In the annals of documentary filmmaking, the names Vivan Bowman Edwards, Annie Howell, Brett Ingram and Sandra Jacobi might not jump out at you. But all that that may change after this weekend’s DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, when films by these four Triangle residents show on the same big screen as films by documentary legends Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and D.A. Pennebaker. Widely varying in style and scope, this crop of local films makes a convincing case that the Triangle is home not only to a great documentary festival, but also to a growing community of talented documentarians.
Cary resident Vivian Bowman Edwards’ film, Searching, tells the story of the friendship between the director’s husband, Steven, and his high-school friend, Art Chaney, who was listed as missing in action in Vietnam in 1968. Presumably shot down while flying a helicopter mission, neither Chaney’s body nor his dog tags were ever found, leaving Chaney’s family and friends to wonder if there was a possibility he was still alive, as a POW. As the years passed and letters from government officials, from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter, gradually extinguished the hope of Chaney’s return, Steven clung to the memory of their friendship.
Telling the story powerfully and simply, Bowman Edwards illuminates the grief, loss and hope behind one of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial’s wall. “This is a story of Vietnam, but it’s one man’s story,” she says. “And when you look at it, you can see a lot of stories, and how one little person fits into a huge picture. I think we can learn as much from the history of one person as we can from presidents or leaders.”
Bowman Edwards made Searching, her very first film, as a final project for a continuing education class she took at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies last year. Put together with a digital camcorder and a home VCR, the 13-minute piece–which her instuctor urged her to submit to DoubleTake after screening it for her class–has awakened a latent interest in filmmaking for Bowman Edwards. “As I got older I realized that I wished I’d gone to film school or something like that,” she says. “But there aren’t a lot of places to go and learn and still stay in the Triangle.” When the Center for Documentary Studies started offering classes, she saw it as a golden opportunity.
In addition to her lifelong interest in films, the digital video revolution has also played a key role in Bowman Edwards’ movement into documentary filmmaking. Since making Searching, she has purchased a home computer and Apple’s iMovie editing software, and is starting a piece about an old-fashioned air circus based in St. Augustine, Fla. “I’m not a technical person. I haven’t even learned all of the things my camera will do yet,” she says, laughing. “But anybody can make documentaries now. If you have a camcorder and a VCR, you can do this.”
Durham filmmaker Brett Ingram, whose short film Panic Attack shows how a man with panic anxiety disorder copes with everyday living, is no stranger to DoubleTake. He was the festival’s technical coordinator in 1999, overseeing the projection of the films. It was a job that he says helped push him to take risks with his own film projects. “It inspired me, seeing all these great films that you never see on television or in the theater,” he says. “I felt like I had these crazy ideas to make a film look like this or that, and my internal censor told me, “Who’s going to watch that? There’s nothing else out there like that.’ Then you go to the festival and you see all this great stuff, made by people who are taking creative chances, and it inspires you to push your own envelope as a filmmaker.”
Panic Attack integrates highly stylized visual effects, like time-lapse photography and stop-motion animation, to portray the anxieties felt by the film’s narrator, former North Carolina resident Reade Whinnem. Ingram spent several years making animated films, and with Panic Attack, he has found a way to combine some of the techniques of animation with his first love, documentary.
“Stop-motion animation is a medium that’s best used to express things that are other-worldly,” he says. “Trying to express what it’s like to have a panic attack or any sort of emotional disturbance is pretty other-worldly. It’s inside somebody else’s head, there’s no way to experience it. So using some techniques like time-lapse and stop-motion gives you a broader palette to express things that aren’t visible on the outside.”
Appearing in DoubleTake has led to Ingram finding a distributor for the film, Fanlight Productions of Boston. The company, which specializes in distributing films about health care, mental health and disabilities, was interested in Panic Attack based solely on the synopsis in the DoubleTake program. “It means a lot to me because it’s a short film, and something that’s not made in a way that would work on broadcast TV,” Ingram says. “So this is a way that it can reach an audience and, hopefully, help educate people about panic anxiety disorder.”
Ingram is now working on a feature-length documentary called Monster Road, about Seattle animator Bruce Bickford. He hopes to screen it as a work-in-progress at next year’s festival.
Annie Howell, though not officially a Triangle resident, is living in Durham this year while teaching a documentary video class at Duke. Her short film, dolly, made as a student project at New York University, examines the workings of a “doll hospital” in New York City.
As the film explains, a doll hospital is a place where people take their broken childhood playthings to be repaired and revived. The proprietor, Irving, and a small staff of doll “doctors” work among the thousands of doll’s heads, arms and legs crammed into the tiny workshop. Their bills for surgery rival those you’d find in a traditional hospital. Irving and the staff take great pride in their workmanship and attention to detail, boasting that they can make any doll sparkle and shine as brightly as in one’s childhood memory–as long as you’re willing to pay the price.
“What I thought was so interesting was the monetary value we place on nostalgic objects,” says Howell. “I’m also attracted to things, situations, or people that defy our expectations. For instance, pairing those men who work at the hospital with the doll parts hanging all over the place was fascinating.”
Howell is currently making a short documentary about an elderly Chapel Hill woman, which she plans to complete this summer. She is also writing a feature-length screenplay.
Martha Heine, Tapestry Weaver is Durham filmmaker Sandra Jacobi’s portrait of the Durham artist whose distinctive weavings can be seen at the Durham Arts Council, Duke Hospital, and many other venues. The nine-minute film explores the philosophy behind Heine’s art, and chronicles the weaving of her last large tapestry. Using expressive close-ups, the rhythmic sounds of the weaving process and vivid details of the weaver’s rich, complex tapestries, it’s a celebration of the artistic spirit and the quiet determination of the artist who, as she says, “always finds bright spots in the dark.”
Martha Heine, Tapestry Weaver will be shown on Friday, May 4, at 9 a.m. in Cinema One of the Carolina Theatre. Searching will screen on Friday, May 4, at 11:30 a.m. at the Durham Arts Council. Panic Attack will be shown on Saturday, May 5, at 3:45 p.m. in Cinema One of the Carolina Theatre. Dolly will screen on Saturday, May 5, at 7 p.m. in Cinema Two of the Carolina Theatre.