The art of documentary filmmaking has always been the passion of Paula Haller — founder of the almost two-decade-old DocuTime Film Festival. The festival will wrap for good Sunday upon the 80-something’s retirement. Haller’s friends and colleagues will celebrate her at Kenan Auditorium on UNCW’s campus.
“She has always been the driving force,” WHQR developmental director Mary Bradley said.
Haller partnered with WHQR to host the annual event after moving to Wilmington from L.A. in 2003. A founder and programmer of the International Documentary Association’s film festival, Haller started DocuFest Wilmington at EUE/Screen Gems Studios before eventually moving to UNCW. It evolved into the DocuTime Film Festival to run one day each winter.
“WHQR has been proud to produce DocuTime with Paula, and with the help of UNCW Film Studies and the Landfall Foundation, for all these years,” Bradley said. “It is part of our mission to serve the community.”
The event highlighted worldwide works and eclectic content. It was backed by unbridled enthusiasm from Haller, a seasoned filmmaker in her own right. She attended UC Berkeley as a grad student after being inspired by 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 told Port City Daily last year.
She began working at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which 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 for permission to film in their country. The doc ended up being sold to National Geographic.
She also went on to work with Disney Educational Productions.
Haller told encore magazine a decade ago DocuTime never tried to compete with other festivals, like Cucalorus or Cape Fear Film Festival. She wanted to add to the scope and work already available in the film-centric town.
“She really helped to build film culture in Wilmington,” Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley said. “Her event has always been so unique and has done so much to grow appreciation for independent film.”
Films at DocuTime covered various cultural backgrounds and ethnic challenges and insight from across the world. 2010’s “Paper Clips” stands out; the film follows a middle school’s study of the Holocaust. Students collected six million paper clips to represent slain victims.
In 2019, “Liyana” — considered genre-defying as it blended styles of cinema, including animation and documentary — featured a story about Swazi orphans from southern Africa overcoming past traumas.
Last year, amid the height of Covid, Haller turned the festival into a drive-in, taking the lead of Cucalorus which had been hosting pop-up cinema in the Kenan Auditorium parking lot. Attendees of DocuTime were able to watch the Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.”
Hard-to-find shorts and works from local filmmakers were also featured throughout the years, each followed by question-and-answer sessions with the audiences. Haller brought her own flair to each event, dressing up thematically to introduce the works.
Bradley thinks back fondly to quite a few moments: “when she brought a pot and an old shoe and attempted to eat it when we showed the short ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.’ Plus, and I’m biased here, when she brought my daughter and her science fair project up in front of the audience before screening ‘Science Fair.’ And, when she rode a bike down through the theaters.”
Bradley will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to Haller on Sunday, and locals, including Brawley and StarNews editor John Staton, will talk about their years working with Haller.
“I’m guessing we’ll both mostly be holding back tears,” Brawley said. “Paula is such a treasure. … She’s a fearless and passionate filmmaker and is always willing to try something new. She has that kind of mischievous energy that I find captivating — nothing too dangerous but always fun. Really, she’s just a good friend.”
The DocuTime finalw will feature one documentary. “Julia” celebrates the culinary artistry of Julia Child, featuring unseen archival footage of the first American celebrity chef, culinary icon and cookbook author. The film tracks the 12 years it took Child to create and publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961),” which spawned the television show, “The French Chef.” The book sold over 2 million copies to date.
Bradley said a surprise short film will also screen, and a reception will take place after with light hor d’oeuvres, wine and beer.
DocuTime will screen as part of the UNCW Lumina Festival of the Arts. Tickets are $10.
“You never know if we might not find a way to continue something similar,” Bradley said, referring to future documentary film festivals. “But it will never be quite the same.”
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