Three programs at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2003 bring to the big screen the work of North Carolina filmmakers with a keen sense of history. Full Frame opens on Thursday, April 10 with the world premiere of Rebecca Cerese’s February One, an hour-long documentary that tells the story of the four Greensboro college students who initiated the historic February 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. On Sunday, the festival closes with a screening and discussion of Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, a work in progress that examines McElwee’s great-grandfather’s career as a North Carolina tobacco baron. Sandwiched between these programs highlighting individual films is “In the Works,” a Sunday morning workshop where North Carolina filmmakers’ works in progress will be screened and critiqued. “In the Works” is sponsored by New York-based DocuClub, an organization devoted to making and supporting documentary filmmaking in a non-competitive community environment.
UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Rebecca Cerese makes her directorial debut with February One, co-produced with Steven Channing and Cynthia Hill, Cerese’s colleagues at Video Dialog Inc., a Durham based media production company. February One emphasizes the importance of the Greensboro sit-ins to the civil rights movement and is aimed at generations that do not remember those events first-hand. “We had to find a way to show those people born after the civil rights movement was over, that the things that took place then were a big deal and that the sit-ins were a big part of that,” explains Cerese. Cerese felt that the sit-ins were too briefly addressed in the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” “We have to give those four young men their due,” says Cerese.
February One presents the story of the sit-in through the personal recollections of the four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University freshmen who became known as the Greensboro Four: Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair, Jr.). Using archival footage, photographs, and re-enactments, the film dramatizes events that took place 43 years ago when, on Feb. 1, 1960, four African American college freshmen quietly took seats at the Woolworth lunch counter and asked to be served. Within days, hundreds of activists and students from A&T, Greensboro Women’s College, and Bennett College joined the nonviolent protest, which drew local segregationists as well. Within a week, the events had drawn national media attention and similar sit-ins were taking place in 35 southern cities, including High Point, Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte.
Cerese’s efforts to raise awareness about the historical significance of the sit-ins parallel the work of Sit-In Movement Inc., a nonprofit corporation currently engaged in designing the International Civil Rights museum, housed in the old Woolworth’s building on South Elm Street in Greensboro. While a small section of the old Woolworth’s lunch counter is on permanent display at the Smithsonian in Washington, the Civil Rights museum, like Cerese’s film, incorporates the thoughts and feelings of those present at the sit-ins. Museum director McArthur Davis explains: “We want people to feel what it must have felt like sitting there hours upon hours and taking that abuse without fighting back.”
Documentary enthusiasts interested in an individual, subjective perspective on North Carolina history won’t want to miss Charlotte native Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, a feature length work in progress. A graduate of Brown University and the MIT Film Section (where he worked with renowned documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock), McElwee has been filmmaker-in-residence at Harvard’s Film Study Center for 10 years and has been the recipient of grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Like his previous films Sherman’s March and Time Indefinite, Bright Leaves weaves McElwee’s personal ruminations on the meaning of his legacy with Southern history; in this case, the “agricultural pathological trust fund” left to McElwee and the state of North Carolina by his great-grandfather, who created the “Bull Durham” brand of tobacco. McElwee’s approach departs from traditional historical documentary by foregrounding the filmmaker’s evolving interests and concerns. “I film unscripted and use a spontaneous cinema verite approach. My films never turn out the way I think and I usually find a story I don’t expect during the filmmaking process.” McElwee will be available for questions and answers at the screening.
Documentary devotees interested in a hands-on approach to the filmmaking process will want to rise early on Sunday for the 9 a.m. “In the Works” session, featuring two works in progress by North Carolina filmmakers. Monster Road, directed by Brett Ingram and produced by Jim Haverkamp, is a 90-minute documentary that looks at visionary film artist/animator Bruce Bickford’s 40 year body of work. Curtis Gaston’s feature length Rebels examines the controversy in South Carolina regarding the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse in July 2000.
Coming next week in Full Frame coverage:
A behind-the-scenes look at organizing and producing the festival and select film previews.