The DocuTime Film Festival returns to celebrate its 14th anniversary, curated by Paula Haller and presented by UNCW and WHQR, this Saturday. Haller has curated docs following everything from cowboys on the frontier, to woes of indigenous cacao farmers, to the frightening world of photojournalists in Afghanistan.
“I literally search the world,” Haller says in researching documentaries appropriate for DocuTime. She doesn’t choose films shown at other film festivals, nor ones already picked up for distribution.
“I start from scratch,” she continues. “I’m trying to get independent [films] . . . they’re not big theatrical films, and so I get a chance to do other films that people wouldn’t normally see.”
Originally from Los Angeles, and a founding member of International Documentary Association, Haller’s work in Wilmington began in 2001. She moved DocuTime from the West to the East Coast.
“There’s an art to programming,” she says. “I have to balance a poignant film or dramtic film [with] a comedic film [to] give the audience a bit of heaviness and lightness.”
For instance, Haller curated a Chinese short film, “Fairy Tales,” for 2016’s event. The lighthearted rags-to-riches story covers a working class girl turned celebrity, who is discovered by a social media site. Yet, Haller blocked it with heavier content, too, as seen in “Frame by Frame”—which follows Afghan photojournalists maneuvering media in search of the truth.
“We have a window to look at people who are like ourselves—we never see that in the media,” Haller tells of the film. “I always think of Afghanistan with tribes and terrorists and all of that. Here, I see they’re people just like us, and I thought how wonderful it is for people to see that.”
Haller has added an Oscar shortlisted doc, “Last of Freedom,” to the roster, plus, she’s zeroed in on iconic indie rockers Big Star. The documentary will send out DocuTime on a high note. “I wanted something musical and light to end the festival,” she says.
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” will screen at 5:05 p.m. on Saturday. We interviewed its director, Drew DeNicola, on bringing the doc and their timeless music to the big screen. Here is how the interview unfolded…
encore (e): How did you discover Big Star, and was it a band you were immediately in to?
Drew DeNicola (DD): The way it was introduced to me was in college as a radio DJ, and I heard the third record and the sound of a band falling apart. This guy was all messed up on drugs when he did [“Third/Sister Lovers”], and it was super cool to me when I was 18 years old. There was a whole cult following, like the Grateful Dead—but not like the Grateful Dead because no one who listened to Big Star ever saw Big Star play, or knew the band as people. They were appreciated posthumously, and that’s kind of the idea of the movie: being in love with music that is gone, and really filling in the blanks because most people didn’t know anything about them.
e: Why did you want to make this doc?
DD: I knew people out there that were probably like me, who had heard the records, and heard stories about them, and we couldn’t find out if any of it was true. So that was definitely a big part of it.
e: Out of all the stories revealed in the film, is there one that resonates most with you?
DD: Beyond it being an exposé of excess, the great thing about the movie and these people is how talented they were and sincere about their musicmaking—and uncompromising because they didn’t have any audience to play for, so the music was really good. Stories really did create the music and that music really did come out of pain and confusion and difficulties these guys were going through in Memphis.
e: What might be the message for people who aren’t familiar with Big Star?
DD: I think there’s power in being an outsider and being uncompromising. Big Star didn’t even have notions of being popular. I think they [wanted it for] a second, but that’s what’s fun about this band. It’s very hip to be an outsider in the ‘90s, in the 2000s and now, but back then the only option was to be a star.
When they were making the music, they really were making it for themselves, and you can hear that. A lot of music now is made to please people, and it doesn’t really last that long because it’s not really the artist finding their true selves in their music. It’s disposable, it’s good and enjoyable, but I still listen to Big Star records and they still hold. They’re timeless.
e: What was the most difficult aspect of creating this film?
DD: Getting people to talk and come out of their shells. The people who live in Memphis, who were a part of that world, still felt part of that pain. I mean, it was a family there at Ardent Studios [where Big Star recorded].
I think people were very emotional when they were talking about the band—and talking about the time—and we picked up on that. We wanted to capture the time, too, because a lot of the members of the band were dead. We found other characters, people who knew them, and we became close with them, and their stories figured in as well.
e: Did you make the doc with the hope that musicians would learn from Big Star?
DD: Yeah, I don’t want be that person, but I definitely feel that way. I don’t listen to a lot of new music anymore. Again, I feel people are trying to make pop music, and they’re not following their own passions.
There has become a whole world of marginal music, but Big Star was one of the first bands, sitting there, waiting for more people to join that ethos of not really trying to conform. I think that’s a valuable lesson.
e: What response have you received from the film?
DD: It was way bigger than I would have thought. I knew we would have every Big Star fan but that was kind of understood being the audience. I really wanted to push the movie beyond that: have a story my mom could enjoy and make it more universal.
e: What was the response from Big Star’s one surviving member, Jody Stephens?
DD: Yeah, he loved it. Jody’s a really sweet guy. Jody continued to be in the music business in all kinds of capacities. He’s been enjoying his cult status before the movie, but even more now since the movie came out. [He’s been] playing with all these people who have been influenced by his band—Wilco, R.E.M., and the list goes on. I think he does carry the Big Star legacy with him.
e: Do you think you were able to put your personal style of directing on “Big Star”?
DD: I do, actually. That was important to me because it was my first film. I needed to show what I want to do with documentaries. Basically, it was to have fully formed characters and have departures from the story. So, with our film, if I wanted to talk about Memphis, Jim Dickinson or William Eggeleston, I found ways to sort of weave it in. I wanted to make a film that had a little more resonance. . . .
[For instance,] looking at [producer] John Fry at Ardent Studios listening to Big Star, I saw him emotional for the first time. It is a real moment. I really wanted to have it at the end of the film, so the only reason it works is because we told you so much, and it says it all when you see him smile sheepishly at his achievement. I was glad to connect that story back to him; he was really the reason the band existed