Tickets for the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, named one of the “Top 50 Film Festivals in the World” by indieWire, will go on sale to the general public on Monday, April 2, 11 a.m., at fullframefest.org/tickets.php; the annual four-day event will be held April 12–15. Here, Full Frame Director of Programming Sadie Tillery, named one of the “Most Powerful People in Documentary” by influential journalist Tom Roston, talks with CDS Publishing Intern Joel Mora about what it’s like to select and screen movies for the festival.
JM: When you’re between festivals what goes on at Full Frame?
ST: We have quarterly year-round programming. This summer we did a series of music films in Durham at the American Tobacco complex—screening them outside—and this fall we had a series of weekend showings, called the Full Frame Fix, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke that featured a few films that were sell outs at this past year’s festival and a few films that haven’t reached North Carolina yet. This winter we’ll do a series of screenings as well.
A lot of our work as a staff during the year is figuring out the best and most efficient way to organize the festival for the upcoming year—the best ticketing systems and line systems. And we fundraise. An anonymous donor has agreed to match up to $25,000 in new gifts, so now we’re looking for new donors or for past donors to increase their donations to Full Frame.
JM: Are you ever trying to top yourselves, think of new things for the festival?
ST: Absolutely. We have this rare, intimate four-day experience, and we hear time and time again that what filmmakers really love is being able to come and speak with their colleagues and hear conversations that they wouldn’t be able to hear elsewhere. So programmatically, I think where we’re trying to grow and achieve the most, is how do we create more conversation around the art form? Last year we had this A&E speakeasy venue where we programmed one-hour panel conversations in between the bands of programming, so it was really easy for patrons to get out of the film and then pop in and hear a little bit of this conversation and go back and get in line for their next movie.
JM: What films have you screened in past years that have really taken off?
ST: It’s really exciting to be a part of a film’s—what’s the word?—springboard, and sometimes those aren’t necessarily films that we premiere or show for the very first time. A film that comes to mind is Buck, which won our audience award in 2011 and has had a really successful theatrical run. I think it’s mutually beneficial because they were able to dip their toe in the water by showing here in Durham and received a lot of audience support, won the award, and now Full Frame’s laurels are at the top of its trailer.
JM: Are you getting a lot more films from newcomers or from people who are established?
ST: We offer an Emerging Artist award every year, so that always calls attention to how many first-time filmmakers’ work we end up programming and that list grows every year. I think last year it was in the twenties. There are people at other events who feel that too many films are being made, and there are too many festivals, and that somehow that will water down the quality of work, but I don’t feel that way. A festival is a really unique experience because it’s a rare thing for a filmmaker to be present when his or her film is shown, to hear the audience react.
JM: You were a filmmaker and studied film.
ST: I did—I went to Hollins University in Virginia and studied film and photography. I was studying at Hollins when I started interning at Full Frame. I did a fair amount of work in 16mm, experimental stuff, some of it centering around my family.
JM: How do you think your background in film influences your thinking during the selection process?
ST: A few things come to mind. One is that having done some work with film gives you an appreciation of just how hard it is to make a good movie. I feel really grateful to have had some experience because I think it makes me a more conscious watcher. You’re looking for the reason a film doesn’t belong—it’s a very different screening process. I’m aware that to get to the really good work I will have to let go of other films.
JM: So you’re cutting out more than adding on?
ST: We have to. With 1,200 submissions and 60 spots, we have to be thinking about how to make cuts. The hardest part of my job is saying no, and it’s one of the biggest parts of my job and it’s heartbreaking. People spend years making their films, and there are many more wonderful films than we can show.
JM: I read that your system of choosing isn’t necessarily based on rank but is more discussion-based. . . .
ST: Yeah, it’s not based on written comments or on any type of score sheet but on conversations the selection committee and staff has around each title. So much of what I’m trying to do is be a listener and a filter—carefully hear how films are affecting other people so that I can imagine how they might affect a whole room of people—a weekend of people. We’re looking for the whole package—for films that are affecting either because they’re visually striking or emotionally resonant or are exploring an important and timely subject or issue.
JM: I won’t ask you about a favorite Full Frame film, because I know you wouldn’t tell me, but what about certain moments? And as the program director, what kind of legacy are you hoping to build?
ST: There are so many moments, and they are all more about the people than they are about the films. When a filmmaker is walking into Fletcher Hall and sees a thousand people in the audience, it’s a wonderful moment.
As for a legacy … I guess there are two main things, and one is to be able to look back and say, those were incredible films, an incredible spectrum of work over all those years, that filmmakers and audiences were able to appreciate. I hope to show films to the best of our ability, to be able to say that we grew an audience for documentary film by doing that. And more personally, as an individual in an industry that can be painful and full of rejection, I want to look artists in the eye and let them know we appreciate what they are doing because we all need their films.