Last weekend’s 11th running of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will be remembered as a watershed festival. Literally, for the rain came down and down and down (like the three-point shots, pull-up jumpers and dunks that drenched the UNC men’s basketball team Saturday night). By the end of the weekend, however, the sky had cleared somewhat, Falls Lake was above capacity and the annual gift to Durham that is this festival had logged record ticket sales.

It was also a turning point for the festival leadership. Not a few observers were concerned about the lower profile of the festival’s charismatic and energetic founder, Nancy Buirski, who stepped down as festival director last December. Buirski was present, to be sureshe curated a sidebar of three films, including the intoxicating Cuban music doc La Tropical, which drew a near-capacity crowd for its late-night screening. But any fears that the festival’s energy would suffer from her lower profile were quickly and firmly allayed by her successor, longtime staffer Robyn Yigit Smith, who stepped comfortably into the spotlight and became the new face of the festival.

And with that exposure comes responsibilitywhile Smith had the pleasant task of giving a rousing introduction to James Marsh’s sensational, Audience Award-winning Man on Wire, she also had the disagreeable duty of placating a disappointed crowd that packed Fletcher Hall for a screening of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. A few minutes into the film, the images became corrupted, with frequent outbreaks of pixilation. After a couple of attempts to repair the problem, Smith offered vouchers to those who wanted to leave. (According to several sources, the tape had arrived at the festival that morning and, despite the short turnaround, workers were able to check the tapeall films are vetted in advancebut failed to locate the damage.)

Fortunately, the Herzog glitch was an isolated technical problem. Filmmakers were particularly appreciative of a powerful new 18,000-lumens projector, installed in Fletcher Hall, that was capable of delivering high-definition videoand indeed, films such as Full Battle Rattle, Man on Wire, The Black List and The Fight looked gorgeous on that screen.

Perhaps because this year saw fewer documentary stars in attendance (while Michael Moore is between films right now, Morgan Spurlock and his Where in the World is Osama bin Laden was a notable absence), it became more clear than ever that the festival is a boon to the legions of fine, lower-profile filmmakers from New York and points beyond. I spoke with an editor from Seattle who was attending the festival simply to keep up with the films and network with her colleagues. And, once, while standing in a line with a New York filmmaker, another New Yorker approached him with a hug and greeting. She then turned to me and pointed out that New York doc makers have a better chance of catching up in Durham than in their hometown.

One attraction of the festival over other top fests is that it’s a cheap, quick flight from New York. However, one wishes that the festival could find a way to house the filmmakers in a Durham hotel; instead, most of the doc makers were housed in an RTP hotel near the airport. It was comfortable, to be sure: At a private after-party Friday night, filmmakers knocked back drinks, swapped war stories and sat near the blazing fire or around the piano. But they also could have been anywhere, rather than in Durham.

Outside of the festival’s attractions, however, is another reason for Europeans to come, as I discovered Sunday afternoon. I encountered a delegation of them as they departed for Southpoint mall. Their destination? The Apple storewhere they planned to buy iPhones, which are much cheaper here than in Europe.

Finally, Peg Palmer, the festival’s new executive director, can only be pleased by the success of the weekend. She was spotted often, with a smile and a clipboard, but rarely heard. She must have made an impression: On Friday, April 4, Gov. Mike Easley’s office announced her appointment to the North Carolina Film Council. David Fellerath

After months of sometimes frantic planning against a backdrop of administrative upheaval, Full Frame attendance tallies for the four-day event were, frankly, nothing short of astounding. The final numbers, released Tuesday, told the Independent Tuesday that 28,965 tickets were sold or issued. This surpasses last year’s record total of 26,895 and comes despite a number of potential obstacles, including Full Frame’s organizational changes, a marked decreased in the number of films on the schedule (92, the fewest since 2003), the persistent rain, and Saturday evening’s Final Four basketball contests. (The festival, which also perennially occurs near Easter and the Duke alumni weekend, among other events, will run next year April 2-5, and will again coincide with the Final Four.)

The increase in the ticket tally is a welcome byproduct of the shift toward screening venues with larger seating capacities. Indeed, the number of venues actually shrank by one with the consolidation of last year’s dual 475-seat Durham Civil Center theaters into one 700-seat venue. The cavernous, 1,100-seat Weaver Auditorium on the Durham School of the Arts’ campus replaced the 350-seat makeshift theater once erected in Bay 7 of the American Tobacco Campus. The total capacity for all venues increased from 2007 by roughly 550 seats. Consequently, the per-screening average attendancewhich remained stagnant at approximately 215 over the past two festivalsskyrocketed to 315.

Quibbles with the fest? There was a seeming absence of non-filmmaker subjects, who have always been a mainstay during past festivals. However, festival director Smith points to seven docs this year for which the film’s subjects did attend. Perhaps the fault lies with producers deciding that Full Frame is less worthy of their finite travel and lodging budgets. Still, there are a number of docs that seemed tailor-made for attendance by their subjects who did not appear, including The Order of Myths, American Teen, Body of War, Surfwise and In a Dream. Neil Morris

After four days of rapturous, gluttonous cinephilia, Full Frame’s hard core headed to Sunday evening’s screenings to bask in the final photons of the 2008 festival. Capping it off was A Promise to the Dead, by returning director Peter Raymont (who brought Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire in 2005). The film screened last year as a work in progress, in which the audience is invited to critique unfinished projects. The now fully formed result, chronicling the latitudinal migrations of the Chilean-American writer, activist and Duke professor Ariel Dorfman, played to an appreciative audience of several hundred at the Civic Center.

A Promise to the Dead focuses on Dorfman’s complex relationship with his homeland and the improbable journey that brought him to Durham. He’d worked for the leftist government of Salvador Allende, and went into exile after 1973’s U.S.-backed military coup. In the film, Dorfman retraces his steps on the fateful morning in Santiago when the murderous General Pinochet took power. He was fortunate to escape with his life, and made a promise to tell the story of those who weren’t so lucky. It’s a powerful themebearing witness for the less fortunatethat could just as well describe much of the purpose of the festival. It’s Durham’s great fortune to be the venue, once a year, for so many such vital, exceptional stories. Marc Maximov

One of the pleasures of Full Frame is the way it invites audiences to fall in love with the real people on the screen. While not all good documentaries are character-driven, many of them are, and in conversations overheard throughout the weekend, moviegoers often marveled at the incredible lives seen on screen.

So, in the spirit of the all-Final Four basketball team, and because we are fans of docs and basketball, we have come up with an all-Full Frame team, composed of the most compelling, charismatic and/or heroic documentary subjects that we could agree on. They are: Carlos and Armando (Calavera Highway); Stig-Anders (The Horseman); Cheng Cheng (Please Vote for Me); Kimberly Roberts (Trouble the Water); Shannon Morgan (Lioness); Philippe Petit (Man on Wire); Salim Baba (Salim Baba); Maira Medina (La Corona); and the Rev. Al Sharpton (The Black List).

And, on a sad note, mention should be made of Angela Valoyes, the winner of the Colombian prison beauty pageant depicted in La Corona: A year after her release from prisonan event that closes the film in haunting fashionshe was killed, apparently unable to escape the harsh conditions of her life. If nothing else, this is a reminder that the superstars of Full Frame are real human beings. But the fact that the real-life subjects can also seem like movie characters is a good part of the magic of many successful documentaries. David Fellerath