Full Frame Film Fest: Ross McElwee

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

The 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is already in full swing, bringing more than 100 films, discussions and panels to downtown Durham. The festival, now in its 15th year, kicked off last night with various Opening Night events, including the World Premiere of “Jesse Owens,” directed by Laurens Grant and co-produced by 2012 Full Frame Tribute honoree Stanley Nelson.

The festival runs through Sunday, and you can still get tickets to individual events if you’re willing to brave a line or two. Full Frame typically reserves 10 percent of tickets for purchase (cash only) in the Last Minute Line set up at each screening. For more details, visit www.fullframefest.org.

Among this year’s dozens of screenings, Full Frame is hosting the special “Family Affairs” Thematic Program, curated by filmmaker and North Carolina native Ross McElwee. The program features 10 films that “explore the delicate terrain along the fault line of family.” McElwee’s own films, including the award-winning 1987 classic “Sherman’s March,” are largely autobiographical and often deal with family matters.

Speaking from his adopted home in New England, McElwee discussed Full Frame, the hazards of social media and the importance of Southern hospitality.

Q: The series you’re curating, “Family Affairs,” deals with filmmakers who document their own families. In the program materials, you write that you have experience with this approach and that it tends to “complicate things considerably.”

(Laughs) Yes, that’s an understatement. The main complexity, with a truly autobiographical film that concerns one’s family, is suddenly there is another character in play – the person behind the camera. You get this sense of a very intimate connection between the person doing the filming and the people who are being filmed. It lends a whole other facet that has to be taken into consideration if you’re an audience member.

It’s good that not all nonfiction films are done this way, but I’m glad some of them are, and I’ve tried to collect a few of the more interesting ones for the program.

Q: You’ll also be screening your new film, “Photographic Memory,” which deals in part with social media as it relates to your relationship with your son. What are your feelings about these massive changes in communication technology over the past few years?

These forms of social media have become overwhelming for all of us, I think. And it’s not just managing your own life; it can be just paralyzing for young people. I do worry about that. It doubles the amount of monitoring one has to do. When you have kids, you’re also wondering about them and worrying about them. You find that he’s on Facebook so many hours a day, but is he actually also doing the other things he has to do to be a human being?

What I try to do in the film is look at it all in a very personal and focused way, in the relationship between my son and me, and the degree to which social media, and media in general, provide a bond but also a barrier between us. I suspect a lot of parents in the audience will be able to identify with being in this situation. It’s just a tsunami of an issue, I think.

Q: You grew up in Charlotte. Is it fun to come back home to Full Frame?

Oh, of course. I come back to see family often, and quite a lot of my films take me back, too – many of which have been shown at Full Frame. Of those, all have themes of North Carolina as home, as my heart.

Q: Filmmakers seem to have a genuine fondness for Full Frame. You’ve attended festivals all over the world. What is it that you like about Full Frame?

Southern hospitality, man. It’s the real thing down there. People are just so open and embracing, and this time of year, the whole area is just so beautiful. Filmmakers from around the U.S. – around the world, for that matter – stumble into this place and say this is special. And they come back. It’s not a mystery to me why people love Full Frame.

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