Behind the Scenes at Full Frame With Its Festival Director

As part of our Fellowship Program, selected Fellows attend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. 2018 Fellow Khiné Bonner was so inspired by the experience that he did a follow up interview with the festival's director, Deirdre Haj.

Throughout the year, Docs In Progress has been featuring guest blog posts from our Fellows. This one comes from Khiné Bonner who balances his creative work as a filmmaker and editor with being a media literacy educator. He chose to interview Deirdre Haj, Director of the Full Frame Film Festival and Senior Advisor On Film and Television at Duke University. 

by Khiné Bonner

KB: Can you talk a bit about your process in planning the educational component for Full Frame and the importance of youth media programs to filmmakers and the community?

DH: I did not found Full Frame. It was founded by Nancy Buirski in 1997 and it was then known as the Double Take Film Festival. When I arrived at Full Frame, it was right after the economic collapse in 2008. So the festival had debt. It was suffering from an identity crisis, if you will. It had such a strong brand, but financially, things were not well. And so of course, I thought, oh, we're just going to add programs even while we're in debt, but there was a reason for it. When I first took the job, I did a lot of listening in our community. The festival had become somewhat unmoored from its community. The perception in Durham, North Carolina, was that the festival was really for New Yorkers, and that it was really New Yorkers coming down into there town. And this happens with a lot of festivals, right, where it's out-of-towners coming into a community but not really belonging to that community. A lot of festivals we know and love exist like that. For me, that didn't work in a city like Durham.

It seemed to me that, with my background in media literacy, some low hanging fruit would be to focus on educational programs, taking filmmakers who needed a gig while they're making their work and pairing them with youth, because video is the language of the future. There were two existing educational programs already which still exist. One was our youth screening that was happening at the festival. However, because the festival takes place in April, it wasn't working well. It was really a burden for programming and it was a burden for the schools, so we moved that to the fall. The other was our Fellows Program which brings college level students from film schools from NYU to Duke to the festival to have master classes with filmmakers attending the festival. And that is still wonderful. We also created what has become known as the School of Doc. It started as a summer program for four kids but later expanded to become an after school program. It's funded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Durham's population is 50% people of color and the majority of the students in School of Doc are kids of color. We have had an amazing track record with that program of kids going to college and creating their own video businesses. The most notable alum is Destini Riley who co-directed a film called I Destini, which is an animated documentary short that went on the circuit and then played on the New York Times Op-Docs page. We also have a relationship with the School the Arts in Winston-Salem, where we sent two children the following summer to their five-week filmmaking intensive. Now we're working on hopefully a four-year scholarship. So before we really all started talking about diversity and diversifying the field, we were just doing that and I'm really proud of the program and proud of what happens there.

KB: How do you define deliverables for funders and how do you navigate building relationships with partners?

DH: We're very blessed that the Academy FilmCraft grants came and were re-designated. After School of Doc had already been up for a few years, we knew we had a formula in the summer that worked. The foundation that gave us the money to expand to after school, knew us as an organization and trusted us from seeing that after school program. So I think a lot of it has to do with the relationship with the funder of saying, "Okay, you've trusted me before, and we've been successful. Can you give me a few years to figure out this next piece?" I actually had this conversation with our instructors the other day where we were halfway through the program and needed to look at how our goals had shifted. Really having that discussion with the instructors who are on the ground with students all the time, we ask, "What does this look like? What is repeatable and what is not?" Because you have different personalities every year, right?

It's important to understand what is the particular interest of this group? What is available to us? The relationship with a grant funder is as important as the application. It is a back and forth discussion before you even put pen to paper. I think that's just as true with sponsors or individual donors. It's about what are they are looking for as a funder, what we're looking for as an organization, and how those fit together. Sometimes it also means saying No. I've said no, to funders where they want to dictate what the students are filming. I'm not really interested in what a funder wants them to film. This is about them finding a voice as a group, which is super hard as a group of teenagers. I think the other piece of that is the same thing with them where they are. We work with a major university, but we are not located at that major university. We are in downtown Durham. I'm not really interested in bringing those students away from downtown to the ivory tower, if you will. I want them to be downtown,where they have access to whatever they want to film.

It really has to do with mission. It has to do with remembering who you are and who you are not. So I think we say No, as an organization probably much more than we say Yes. That's the nature of a festival, right? I mean, we're saying no all the time. In terms of partnerships, we need to be very clear about who we are, and other organizations are in the region that might be better suited to particular work. As one example, the Good Pitch is a program which goes around to other festivals and drops in. Full Frame doesn't have the infrastructure to do that kind of a filmmaker oriented workshop in the middle of the year with another organization, but we knew that Southern Documentary Fund did, so we suggested they work together, which they did. 

It also means periodically introspecting with your team. Are we are we on mission? Has the mission shifted? Should it shift? And I think when you bite off more than you can chew as an organization, it's very damaging fiscally, and we have core values that are different than mission. One of our core values is fiscal responsibility. That's really my job to be able to say "I think this is just going to take too many resources, and we should probably not do it right now." It's also sometimes means going outside the scope and giving people courage to go outside the scope which is also another piece of that, "It's okay, I'm looking at the pie, the pie is full, but we can push a little further today."

KB: Do you have any advice for filmmakers and how they can best navigate a festival experience?

DH: It's so different depending on the festival. I go to festivals as well and it's not for introverts. It's really difficult to be an introvert and go to a festival. But I think we at Full Frame set ourselves up and are known for being very, very easy to navigate. In fact, we are continually looking for ways to make it easier. We even have this little animated video about how to How to Fest which covers how the passes and tickets work. Getting all of those things out of the way makes someone have a better experience. I think we're one of the few festivals that feeds filmmakers three meals a day in the hospitality suite. And if you're in competition are invited as a filmmaker or a special guest, you don't have to spend a dime. I've actually had Gordon Quinn [from Kartemquin Films] stand at the end of the festival saying, “I didn't spend any money!” We're picking you up at the airport, we're putting you in your hotel, we're feeding you in the hospitality suite, and that's really good food because it’s Durham.

It's also size and space. I can't tell you how many times the board members have said “Can't we get bigger?” “What if we add a venue?”, “What if we were in Raleigh?” Then you lose the magic of allowing people to really find each other easily. I think when you go to festivals, you have to be clear about what your goals are, right? If you're at Sundance or Tribeca and you go without means, you're going to get lost, you're going to get run over. You have to build a team. You've got to have press. You've got to have outreach. You've got to have a lot of people around you to make that work. There are people far better than me to talk about that.

But I think there are a few things I would say about the festival circuit. You don't want to play everywhere, because it's expensive. Not everybody's going to cover your hotel, your air, etc. So you're going to be spending money. You want to make sure you're spending money at a place that makes sense for you to be and where the laurels really matter. There's also how a film is screened. I can't tell you how many festivals I go to where they're in a multiplex and you're hearing the noise from the next cinema coming in. And those of us that build cinemas in non-traditional screening venues really focus on how the film will look. We're bringing in better projectors and building a sound wall so that you can have the best screening experience possible. The only way to know about what festivals are like is through other filmmakers. You need get on to The D-Word, for example, and ask people "Did you have a good experience at this festival? What did they do for you afterward?"

One of the things that I'm very proud of is our social media footprint is so much bigger than we are, and we really work it. So if you come screen at Full Frame, we are going to follow you all year, and if you tweet us, we're going to tweet it right back out again. And particularly for documentaries, keep the ball in the air through the summer when there's a lot less activity. So by the time you hit the fall, and we're getting into Oscar season, eyeballs are really still catching you and those voters know who you are, and why you were important. So I think that's really an important piece of it. And then I think you have to look at who's Oscar qualifying, you know, if you have a short we're a really good place to send your documentary short, because we're an Oscar qualifying festival. If somebody doesn't give awards, you're not going to get that opportunity. And what does that mean? It means you don't have to spend the money on that campaign. You're automatically in the hopper and being considered. Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 and Last Days of Freedom, these are films have won that award and went on to the Academy Awards. Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 won the Academy Award. So, knowing what those festivals are, and what they can do for you is key.

The last piece I would say is that there is an advantage to having the opportunity to get the right kind of exposure at all-documentary festivals like Full Frame, True False, or Camden versus just being another number in a big market-driven festival. You have to weigh that appropriately. Some people have and have had great success and other people you know, they go the other route and they get a little lost and I think that is something you have to really weigh. Is Toronto the right place? Is Tribeca the right place? Yes, sometimes they are. Sometimes they're not. Really understanding that is a very personal and individual business decision.

KB: When planning the A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy at Full Frame, how do you decide on what issues to address in the documentary community? 

DH: I'm in constant conversation with Sadie Tillery, our Artistic Director about it. Full Frame is really blessed because we have two advisory boards -- one in the Research Triangle region and other based in the broader documentary community. I turn to them a lot; they are not just names on letterhead. Some of these folks include Molly Thompson from A&E Films, Doug Block, Steve James, Roger Ross Williams, Leo Chiang, Bernardo Ruiz, Toby Shimin, Carrie Lozano. I'm turning to them and asking what they see as the pertinent issues in the field right now. What should we be talking about?

We really look at programming the Speakeasy between pieces of programming in the theaters so that it is easy for people to come in and leave. Live streaming has made it a whole other animal, which is awesome, so that everybody can see these conversations that otherwise could get lost. We took on the whole race issue as soon as it came up because, again, we're in Durham, we have to reflect where we are in the regional South with a different group of filmmakers than those that are visiting from New York and LA. That is our responsibility. So #Docs So White kind of just shot out like a cannon as part of our Speakeasy. It's a place where I hope the industry is holding a mirror up to itself. It's not about Full Frame. We are simply giving a platform. I'm really proud of that. I've had a lot of filmmakers come to tell us how transformative that has been, how it's made them think about their work a different way. 

What’s really interesting is that it just keeps getting less and less polite, which I think is good. I mean we have to allow ourselves the difficult conversation, or we're never going to progress. I was really grateful that it wasn't polite [in 2018] and that the gloves came off. There were people in the audience raising their voice in protest and filmmakers then pushing back going, well, then, how do we have this work? I think the Southern Documentary Fund has made a huge step by saying how they will fund, that if you do not have a representative group on your senior team that represents the community being shown in the documentary, we're not going to be your fiscal sponsor. That's a big statement! It's a big statement by an organization like theirs. I thought it was a really important discussion, and it's had many iterations and it will have another one [in 2019]. I just think it's really important that we don't own it; we are the platform. That's really how we look at the whole festival. The festival is not about us, it is about the community, both communities who we serve.

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival returns for its 22nd year from April 4-7, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Docs In Progress will be taking our 2019 Fellows to experience the festival.

All photos are courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.


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