“Last year, I’m pretty sure more filmmakers thanked George than Full Frame in their acceptance speeches,” says Michelle Benham, the documentary film festival’s marketing director.
She’s talking about restaurateur and Durham resident Giorgios Bakatsias, who is behind some of the Triangle’s most well-known eateries, including Parizade, Vin Rouge, and Bin 54. He has also been a Full Frame mainstay for twenty-two years, concocting not just yearly menus, but a vision for how he wants the festival participants eating his food to feel.
A big part of that vision is a large canvas pavilion—one of the first things you encounter, in fact, upon entering the festival—erected in the courtyard between The Carolina Theatre and Durham Convention Center. Here, filmmakers, attendees, Full Frame staff, and volunteers alike gather to eat. Bakatsias envisions it as a piazza or central square, like the ones in small Mediterranean towns where people can buy ingredients for dinner, catch up on local gossip, enjoy an afternoon snack, and even fall in love.
Dan Partridge, Full Frame production codirector, refers to the tent as the “heart of the festival, where everybody gathers when they’re not in the films.” Giorgio’s Hospitality Group also caters the opening-night soiree and the closing-day barbecue held at the awards banquet.
“We love setting up the food tent as a place where [people] can connect and discuss the various films,” Bakatsias says. “They are hungry for film and honest food. We have history that allows us to see the patterns, and we are always ready for growth through the years.”
Both the festival and the Bull City were very different in 1998, when Nancy Buirski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo editor at The New York Times and documentary filmmaker, founded Full Frame. Durham was on the cusp of explosive growth, and of becoming one of the top food cities in the South. Downtown was not yet the vibrant destination it would become.
In those first years, as the festival was building its reputation, the list of possible catering partners was limited. It was during this time that a small cadre of local purveyors of food and drink joined with Full Frame to provide the festival with food, beverages, and, when needed, venues for off-site entertaining. In addition to Bakatsias, other original members include Gugelhupf, Counter Culture, Fullsteam Brewery, and Saladelia. Two decades later, they are all still working with Full Frame, and as newer businesses like Loaf, Geer Street Garden, and Wine Authority have opened, they have also begun a particularly Durham-centric symbiotic partnership with the festival.
Although the festival occurs during four days in April, the work goes on year-round. The business of putting together a world-class documentary event includes educational programs, screenings, and fundraisers. As former production codirector Ted Mott describes, “It’s like being a wedding planner, but all the weddings for the whole year are on the same day.”
Since day one, Bakatsias and his famous grills for on-site cooking have attended the entire Full Frame four-day run. He serves a menu with an “abundance of variety, vegetarian, seafood, and meat,” including the crowd favorites of fresh grilled chicken souvlaki, grilled fish and salad, and the hand-made phyllo spanakopita. This year, he will be debuting slow-cooked local lamb. While he has employees he could send in his stead, his desire to be a presence springs from his beliefs about the relationship between art, community, and food.
“I love the engagement and interaction of locals and internationals to view the craftsmanship that people pour their hearts into,” he says. “Meeting so many people who have become great and lifelong friends. There are also so many great messages that come through people expressing their truth, and that’s sacred.”
One of those festival friends is filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
“Scorsese stayed overnight for dinner at Parizade,” Bakatsias says. “It was not a celebrity moment, but rather, a moment of truthful, heartfelt reverie.”
But Bakatsias’s favorite Full Frame memory brought him full circle in his profession and with his role models.
“When I was nineteen, I got a reservation alone at Le Cirque in New York City,” he recalls. “It was an exquisite moment when the owner was working the room in a theatrical way, like someone commanding an orchestra. Years later, he comes to Durham to do a short film on the family business. It was a surprising moment, because here we are, sitting together years later at Vin Rouge during Full Frame discussing our backgrounds. It truly brought to light the similarities and experiences of a soul journey.”