Full Frame Documentary Film Festival | Wednesday, June 2—Sunday, June 6, 2021 

Find the INDY Week’s list of films to catch at this year’s festival here. 

In a normal year, thousands of attendees would spill out into downtown Durham during Full Frame Documentary Festival week, filling darkened screening rooms and squeezing into bar booths, afterwards, to celebrate documentary debuts. This year’s festival, though, is a little different—and virtual.

“I’ll be candid: My greatest joy with the festival is watching the synergy between audiences and festival and filmmakers,” interim festival director Sadie Tillery says. “Not being able to see that spark in person makes for a very different year.”

But maybe that’s the evolving nature of documentary filmmaking, or what filmmaker Jerry Risius calls “rolling with the punches.” Risius’ first documentary feature film, Storm Lake, will make its festival debut this week, and though a virtual premiere isn’t exactly what he and co-director Beth Levison had in mind when they began filming, neither was the film they ended up with.

Storm Lake—a documentary capturing the power of journalism (and democracy) in the small corners of America—is a fitting film to have wrapped in 2020. But its filmmakers began the project earlier, in late 2017, when Iowan newspaperman Art Cullen won an unlikely Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing at small-town biweekly The Storm Lake Times. Levison and Risius (who grew up in Iowa) began to document the struggling family paper, catching slices of life. Then, more.

Then came a fraught election year, the pandemic, and a new bout of furious reporting after nearby pork plants reported coronavirus outbreaks. The documentary stretched on, capturing life—slippery, unpredictable, often difficult—with the pandemic as an added starring role.

Now Storm Lake premieres in Durham with Levison and Risius several states away.

“It felt pressing,” Risius says, of the impetus to get the film out. “This is a really important message and an important film to get out for people to see as quickly as possible.”

This June’s festival is its 24th. As in every year, the festival’s films capture broad swaths of life—sky and land, love and heartbreak, a next-door neighbor, and modern-day refugees in Afghanistan. One highly anticipated film with a Durham connection, My Name is Pauli Murray, has already sold out and, astonishingly, so have festival passes. But, say organizers, single tickets are still available for most films, as are passes to more than 30 Full Frame filmmaker Q&As.

Jared Jakins, whose documentary Scenes from the Glittering World will have a worldwide premiere at the festival this week, calls the week leading up to the festival “bittersweet.”

“Full Frame has become this landmark festival for documentaries in the United States,” he says. “To be a part of it is a big deal, but it’s a little sad that we won’t be able to go to North Carolina, and experience it in person.”

Tillery, the artistic director and interim festival director, vividly remembers the moment that festival organizers made the call, last year, to cancel the 23rd edition of the festival,  originally slated to take place April 2-6 of last year.

“I was standing in my kitchen,” says Tillery, who has been with the festival for 16 years. “It was evening, and it was just crushing—a year of really careful work for our team. To not be able to see that hard work come to fruition was sad. Some of these films had taken years to be made.”

When planning this year’s festival, Tillery says that, unsure whether filmmakers would even want to release documentaries in an online-only showcase, she considered curating a lineup of already-released films. But after talking with filmmakers, the consensus was clear: they wanted to get their work out into the world and move onto the next project. During the call for submissions, an outpouring of nearly 1000 entries came in for the 36 slots.

Jared Jakins’ debut film, which he’s been working on for three years, follows three students from a remote Navajo high school. He sees a silver lining in the remote release: an in-person festival wouldn’t have been accessible to the whole community he worked with in Arizona and Utah. Now, they’ll all see the film make its world premiere—remotely together.

The Storm Lake film team will also have their own launch party. They’ve been working remotely since March 2020, Risius says, but plan to gather for a backyard premiere hosted by film editor Rachel Shuman in Beacon, New York. Back in Iowa, too, their subjects will be coming together to watch.

“This is the year of a virtual event,” Tillery says. “But when we eventually do come back in person, our audience will still be here. We still have a community of people who are excited about what we do.”

Follow Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to sedwards@indyweek.com

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