WILMINGTON — DocuTime Film Festival has been a one-day celebration of the documentary art form since Paula Haller began the tradition locally in 2003. Though in normal years the festival screens upward of a dozen flicks — a mixture of shorts and features, Oscar nominees, foreign and animated films, among others — the novel coronavirus is changing things a bit in 2021. DocuTime will screen one feature, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” and two shorts, including a Peruvian film, “And That is How the Rivers Came to Be,” this Saturday, Jan. 30.
Originally coined “DocuFest Wilmington,” Haller brought the festival east after moving from L.A. where she programmed the festival for the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles. She found a partner in WHQR to present carefully curated documentaries that circumnavigate the globe and highlight eclectic content. At first the festival was based in Screen Gems Studios before moving six years later to UNCW’s campus in King Hall Auditorium, where it has lived ever since.
With the pandemic putting a halt to mass gatherings, especially in movie-theater settings, Haller began thinking of ways to adapt the festival rather than skipping a year.
“[We] were inspired by Curbside Cinema, and it all grew from there,” Haller said. “We didn’t want to miss a year of DocuTime.”
Curbside Cinema — a drive-in “theater” — has been run by Cucalorus Film Festival in the parking lot of UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium since the summer of 2020. Cars load into the lot and sound runs through the radio, as folks watch movies on the pop-up big screen. The format, according to Haller, really suits one feature and two shorts over a few hours — a truncated version of DocuTime that normally takes place all day.
“Documentary filmmakers have to make adaptations all the time,” Haller said of altering the festival. “Be decisive and quick — that’s what I did here.”
Haller chose “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” — directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman — because of its strong story about a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. Not to mention, it also features award-winning music and is an uplifting story — something especially needed in a time when so many are struggling from the aftereffects of the pandemic.
“Linda’s courage was clear during the outset of her career as the first female rock star, and in the end of her career as she accepted and dealt with Parkinson’s with grace,” Haller said. “Her glorious, amazing voice sustains the storyline.”
A former San Franciscan, Haller admitted attending quite a few concerts 40 or so years ago, including that of Ronstadt in her heyday. Though most of the time, the film enthusiast was traveling abroad to follow her love for moviemaking.
She specializes in cinema that explores people and culture, specifically in China, Japan, Soviet Union, Mexico and Korea. It was when Haller attended UC Berkeley as a grad student that she became inspired after viewing NBC’s “Tut The Boy King,” narrated by Orson Welles.
“As he narrated, walking through the gallery of the splendid art objects, I was hooked,” Haller said.
Haller took a job at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, a life-changing experience she said led her to making docs about Asian arts and culture. Her first film, “Discovering the Art of Korea,” was centered on an exhibition from the museum and picked up by PBS.
In 1983, Haller produced and directed “Four Americans in China,” which followed four professionals living and working in the people’s republic. Fluent in Mandarin, Haller negotiated with the Chinese government permission to film in their country. The doc ended up being sold to National Geographic.
Haller went on to work with Disney Educational Productions, creating three films in the “Children of…” series (featuring children of Mexico, Japan and Soviet Union) and racked up quite a few memorable stories along the way.
“When I was shooting for Disney, ‘Children of the Soviet Union’ in St. Petersburg in the late 1980s, in the midst of shooting a Russian tea party, full of loud music and laughter, there was a loud knock on the door,” Haller recalled. “My host opened the door, and there stood two tall men in black leather trench coats. I missed many heartbeats afraid they’d confiscate my equipment. Disney and the film subject was magical — they left and my heartbeat came back.”
Haller’s vivacious spirit is infused into every DocuTime, especially in presentation; annually, Haller dresses up to launch each film. When DocuTime screened “Being Elmo,” she carried a big Elmo stuffed animal to introduce it. Another time she wore a long wedding veil and crown to present a doc about the marriage of a young Afghan woman living in Syrian.
“For a Sottish doc, I had a bag piper playing in front of me as I came down aisle dressed in crazy plaids,” Haller said.
Her interactions with volunteers and the crowd may not be in full force on Saturday — something she admitted missing this year — but Haller will still play dress up. What she’ll don has yet to be determined.
“Most of my ideas come last minute,” Haller said. “That’s just the way it is.”
However, curating the film festival is a longer work-in-progress. Haller already is thinking ahead to DocuFest 2022, hopefully a time when things return to normal.
“The show must go on,” she said.
DocuTime takes place at UNCW Kenan Auditorium parking lot for $15 a carload.
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