See also: Ten years after | Friend or Coe? | Of time and Charleen | Strange fruit | Capsule reviews

“When I think of spring in Durham, I think of gorgeous weather, lots of pollen, and Full Frame.” filmmaker Cynthia Hill

Marking its 10th anniversary, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is more than a diamond in the rough. Sure, it is the largest film festival in the United States devoted solely to documentaries. It is the Triangle’s preeminent arts and entertainment event. But, perhaps more significantly, the festival has contributed to and benefited from the overall ascendancy of documentary filmmaking. Many of the films shown at Full Frame over the past nine years are like historical time stamps chronicling our collective zeitgeist, from 9/11 to the Iraq War to Katrina and beyond.

Operating under its original DoubleTake moniker, the festival raised its curtain in 1998 for approximately 45 films seen by 1,000 patrons. During the ensuing years, the turnstiles turned more frequently and the size of its schedule increased. But, even as the festival’s profile grew, questions persisted about its long-term viability in a medium-size market. For years, speculation swirled about the festival’s imminent departure, possibly for New York City, a rumor seemingly substantiated once The New York Times signed on as the festival’s principal sponsor.

A change in sponsorship also brought about a change in name and approach, and Full Frame’s size and cachet grew exponentially. For two years, Entertainment Weekly listed the festival in its annual “It” issue. Luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Moore, Jonathan Demme, Sydney Pollack, Al Franken, Danny DeVito, Richard Leacock, Harry Shearer and Ken and Ric Burns darkened the halls of Durham’s Carolina Theatre. Last year, over 20,000 tickets were sold to see more than 110 films.

Nancy Buirski, Full Frame’s founder and now its CEO and artistic director, looks back at the past decade with a mix of pride and gratitude. “The most exciting thing is that we’re still here and we’re doing as well as we are. That says a lot about our community and the people who love documentaries and an event like this where they can come together to talk about issues that are central to their lives.”

This year’s program includes the usual panoply of films in competition, special programming and industry-centric panels and workshops. Foremost amid the schedule is the Power of Ten curated program, in which 10 acclaimed artists who have contributed to Full Frame’s success were asked to select one film that has significantly influenced them. Each of the films will screen at this year’s festival and all the special curators will be on-hand to present their particular selection, including directors Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) and Michael Moore.

Indeed, Moore, who attended the 2004 festival, will participate in no less than four events. Along with presenting his Power of Ten choice, Kazuo Hara’s World War II atrocity film The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Moore will attend a screening of his acclaimed film Roger & Me and a panel discussion involving all the Power of Ten curators, as well as help honor this year’s Career Award recipient, filmmaker Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves, Sherman’s March, both to be screened this weekend).

Also attending the festival will be infamous publisher and First Amendment crusader Larry Flynt in conjunction with one of the annual Center Frame programs, the world premiere of Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone. This film is but one example of this year’s diverse schedule. Indeed, more than half of the record 83 docs in competition are set outside the borders of the United States and address topics as wide-ranging as African genocide, crime and poverty in Latin America and even a Catalonian human pyramid troupe in Thursday’s opening night film, Castells.

Buirski sees this breadth as an offshoot of the overall growth of documentary filmmaking. “We’re seeing an ascendancy of documentaries in which people see it as another form of entertainmentan elucidating form of entertainment but entertainment nonethelessthat they expect to see it in the multiplex or the arthouse and not just on television. And, there are other platforms, too; they can download them and even put them on their iPod. Very little of that existed when we started Full Frame in 1998. It’s a very exciting time for documentary filmmakers.”

Even still, not everyone shares this same excitement, even one of the genre’s youngest and most recently acclaimed practitioners, director Jason Kohn, who comes to town with Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), a tale of Brazilian corruption and kidnapping shot in widescreen Cinemascope that swept the Documentary Grand Jury and Audience prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A recent appearance at an event in Los Angeles summed up his frustrations. “For the better part of the day I was hearing, ‘Your movie will be distributed through the Internet on tiny little screens and it doesn’t matter what you think,’” says Kohn, an Errol Morris protégé. “It was so detached from the motivation or process of making films. It was just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to make money selling movies through the Internet.

“Right now, I have no ambition whatsoever to make another documentary. The truth is that it’s too hard to make a documentary the way I want to. You have to be among the top half-dozen filmmakers in the world, like Errol Morris or Michael Moore, for example, to be able to consistently get budgets to make documentaries that look and feel like real movies.

“All the documentaries I love were all shot on film, like The Last Waltz, the old Pennebaker films and Frederick Wiseman,” adds Kohn, who sees quality slipping with the democratization of the medium.

Indeed, many see Full Frame itself as part of the solution to such legitimate, meta-industry travails. The newly created Full Frame Institute is part of a growing emphasis on year-round curated programs and mentorships. “My relationship with Full Frame has been long and rewarding, and I feel that my involvement in the festival has paralleled and contributed to my growth as a filmmaker,” says director Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA), whose new film Coma will have its world premiere at this year’s festival. “Everyone who goes to Full Frame knows what they are going forto see some great movies and to reconnect with the documentary community.”

Perhaps Marco Williams (Two Towns of Jasper), whose latest film Banished is part of the this year’s Southern Sidebar curated program, says it best: “What many filmmakers especially appreciate about Full Frame is its intimacy and the absence of a market. The festival celebrates documentary making, not the business of documentary making.”