Full Frame Documentary Festival organizers announced yesterday morning that the event will return to downtown Durham April 4-7, 2024.

“By the time we get to Full Frame in 2024, it will have been five years since we last held an in-person festival,” festival co-director Emily Foster said in the press release. “Returning to the physical landscape is a big milestone for Durham and the documentary community.”

The celebrated documentary festival was held virtually between 2020-2022 due to the pandemic. It was unexpectedly put on pause this past spring amid upheaval at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). The documentary arts center has organized the event since 1998; this year, it will produce the festival in partnership with Duke Venue and Production Management (VPM), the events and operations branch of the university. 

Foster will co-direct the festival alongside longtime director Sadie Tillery, who had stepped down from her role earlier this year but agreed to come back.

“I believe in Full Frame,” Tillery wrote over email to the INDY, in response to a question about her decision to return. “With Duke University’s support of the festival and the new partnership between the Center for Documentary Studies and VPM, I am confident in Full Frame’s return in 2024.”

Institutional uncertainty

News of the festival’s revival comes just a day after Duke leadership sent an email to CDS faculty and staff announcing that director Opeyemi Olukemi had submitted her resignation and that Duke had accepted it.

Ed Balleisen, Duke’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, is temporarily filling the role of the center’s director.

Olukemi, who previously served as the senior director of interactive programs at the Tribeca Film Institute, had come on staff at CDS in September 2021—a fraught time to begin a leadership role at any institution, to be sure, but as The Assembly reported earlier this year, her tenure quickly became unusually fraught as center staff shrunk from 45 to 15 and the bulk of programs, including the festival, were put on indefinite hiatus against the backdrop of an eight-figure quasi-endowment. 

Following the Assembly’s reporting, CDS leadership held a meeting in March at which Olukemi outlined what she described as a budget crisis that, according to her, pre-dated her tenure and required a dramatic institutional overhaul as well as a shift from the documentary arts to “applicable media.” At that meeting, seven staff members were laid off, and one—Sadie Tillery, who had served as festival director since 2008—resigned. 

This broad slate of changes alarmed many CDS faculty and alumni, who worried that the future of CDS hung in the balance and that Full Frame might end entirely. In late March, a petition in support of the festival circulated, accruing over 1,600 signatures.

“We worry that layoffs of Full Frame staff—and the possibility of further resignations—will cause so much institutional knowledge to be lost that soon it will become impossible to revive the festival,” the petition read. “We hope that Duke and the leadership at the Center for Documentary Studies will take to heart their roles as stewards of this important and unique festival and will work aggressively to get it back on track for next year.”

This upheaval has occurred alongside the restructuring of other Duke institutions: In August, John V. Brown, vice provost for the arts, announced that Duke Performances was rebranding as Duke Arts Presents, a subset of Duke Arts, going forward.

“This new identity will better align our current programs, operations and initiatives with the academic mission of the University,” Brown wrote in a letter posted on the Duke Arts website. The organization has seen a number of staff exits since Brown’s appointment, but the letter did not contain specifics about the reason for the massive rebranding. 

A boon for the city

The festival’s 2024 presence will mean an uptick in downtown foot traffic, which has suffered not only since the start of the pandemic but since other local festivals like the Art of Cool and Moogfest have dried up or moved on.

“It’s part of the bones of Durham,” Discover Durham CEO Susan Amey says of Full Frame. “Festivals are part of the quality of life of any city and this one has always been one of the major festivals for Durham. Frankly, festivals have been slow to return after the pandemic, so we couldn’t be more pleased.” 

“I am proud of the documentaries Full Frame has screened online in recent years, but nothing compares to seeing a film illuminate the darkness of a crowded movie theater,” Tillery told the INDY, adding that organizers were working with VPM to address the staffing deficit. “We always seek to highlight space between the movies and the people watching them and to foster a great festival-going experience. I am excited to shape opportunities for dialogue and meaningful exchange in downtown Durham.”  

Full Frame is the biggest community-facing program of CDS, so its return doesn’t answer every lingering question about the future of of the documentary program, and the festival’s footprint has also quietly downsized. (Full Frame no longer has a lease at the American Tobacco Campus, for instance.)

Nevertheless, that return is an overwhelmingly welcome one: Full Frame, an Oscar-qualifying event, has regularly drawn tens of thousands of documentary lovers from across the globe, marking Durham as a space for the documentary and experimental arts.

In one Durham neighborhood, neighbors have taken to holding “Frame Half Full,” a series of backyard documentary screenings, in recent years. The series began during the pandemic, the brainchild of residents Cathy Saylor and Marc Maximov (a former CDS staffer), but continued on, filling a Full Frame-shaped hole in the hearts of local documentary lovers. Recent screenings have included The Truffle Hunters and The Melt Goes on Forever.

“I’m just delighted [it’s back],” says Florence Nash, who hosts the “Frame Half Full” screenings and has attended more than a dozen Full Frame festivals in her own right.

“Durham has such a banquet of cultural resources—we’ve got Full Frame, we’ve got the American Dance Festival, we’ve got all these writers and artists.”

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

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