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A smaller, more compact festival yields documentary riches

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Four years ago, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival reached something of a high-water mark: Over four days, the festival screened 78 films in New Docs competition. It's also the year Martin Scorsese came to town.

One year ago, Full Frame suffered a season on the brink brought on by financial woes and staff turnover. Yet, even with a scaled-back program, last year's organizers managed to pull together an event that set all-time festival attendance records.

As Full Frame returns for its 12th edition April 2-5, regular attendees will notice that the 2009 festival stands in marked contrast to the popular yet bulging behemoth of four years ago. Of the 99 films scheduled for screening this year, a mere 59 are in the New Docs category, the fewest since the festival's DoubleTake days.

Furthermore, a recent Full Frame press release reels off the roster of special guests appearing at this year's festival. Few of them are household names on the level of such past guests as Scorsese, Danny DeVito, Michael Moore, Ken Burns, Joan Allen or Al Franken.

However, bigger is not always better, and there are many reasons to think the downsizing will result in an even friendlier, more intimate festival. Still, with the same number of venues as last year, the four-day schedule remains chock full of more films than any festivalgoer can see. And, the hard choices Full Frame made to right its fiscal ship have positioned it to weather the hard economic times currently besetting the entire country, including the film festival circuit.

"In a way, we were fortunate because the financial challenges we faced in 2007 forced us to gear up and make hard choices," says Peg Palmer, entering her second festival as Full Frame's executive director. "We were already in that mode when the current economic crisis hit. Consequently, we are on steady perennial ground. We're leaner and more efficient with our energy geared into programming." And, although the recent loss of longtime sponsor The New York Times left Palmer disappointed, "A&E IndieFilms and HBO were back even stronger than before. And, all our other sponsors, particularly Duke University and the City of Durham, have been as supportive as always."

The most striking change in this year's festival is one that appears motivated by both cost-cutting considerations and a philosophical shift. After years spent expanding the festival's physical scope beyond the area immediately around Durham's Carolina Theatre, all the screening venues this year are located within a single city block: the Carolina Theatre, the Durham Civic Center and the nearby Durham Arts Council.

"Our priority is not covering landscape but offering a unique festival experience," says Sadie Tillery, making her debut as the festival's programming director after several years spent in other positions on the Full Frame staff. "Full Frame has always been an opportunity to network and interact with industry colleagues and festivalgoers alike. It's a community we're trying to create—tighter and more accessible."

As for the dearth of famous visitors, "We didn't want to chase celebrities for the sake of chasing celebrities if there wasn't a natural connection with a particular program," says Tillery.

Joel Salatin, who was featured in Michael Pollan's best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma, will appear Friday night on behalf of Food, Inc. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

That said, there will still be a number of notable guests. Vogue magazine Editor-at-Large (and Durham native) André Leon Talley and Creative Director Grace Coddington will appear following the screening of The September Issue (Saturday, 8 p.m.). Following Food, Inc. (Friday, 7 p.m.), Joel Salatin, author, farmer and celebrity in the world of sustainable agriculture, will join director Robert Kenner for a discussion. D.A. Pennebaker returns to Full Frame for a screening of Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie (Friday, 1:15 p.m.).

Steve James, director of the 1994 classic Hoop Dreams, and William Gates, one of the two players featured in it, appear for a free screening of the film (Saturday, 10 a.m.). James also curated This Sporting Life, a 10-title series of sports films that will be another festival attraction (see page 16).

And, dovetailing off a panel discussion on filming in war zones called Working in Conflict, there will be a sneak preview of a documentary from a filmmaker (whose identity will not be revealed until the screening) about the kidnapping of an Italian journalist and his translator/ guide in Afghanistan (Friday, 7:45 p.m.).

Among other noteworthies is a trio of award-winners from this year's Sundance Film Festival. Rough Aunties (Thursday, 1 p.m.) portrays a group of women in South Africa, who are dedicated to bringing child abusers and rapists to justice. We Live in Public (Thursday, 9:30 p.m.) looks the life of Josh Harris, Internet pioneer, social engineer and performance artist. And, in Audience Award winner The Cove (Saturday, 4:45 p.m.), a team of filmmakers, specialists and free divers try to uncover the horrifying secret of dolphin slaughter in a small seaside town in Japan.

The Sunday tradition of viewing new works-in-progress documentaries also continues, at 3:45 p.m. Called In the Works and sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund, the program includes Rob Hill's The Appropriate Genius, a portrait of a man with an ingenious solution to global hunger; Erick Yates Green's Bunny Estelle Sanders: The Mayor Who Stood Up, a study of the mayor of Roper, N.C.; and Wil Weldon's Passing It On, a profile of the celebrated author and Duke University professor Reynolds Price.

Already, it seems that area documentary lovers have taken note of the programming. According to Tillery, the number of individual tickets sold on the first day of availability this year doubled 2008's figure. And, perhaps most impressively, all passes were sold out a week prior to opening day. (Tickets to individual films are still available.)

"We're cautiously optimistic," says Palmer. "In choosing how to spend their money today, people are looking for quality and value. I like to think we represent that.

"We're over the hump and hope to be around for a long time."

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