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Taking the helm

New festival executive director Deirdre Haj discusses her goals for Full Frame



Deirdre Haj has big plans for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. But today, little more than two months into her tenure as its newest executive director, she is busy handling first things first.

"Someone told me that your first festival happens to you," says Haj. "But that fits my style of management—you like to see how the car drives before you get under the hood."

The automotive metaphor suits the driven Haj, whose early career as a theater and film actor transitioned into the roles of documentary producer and entertainment industry consultant. In 2008, she produced Brushes With Life: Arts, Artists and Mental Illness, a short documentary by Pittsboro filmmaker Philip Brubaker. After running her own company, Ruffian Media, for nine years, Haj was hired by Full Frame in January to replace Tom Rankin, who had been serving as its interim head following the departure of Peg Palmer last year.

Haj's circuitous path to her current position began shortly after she moved to North Carolina with her husband, Joseph Haj, the producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. "I attended the 2006 Full Frame festival, but I remember reading a piece in the Independent Weekly after Nancy Buirski stepped down as director [in December 2007] that kept me away for a while because I didn't know if the festival was going to continue to even exist."

As Haj settled into her unofficial jobs of "being first lady of PlayMakers and raising my daughter," she became friends with Buirski. Last year, when Haj heard Full Frame was looking for a new executive director, she was initially reticent to throw her hat into the ring. But after speaking with Buirski and Full Frame board president David Sontag, she submitted her credentials and began the process that eventually led to her hiring.

For this year's festival, Haj readily confesses to relying on the experience of Full Frame's dedicated, long-standing staff. "I'm humbled by their talent level," she said. Most changes to the festival's perennial format will be incremental, but festival-goers will notice two high-profile additions to the programming: free outdoor screenings of Pelada and Racing Dreams to be held Friday and Saturday in Durham Central Park.

For Haj, priority No. 1 for her new job is to "maintain and expand on what we do best: create a filmmakers' festival." After that, her vision for Full Frame's future represents a return to Buirski's expansive approach in lieu of the scaled-down festivals of 2008 and 2009. "We need to focus more involvement in the community, including sponsoring summer youth programs and expanding year-round programming into the public schools."

At the same time, however, Haj conveys a keen business and fundraising awareness that she hopes will keep Full Frame stable in the future. "The state of the festival is good and maintaining. We're no longer worried about where the money to run the festival will come from, but it's not sustainable. We need to get bigger.

"People don't realize only 14 percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and there hasn't been an increase in their price since 1998. So, without donors we don't survive. We need to do a better job recruiting more individual [donor] members. And it is important that the local business community know how important we are for them."

The purpose, says Haj, is not only expanding the festival itself but also being able to give back to the community. "We can't be in the arts and sit in an ivory tower. The festival belongs to the city, not the other way around."

So while Haj remains attentive with this year's festival, her eye is firmly focused on the future. "When I was applying to become executive director, one question I kept asking myself was, 'Are they going to be here?' Well, now I can safely say, yes, we're going to be here for a long time."

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