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The Tarheel Challenge: The State of Documentary Making in Nonunion North Carolina

By Emily Edwards

North Carolina Artist Sam Miller, profiled in Mary Dalton's 'The Dot Man.' Photo: Phil Smoot. Courtesy of Mary Dalton.

North Carolina is a "right to work" state, which is part of her independent charm for documentary filmmakers, but also her challenge. There are no unions to organize and unify media artists, and networks tend to be loose, informal webs. Filmmakers seem to be regionally connected, allied to the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), the Triad (Greensboro, High-Point, Winston-Salem), the Mountains (Asheville) or the Coast (Wilmington). The more tightly knit areas of the documentary production network appear to be associated with the universities, supported by university resources such as classes, festivals, faculty and archives. There are independent producers in the state, though it may be a challenge for them to pay the monthly mortgage.

Steve Channing, one of the producers of February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four, concedes, "The key to independent survival is to have a spouse working at Duke [University]. Seriously, I've been doing this work for 20 years and it never seems to get easier. Over the years, I've tried to mix in educational projects of various kinds, videos for schools, CDs for foundations and universities, that sort of thing." He adds that while financing is a struggle, he's come to accept it as inevitable.

Tom Lipscomb, producer of the award-winning documentary Atlantic City Beach Scrabble Championships, would agree. He plans to continue working in the state as an independent producer after he completes his MFA in film and video production at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He's busy lining up commercial work to "support his documentary habit."

Brett Ingram and Jim Haverkamp's Bright Eye Pictures is an independent production company in Durham that has been making award-winning documentaries as well as commercial projects for broadcast, educational, corporate and nonprofit clients since 1995. While the commercial work pays the bills, a fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and other grants financed their current documentary, Monster Road, a biographical film about clay animator Bruce Bickford. Though Ingram will continue to make documentaries through Bright Eye Pictures, he decided to join the faculty at Wake Forest University in the fall of 2003. "The projects I do for hire are not as rewarding as I'd like. Teaching media production courses will allow me to keep a pure focus on filmmaking."

Emmy Award-winning producer Robert Van Camp says corporate work is the lifeblood for people hoping to do documentary work. "I don't turn anything down. If someone can pay my day rate, I go...and for ten years I've been steady." Van Camp owns Wide Eye Productions, a Winston-Salem-based company that North Carolina Public Television has contracted to produce such documentary programs as The Outer Banks: North Carolina's Coastal Treasure and The Blue Ridge Parkway: American's Grand Balcony.

Curtis Gaston questions the meaning of "independent" if commercial work is what actually supports you. "I don't think it's possible to be ‘independent' and actually be able to pay the light bill, let alone a mortgage...I'm currently looking for a real job and also hope to hit it big with the lottery"—which North Carolina does not have. Gaston is the producer of Rebels, an examination of the controversial symbolism in the confederate flag.

Merwin Gross was a documentary filmmaker before joining Leanne Campbell and Tom Barkstedt to create Blue Ridge Motion Pictures ( in Asheville. "Producing documentaries is a tough, tough life," Gross says. "The grant cycle is so slow that sometimes subjects die before you can get the film made."After several years of research, Gross and his colleagues refitted an old factory and have developed a full-service motion picture, commercial, music video, documentary and industrial film company that he says is in the business of  "movie manufacturing." Though his emphasis has shifted, a keen appreciation for documentary remains. "Every person that has a passion for filmmaking at one time or another has come into contact with documentary," Gross maintains. "It's a passionate thing to do, to make a documentary. We're all storytellers and the true stories are the fullest." Because of his own background, Gross has made his studio very "indie-friendly, with seminars, workshops and guidance for the emerging filmmaker."


Many schools in the North Carolina system, as well as the state's private schools, offer courses in journalism, electronic media writing and production to develop the strong base for skills that support documentary filmmaking. Several schools place a distinct emphasis on the documentary. 

  • Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies ( offers courses in documentary video to adult students in a non-degree program with no admission criteria.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ( has documentary studies in both the School of Journalism and the Department of Communication Studies. In the former, courses include journalism and documentary photojournalism, with specialized courses in producing science documentaries for television. The concentration in media studies in the Department of Communication includes such courses as "The Documentary Idea" and "Documentary Production."
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro's Department of Broadcasting and Cinema ( offers undergraduate studies in research, writing and production of news and documentary, as well as an advanced course dedicated to the production of documentary video. The department also offers a master of fine arts degree with emphasis on developing independent producers, many of whom choose to concentrate on documentary.
  • Undergraduate students at Elon University ( can take a seminar course on the origins and development of the documentary, along with basic media production courses.

In addition to college offerings, students can find guidance from a variety of sources ranging from studio workshops to seminars offered by professional organizations.

Funding and Technical Support

As is likely true for most states, funding a documentary project is a consistent challenge in North Carolina. However, the state does have some resources for producers. These include the following:

  • The Southern Documentary Fund ( is a nonprofit organization that was created to act as a fiscal sponsor on behalf of documentary filmmakers seeking funding from foundations, individuals or corporations. The fund aims to encourage documentary projects within and about the American South. The fund also provides technical consulting to new and emerging artists, advocates for public exhibition of documentaries and supports networking for documentary filmmakers in the state.
  • The Empowerment Project (, based in Chapel Hill, provides facilities and training forindependent producers in an attempt to democratize access to the media. The Project also produces and distributes its own documentary videos, conducts workshops and operates a low-cost media center with video and computer equipment. The Project may be best known for its association with co-founder and producer Barbara Trent, whose The Panama Deception earned the 1993 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
  • The North Carolina Arts Council ( delivers some funding through grants. Individuals can apply for film or video Artists Fellowships in the amount of $8,000. Regional arts councils also have grants for emerging media artists. 
  • The North Carolina Humanities Council ( offers limited support for documentary films involving humanities scholars.

News, Networking and Professional Organizations

The North Carolina Film Commission ( produces a directory of resources, but Robert Van Camp and other producers believe the real networking takes place in the regional commissions. "Someone who needs a project done doesn't want to go through the state book and make 20 phone calls," says Van Camp. "The regional commissions, like the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, act almost like agents to connect people and projects." Other networking resources include:

  • Tar Heel Films ( is a free Web and industry resource for North Carolina media producers who need help finding equipment, locations, crew, on-camera and voiceover talent. The site also provides a venue for news and other production announcements.
  • Charlotte Film & Video Association ( is a professional organization for media artistsin both North and South Carolina.
  • Reel Carolina, Journal of Film & Video ( is a free monthly news magazine based in Wilmington. The magazine is devoted to the state's film industry, providing articles on existing productions, film festivals, workshops, classes and other film and video events. Though largely focused on narrative film, it offers news on other productions as well.
  • The North Carolina Association of Broadcasters ( is useful particularly for those producers coming from news backgrounds who want to stay connected to television markets.

Festivals and Distribution

The list below is not a comprehensive resource of all festival and distribution opportunities in the state, but does show the diversity of occasions for documentary producers to showcase their work in North Carolina.

Despite challenges, documentary producers in North Carolina continue to cultivate a stunning crop of films. A few of this year's celebrated "homegrown docs" include the following:

North Carolina has been stereotyped as a state of tobacco crops and hog farms, but is,  according to the state's film commission, one of the strongest producers of media products in the US. North Carolina is clearly a state of passionate filmmakers and documentary producers who have prevailed through lean economic times to cultivate compelling stories.

  • After six years, the Full Frame Documentary Festival (, formerly the Doubletake Documentary Film Festival, left its former headquarters at Duke University in 2003 to become an independent festival that continues its devotion to the documentary. The festival sought and found support from corporate sponsors, including The New York Times, Progress Energy, MTV and HBO. The City of Durham also supports the festival with grants and free office space. Full Frame is the most robust celebration of documentary filmmaking in the state, attracting filmmakers from across the globe.
  • The annual Documentary Film and Video Happening in Durham invites submissions of documentary work from students and emerging community filmmakers across North Carolina. Sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies and the Program in Film and Video at Duke University, the Happening brings together novice and experienced filmmakers and videographers, faculty and documentary enthusiasts for workshops, presentations, discussions and screenings of curated and submitted documentary film and video pieces.
  • The 26-year-old Carolina Film and Video Festival ( is the oldest film festival in the state. Hosted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the festival includes categories and awards for the documentary and often features special workshops or discussions by celebrated documentary producers.
  • The Cucalorus Film Festival ( has been celebrating independent filmmaking in Wilmington for nearly a decade. Sponsored by the nonprofit Cucalorus Film Foundation, the festival is non-competitive in that there are no large awards or prizes beyond being one of the 60 films selected from the more than 400 annual submissions. The festival has special categories for documentary shorts and features.
  • North Carolina Public Television ( provides a "small screen showcase" for independent films, including many documentaries, on the six-week series Visions. For eight years, Visions has issued a state-wide call for entries, then selected from these to program the series.
  • The Charlotte Film and Video Association's Southern Exposure Film Forum is a festival dedicated to producers from both North and South Carolina and includes a stalwart documentary category.
  • In addition to Full Frame and Documentary Happening, Durham is also home the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (, considered an important festival for queer film in the Southeast.
  • Hosted by the North Carolina School of the Arts, the River Run Film Festival is new festival for 2003. Though the festival has a strong narrative thrust, it also supports documentary films in competition.
  • Sponsored by the Black Arts Alliance ( Wilmington, Cine Noir: A Festival of Black Film also features a documentary category. A prime mission of this festival is to champion independent works by black filmmakers.
  • In November 2003, the City of Asheville will host a new film festival, which organizers say will have important documentary categories. Advantage West, a nonprofit economic development team, surveyed Sundance for inspiration and ideas, which they believe will adapt well to Asheville.
  • Dr. Steven Channing, Rebecca Cerese and Daniel Blake Smith's February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four, about the lunch counter sit-down protests at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960, was screened as an official selection at Full Frame.
  • Rob Fruchtman's Trust Me, about an interfaith summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina, where children of Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths convened in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, premiered on Showtime in May.
  • Cynthia Hill's feature documentary Tobacco Money Feeds My Family premiered at the Documentary Happening.
  • Documentaries about North Carolina artists have also figured in the production landscape. The Cucalorus Festival featured John Goist's short film about a gourd sculptor, Tejuola Turner: Documentary of a North Carolina Artist. Mary Dalton's The Dot Man—about folk painter Sam Miller, whose style emphasizes the use of colorful dots--won the documentary category in the Carolina Film and Video Festival.
  • Rick Allen's Sand Tigers: Sentinels of the Deep, with its spectacular underwater footage, takes a hard look at the environmental dangers people create for the Sand Tiger shark living along the North Carolina coast. The film premiered on the University of North Carolina's UNC-TV.


Emily Edwards was a media producer and journalist before receiving her PhD from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She produced the documentaries Deadheads: An American Subculture (Films for the Humanities) and Wondrous Events: Foundations of Folk Belief (Penn State Media), among others. She currently teaches media studies at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and serves as an associate editor for The Journal of Film and Video.