Celebrating and Unifying through Documentary Films

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Full Frame is committed to encouraging a robust discussion and ensuring a safe and open forum for an international community of filmmakers, participants and audiences. The festival condemns harassment, discrimination, sexism and other forms of disrespectful behavior.

The Durham-based event is returning this April 4-7 after it was held virtually from 2020 to 2022 during the pandemic. Passes and ticket packages are now on sale.

What to Expect

As always, Full Frame brings together world-class documentary filmmakers with audiences hungry for fresh perspectives. One of the great moments at this year’s event was a tribute to director Steve James and his landmark film Hoop Dreams, whose staying power exemplifies the kind of stories that documentary can tell.

Another example is the film Robert, Mary & Katrina, in which a Dutch couple speaks directly to the camera about their personal experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina. In a time when so much of our media is overheated and divisive, Full Frame reminds us that documentary can be a unifying force.

Sadie Tillery and Emily Foster, the festival’s associate interim director and marketing director, respectively, sat down with me to talk about this year’s films and what’s happening at Full Frame in general. The festival will be on hiatus in 2023, but organizers are taking this opportunity to evaluate the program and plan for the future.

Feature Films

Full Frame showcases more than 100 films over the course of four days and offers a range of screening options. Films in competition are eligible for juried awards offering a total prize package of $55,000. The festival also presents curated thematic programs and hosts panels.

Some of the featured films have strong local ties to North Carolina. “Stay Prayed Up” follows gospel singer Lena Mae Perry, an original member of the group the Branchettes, as she records a new album. The movie travels to Newton Grove, Durham and Raleigh. Another feature film takes the audience to Princeville, an African American community in rural eastern North Carolina.

One of the broader themes this year is how we’re shaped by history. Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army looks at the current work of public defenders in Georgia, many of whom are still overwhelmed by an unfair system that pays lip service to the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Short Films

Full Frame is one of the world’s premiere showcases for nonfiction cinema. Dedicated to supporting the documentary form and its community, it fosters conversation among filmmakers, film professionals and a diverse audience each spring. This Academy Award(r)-qualifying event is renowned for its curation, offering an international mix of new films and established classics.

Filmmakers and attendees connect in formal conversations, but also interact organically over the course of four days. Some of these interactions lead to future collaborations, such as the feature RBG about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which won Full Frame’s top prize and went on to win an Oscar.

Despite being a small festival, Full Frame’s intimate landscape makes it unique in the world of film festivals. It takes place in a few downtown blocks, with the Carolina Theatre at the center and additional venues like the American Tobacco Campus and Durham Central Park hosting screenings. It’s a setting that filmmakers appreciate, says Foster.


Full Frame brings together filmmakers and audiences in a community that’s as diverse as the world of nonfiction film. The festival is fun, accessible and welcoming, qualities that reflect Durham itself, says Emily Foster, co-director of the event and a documentary professor at Muhlenberg College.

One of the highlights this year was a tribute to Hoop Dreams, a film that continues to resonate two decades later. That’s a sign of the power and longevity of this genre, which is thriving at this moment.

This year’s festival included a powerful film about child soldiers in Africa, as well as a poignant piece about the US legal system. Another standout was Dawn Porter’s portrait of a group of public defenders in Georgia, who face an extraordinary overload of cases while still trying to honor the 1963 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. These films and others address a broad array of topics, including issues of race, class, gender, politics and the environment.

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