As each Full Frame festival is a window to the world at large, the docs set in North Carolina or produced by N.C. filmmakers are equally revealing about our region. This year’s collection of N.C.-connected films conveys an interest in historical, endemic issues of race, gender, class, poverty, age, and illness. While these docs explicate the injustices wrought by these marginalizing factors, they do so through stories of personal inspiration and uplift: a young man and his parents facing down death, a homeowner defiant in the face of corporate cruelty, a legendary photographer toiling to preserve African-American heritage, everyday people swimming against the stream of institutional racism and rural decline, and a young woman seeking to unearth her family’s displaced history.
Born in Raleigh and reared in Dunn, Burk Uzzle left North Carolina at age twenty-three to become the youngest photographer LIFE magazine had ever hired. He built a career producing some of the sixties’ most indelible images: of the Vietnam War and Woodstock, of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral and Klan rallies in Appalachia. Today, as the eighty-year-old Uzzle continues to travel the byways photographing Americana, he works out of his cavernous studio—a hundred-year-old warehouse—in downtown Wilson, where he documents the African-American community of eastern North Carolina, from church singers and dancing troupes to sports coaches and gang members. Even when Uzzle laments the unfulfilled promise of America, he celebrates its history and humanity. His past and present in pictures is chronicled in F/11 and Be There (Thursday, Apr. 4, 10:10 a.m.), which filmmaker Jethro Waters completed while he was living in Asheville.
A stone’s throw away from Wilson, you’ll find the setting for Edgecombe (Thursday, Apr. 4, 4:30 p.m.), a fifteen-minute short film shot in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. It spotlights three denizens spanning three generations: Shaka Jackson is on probation and living under house arrest, splitting his workdays between the tobacco fields and Applebee’s just so he can pay his court debts. Doris Stith left Tarboro for the big city as a young woman, and although she eventually returned home to uplift her town and church, she’s still haunted by the plantations where her ancestors once toiled. And while Deacon Joyner lived through Jim Crow, its memory still lingers and stings. This microcosm stands for many rural Southern communities where there are three types of people: the aging, the disaffected, and those who manage to move away.
You’re scarcely prepared for the emotional impact of Exit Music (Friday, Apr. 5, 10:20 a.m.), by director Cameron Mullenneaux, an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco who graduated from Warren Wilson College in Asheville—with a self-designed major in death and dying studies—and later earned an MFA in documentary film from Wake Forest University. Her Full Frame entry is a study of twenty-eight-year-old Ethan Rice, a lifelong sufferer of cystic fibrosis. Mullenneaux got raw, unflinching access as Ethan and his family struggled to keep him alive, which inevitably transitions into a fight to determine how he’ll die. In a life unsuited to long-term goals, Ethan focuses on more modest aims, like the stop-motion animation he creates, inspired by the war stories of his devoted dad, Ed, a Vietnam veteran and PTSD-sufferer. Music figures prominently in Ethan’s world, from the guitar riffs he composes (heard throughout the film) to the syncopated rhythms Ed taps out while helping Ethan dislodge the mucus from his lungs. Thus does Ethan score the soundtrack of his own life, in proximity to death.
The town of Mossville, Louisiana, was founded by freed slaves during Reconstruction and persevered through Jim Crow. But, like most fenceline communities, it suffered from the environmental racism that goes hand in hand with modern industrialism. The arrival of the South African Sasol petrochemical company, founded as an Apartheid-era means of energy independence, brings jobs but also toxins seeping into the air, soil, and water. Mossville’s residents either succumb to cancer or move away via “voluntary” land buyouts. A few stalwarts remain, including Stacey Ryan, who refuses to leave his eighth of an acre: a rectangular patch of green, cut off from utilities, encircled by a polluted industrial wasteland. As Stacey’s body wastes away, he becomes a metaphor for his dying town, embodying Dylan Thomas’s call to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Directed by Alexander John Glustrom, with assistance from the Southern Documentary Fund, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (Saturday, Apr. 6, 1:20 p.m.) will leave you anguished and angry. Executive producer Michelle Lanier is the director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites and a professor at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, while producer Catherine Rierson graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.
A patchwork of disquieting landscapes and fragmented history, Kolmas Punkt (Saturday, Apr. 6, 10 a.m.) has an inscrutable quality, as filmmaker Alina Taalman’s develops her family’s forgotten history, chiefly about her grandfather, a sailor from Estonia. Indeed, Taalman’s voiceover narration admits her words may “sound confusing.” But her approach mirrors the jagged memories she’s trying to piece together. Taalman, a Duke alumna, made her film with the assistance of the inaugural Cassilhaus Travel Fellowship grant and CDS.