Those arriving last Thursday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham for the festival formerly known as DoubleTake were greeted with altered signs and an unfamiliar name on the program. Suddenly, the festival was being called The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The rechristening, which was made official at 1 p.m. that afternoon, would become the object of gossip and innuendo for the duration of the weekend.
Matters were not helped by the press release, which provided the official explanation: "We are adopting a name that will better reflect our mission and the dedication documentary filmmakers and lovers of the genre have to getting the 'full-frame,' or the truth in all its myriad aspects." There are, perhaps, myriad aspects of the truth here, and few of the filmmakers, journalists, volunteers and moviegoers at the festival seemed to swallow the official line. After five successful years, DoubleTake is a recognizable brand name, and people at the festival had trouble believing that an established name would be jettisoned for such an innocuous reason. By the end of the weekend, the gossiping about the name change reached a point where people speculated that the festival will leave Durham for more glamorous environs.
This much is clear: After five years of operating under the aegis of Durham's Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), the relationship has ended, and the festival will be operated autonomously by its founding director, Nancy Buirski, under the auspices of her nonprofit company, DocArtsInc. Both Buirski and Tom Rankin, director of the CDS, steadfastly insist that the split is an amicable one, prompted by the success of the festival and its newfound ability to stand on its own, in Rankin's words, "as a four-legged creature."
Buirski says that the decision to make the change was made in December, and that the timing of the announcement was chosen in order to have maximum impact. "When you want to make an important announcement, the best moment to do it is when you have a captive audience," Buirski said in an interview at the festival.
Rankin portrayed the change as part of a natural, evolutionary process, recounting the center's role as an incubator for Buirski's festival, and he agreed that the new name is a better reflection of the festival's mission. But he also drew attention to a sentence that was buried on the reverse side of the press release: "The Center for Documentary Studies, which holds the license to the name DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, plans to continue using it in connection with an annual film event." Neither Rankin nor Buirski suggested that this would give rise to rival festivals.
Buirski, who moved to Durham over five years ago after 15 years working as a photo editor for The New York Times, started the festival with the institutional support of the CDS. Now that this year's festival is over, she's looking for office space for her company and staff, all of whom have been working in the offices of the CDS, on Pettigrew Street in downtown Durham. Buirski says she isn't sure where the new space will be. When asked if the festival would remain in Durham, she said, "I certainly hope so. I think Durham is its home."
Despite the talk of relocation, it's not clear if anyone actually wants the festival to move. Many filmmakers said they appreciated the compact venue, with the hotel adjacent to the screening rooms. Marco Williams, co-director of Two Towns of Jasper, which won the $5,000 filmmaker award presented by the CDS, said that in its present location, "the festival is very manageable." Williams, who served on DoubleTake's advisory board the festival's first year, suggested that that festival would be prohibitively expensive to mount in a city like New York.
It's possible that the rumors started because Buirski now has the ability to move the festival. As the head of the suddenly autonomous event, Buirski controls an annual operating budget of $550,000, has an array of big names on the board (Martin Sheen, Martin Scorsese, D.A. Pennebaker), and her obviously formidable fundraising skills have secured the backing of sponsors such as The New York Times, MTV, HBO, Progress Energy and Kodak. (The Independent Weekly is also a sponsor.) Even if she no longer uses the DoubleTake name, Buirski has a strong institution in place, one that is well situated for success as an independent festival.
Fortunately, there was more to do last weekend at DoubleTake than chatter about the name change. There were movies to catch, parties to attend, and people to meet. Consequently, sleep was the festival's biggest casualty. Films were screened in four theaters from 9 a.m. until 1 or 2 a.m. the following morning. With the various social activities scheduled throughout the weekend, the atmosphere was frantic as people tried to take in everything they could.
The quality of the programming seemed stronger than last year, beginning with the festival opening night double bill, which was the hottest ticket of the weekend. Following Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George, a journalist's video diary of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the New Jersey art rock band Yo La Tengo performed to short nature films by the French documentarian Painlevé. For one night, Fletcher Hall felt as hip as the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
On Friday night, the programming highlight was Domestic Violence, the latest film of lifetime achievement honoree Frederick Wiseman. Several people in the packed house bailed in the early going, apparently disturbed by scenes in which police officers in Tampa respond to distress calls. In this era of hopped-up "reality television," Wiseman's old-fashioned, unblinking style apparently produced too much reality for some to handle, as his camera lingered mercilessly on battered victims. Particularly haunting were the hand gestures of the abused women, as they spoke on camera: anxious, busy and constantly fluttering up to their faces. Unfortunately, this three-hour film started around 10 p.m., and perhaps only 10 percent of the crowd remained at the bitter end.
Although Martin Scorsese is the chair of the festival's board of directors, he didn't seem to be in Durham. Instead, there was a Saturday afternoon screening of Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, which is essentially a four-hour highlight reel of his favorite Italian films. Scorsese's cinematic religiosity is undeniably stirring--like being in the presence of an ancient monk who's never stopped burning incense in his cell. However, Scorsese's pedantic, almost bitter conclusion was rather startling: "I know going to old films can seem like a chore, like doing homework ... but these are films that had a powerful effect on me, and you should see them."
Perhaps it's a sign that this festival has arrived that there were even crashers passing out fliers for off-site screenings. One such screening happened at 2:30 a.m. Sunday, at the Hampton Inn off Hillandale Road, where two New York filmmakers were showing their opus, Don't Show Pink. The co-directors, David Bienenstock and Aaron Strebs, presently and formerly employed by the online division of Penthouse magazine, had recorded for posterity the "national adult entertainer of the year awards," held last December in a Dallas stripclub. Only five people showed for the screening of this documentary, but the young filmmakers were most hospitable, offering their guests Ice House beer and pot.
The film turned out to be the work of unschooled amateurs, however, with the filmmakers repeatedly crossing the line between reportage and exploitation. The material was hardcore, and at one point, lewd, but there were also flashes of humor, insight and innocence. The experience of watching this blue movie, projected on the wall of a smoky hotel room, brought to mind John Waters' contention that the only true filmmaking left today is pornography. Despite the dubious pedigree of these particular filmmakers, their pilgrimage to Durham was not only evidence of their seriousness, but it was indicative of the increasing prominence of the festival in the world of filmmaking.