Sadie Tillery, Artistic Director, Takes Us Behind the Scenes of Full Frame

Durham is home to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place every spring over the course of four days. This international film festival began in 1998 and is a program of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Ilona Stanback, a Duke Arts CAST member, had a chance to sit down and talk with the artistic director of Full Frame to learn more about her and the festival.

Sadie Tillery is from Raleigh, North Carolina, and first came to Full Frame as an intern in 2004, when she was a junior at Hollins University. After graduating in 2005, she got a full-time job in the programming department and has been with the festival ever since.

Q&A with Sadie Tillery

Full Frame Festival 2017. Photo by Colin Huth.

Ilona Stanback: Did you always know you wanted to work with film?

Sadie Tillery: I have loved movies for as long as I can remember. I thought for a long time that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Over time, I developed a deep love for the process of exhibiting film and being a part of connecting filmmakers with audience members. I realized that was creative fulfillment in its own way, and I did not necessarily need to make movies of my own.

IS: What makes Full Frame unique?

ST: I think the intimacy and the focus that the festival provides for the documentary art form and the community contribute to its uniqueness. It is rare to go to a film festival where all of the venues are within a couple of city blocks. You organically run into other people, and filmmakers are connected with audience members within this festival setting with a specific artistic focus.

Courtesy of Full Frame.

IS: Can you explain your role as the artistic director at Full Frame?

ST: I am responsible for all film selection at the festival. We have our NEW DOCS competition program for new documentaries and we have an invited program for films screening out of competition. Both programs focus on films completed in the last two years. We have an open call for submissions, and this year we received about 1,700 entries for 60-70 spots. A big part of my job is the open call for entries and working with our selection committee. Each year we also present a Thematic Program, where a guest curator selects films around a particular topic or idea, and a Full Frame Tribute where we honor a filmmaker, or filmmakers, with a retrospective of their body of work.

IS: How do you select films?

ST: Our process is mostly based on discussion. Starting in the fall, a committee of 15 people and I begin reviewing the films. We come together and discuss our impressions and determine which films move forward in the process. This takes place over many months of review involving hard discussions about what films are going to be prioritized.

Full Frame Theater at American Tobacco Campus. Photo by Corey Adams.
Outdoor film showing in Durham Central Park.

IS: Are there years where certain themes and subjects come up in the different submissions?

ST: There are certainly themes that come up each year, and also themes that span many years, such as documentaries about families or personal matters. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a number of strong films about the refugee crisis. There are some topics that naturally draw a lot of work. Then there are also just trends within the documentary art form that pop up over the years.

IS: What are the requirements for entering a film?

ST: We accept films up to three hours in length, but we have shown films as short as three minutes. We pride ourselves on making space for films that are not traditional theatrical length. Part of what is really exciting about the programming process is having the opportunity to combine shorts and features to make a program for an audience. We pride ourselves in curating content so that a short film is communicating in some way with the feature film its paired with.

Tillery at the Q&A for 2018 Closing Night Film, America to Me. Photo by Colin Huth.

IS: What are your aspirations for the future of Full Frame?

ST: One challenge with Full Frame is that we continue to grow and reach new audiences, but we do not want to lose the intimate feel of the festival. There are creative ideas I have for Thematic Programs, Tributes, and people we would like to invite to come and be a part of the conversation. I would also like to continue to support artists and make the festival as filmmaker-friendly as possible.

IS: Do you ever think you will return to filmmaking?

ST: I think that I have found my place for now. There are many ways to be creative within the film industry without being the director or producer of the film—for instance, being a facilitator. I think that it is an art form that does not get a whole lot of recognition. It requires skill to describe and represent work in a way that engages people. It requires time, thought, and creativity to create an atmosphere where it is rewarding for artists to engage with one another. Being a facilitator has been immensely fulfilling for me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined.

“It requires time, thought, and creativity to create an atmosphere where it is rewarding for artists to engage with one another.”


Tillery speaking at the festival in 2013. Photo by Charlotte Claypoole.

IS: I imagine at times the content can be emotional and intense. How do you balance your work and taking care of yourself?

ST: I am a very emotional person, so a lot of the work is hard to see, hard to live with after, and hard to keep thinking about. However, I am interested in being a more thoughtful and aware human being, and documentary helps me do that. Documentary is helpful for keeping my eyes wide and trying to understand the people and world around me. Even when it is hard, it also feels essential.

Tillery during the Q&A for 2018 Opening Night Film, RBG. Photo by Colin Huth.

IS: Do people have the opportunity to engage in discussions with filmmakers and other attendees after viewing the films?

ST: If there is a filmmaker in attendance, there is at least a twenty minute Q & A. I think the most robust conversations take place in line for screenings or for food or even for the bathroom! There is this atmosphere of engaging with one another and asking a complete stranger for their thoughts. I love that about Full Frame. I think festivals in general create that culture.

IS: Do you have any advice for how to increase student involvement with Full Frame?

ST: I remember when I was a student how hard it was to get off campus, especially in the spring when things are tumbling towards final exams. Full Frame has a fellows program where university students from around the country attend and take part in screenings and private masterclasses onsite. We have discounted tickets for students and we also have free screenings on Friday and Saturday nights. Our closing night film on Sunday evening is also free.

IS: Can you talk about Full Frame’s association with Duke?

ST: It is unique. I think that being so close to a university enriches our audience and enriches the conversations that can take place. Filmmakers are often surprised by the audience engagement and discussion in a positive way. Durham is not New York or LA, but there is the Center for Documentary Studies, the Duke MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, the Southern Documentary Fund, and UNC TV. There is a rich filmmaking community here. Beyond the filmmakers themselves, there is a collection of people who are engaged in viewing and discussing this work.

IS: How have you changed and learned from working here and seeing all these documentaries?

ST: I had this idea that documentary was this narrated prescriptive, but there are so many different forms that filmmaking can take. It continues to be exciting to see the way that filmmakers stretch and expand those boundaries. There are places that in my early years with the organization we would never have anticipated the documentary form would go. Now filmmakers are experimenting with collaboration with some subjects, scripted elements, and all sorts of innovative tools for trying to reach truths that have not been considered previously.

Tillery moderating a post-screening Q&A for May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Photo by Charlotte McKinney.

Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019) is majoring in Psychology and working toward a certificate in Documentary Studies. She plans to work with victims of human trafficking and hopes to incorporate her passion for documentary photography by sharing the stories of the individuals affected by this issue. Ilona is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).