over the antlers, flying through the air and sneaking up behind. Meanwhile, Christensen-Senk describes discovering the passion as a child, and learning via correspondence course.

Taxidermists succeeds as a celebration of a fervent subculture, but even here there's a sense of a vocation and passion under threat. Christensen-Senk worries that she won't be replaced when she retires from Milwaukee Public Museum and that digital education and outsourcing will be seen as more efficient.

Triche, whose Full Frame debut was another anatomically themed short, the 2007 short Metacarpus, is an assistant professor at Elon University. The job affords some project money, which she supplemented with her own funds. In the summer of 2012, she edited the film at home while pregnant. (Incidentally, James and Brush also had their post-production schedules complicated by pregnancies. But only Triche's baby was born the day after editing finished, her Full Frame entry safely in the mail.)

Nile Perch, the latest addition to Josh Gibson's Full Frame canon (which includes last year's short, Kudzu Vine, and The Siamese Connection, a feature from 2008 in which—disclosure—my wife Katja Hill appeared), emerged from a workshop he helped lead in Uganda, which was organized by Indian filmmaker Mira Nair. "It was designed to teach Ugandans how to tell their own stories, first of all, but also to give them skills to get crew positions with production companies passing through," Gibson says.

Nile Perch was conceived as a teaching exercise: Follow the life of one fish, from the sea to the plate. The Nile perch is an invasive species that has wiped out most of the indigenous fish in Lake Victoria; it's now central to a notorious fish trafficking industry. But Gibson's interests were less about the social problem (scrutinized at length in the 2004 feature doc Darwin's Nightmare) and more about technical and aesthetic issues. He made the film in six days during spring break from his teaching job at Duke, shooting it on a heavy Cold War-era Soviet 35mm camera he owns, on black and white stock he painstakingly processed in his Durham basement.

"Shooting 35" could become the film version of an indie band recording analog and distributing via vinyl, or a news startup for print (yes, people are still doing those). It's an aesthetic and philosophical choice—the texture of celluloid remains unmatched by the clean, perfect array of HD pixels. But it's also a choice to do things the hard way, as a nod to the "slow" economy that places value on things other than convenience.

Gibson expressed concern, too, that the incredible ease by which images can be acquired, edited and distributed also presents problems for their preservation—which was the subject of a widely discussed report by the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy. "I've encountered this myself," Gibson says. "I've lost footage that I shot years ago. I plug in the drive and it doesn't work. It's all gone."

Although several older docs will receive 35mm screenings, Nile Perch will be the only new documentary to require a film projector at this year's festival.

Other locally oriented films in this year's festival include Will For the Woods, which features a Durham subject in its study of green burial practices. Also, Durham veteran and past Full Frame award winner Rodrigo Dorfman will preview a personal work called Occupy the Imagination at the annual works-in-progress block on Sunday.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Time and memory."

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