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Remembering Nancy Buirski: Founder of Full Frame and Award-Winning Filmmaker

By IDA Editorial Staff

Photograph of Nancy Buirski greeting festival guests, with Laura Poirtras looking on, at Full Frame in 2009. Photo credit: Steve Bognar

Nancy Buirski greeting festival guests at Full Frame in 2009. Photo credit: Steve Bognar

Over the past week, IDA collected tributes to Nancy Buirski from those who knew her and were supported, inspired, and encouraged by her artistry, infectious energy, and skill in creating spaces to bring together documentarians and uplift our work. These written memorials are introduced by Simon Kilmurry, who wrote a piece that outlines Nancy’s many contributions to the documentary field, from founding of Full Frame to her insightful filmmaking and deep interpersonal generosity.

Nancy Buirski was a visionary in the documentary field—a champion of countless filmmakers when she founded Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. And she was a poet of documentary cinema and humanity in her own right through films such as The Loving StoryAfternoon of a FaunThe Rape of Recy Taylor, and A Crime on the Bayou.

I've known Nancy’s kindness and friendship for many years. Starting with The Loving Story we had long countless passionate conversations about her films as she was making them—always illuminating, full of insights, humor, and infectious excitement. Nancy was never afraid to hear feedback even when it was tough—it deepened her curiosity, it made her strive to make the best films she could. Her films were filled with a deep generosity to people, especially the underdog. That spirit is reflected in her films, her paintings, and her photographs.  Nancy and I had wanted to work on a project together for years, so I was honored when she asked me to join her, Susan Margolin, and Claire Chandler as a producer on Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy.

Nancy had a profound belief in the power of art to touch us, to move us, to challenge us. Her art will continue to do that—that is an immense legacy.

Simon Kilmurry
Former executive director, IDA / Former executive producer, POV

Photo taken at Telluride in 2022 of Nancy Buirski, Susan Margolin, and Simon Kilmurry (from left to right).

As I hear from filmmakers, critics, curators, writers, photographers, and actors from around the globe as the news of Nancy’s untimely passing spreads, I am reminded of the impact that she had on so many. Through my heartbreak I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the time we did have over the past decade, talking almost every day about our work, new ideas, art exhibits that we had seen, films and television shows that we liked and disliked, people that we had met, and of course, about our work together. She had a beautiful mind; tremendously curious, open, expansive, deeply insightful, and fearless. This is what made her a great artist, but it also what attracted so many artists and original thinkers who were lucky enough to be in her orbit to spend time with her and seek out her company. Her brilliance and her humanism come across powerfully in her work, which has been recognized and appreciated globally. 

The hardest part of losing her is thinking about the conversations that we won’t be having, and the stories that she had planned to tell but that are now left in suspended animation for eternity. A great loss for us all.

Susan Margolin
Co-founder, New Video/Docurama / Former president of special acquisitions, Cinedigm

Photo of Nancy Buirski, Dierdre Haj, and Robyn Yigit Smith (from left to right).

Nancy Buirski is a tough act to follow.

Unbelievably, Nancy Buirski is gone. It is understandable how many of us are so surprised by her passing. Understandable because many had just seen her, either in New York or North Carolina, where she was screening her latest triumph at our own Carolina Theater, the home of Full Frame. Nancy was always in perpetual motion. She was everywhere, at so many festivals and screenings and cinemas. I had spoken to her recently, too, arranging for her to make a personal greeting for our audience at Film Streams in Omaha, as we played her most recent film.

But really the shock, I think, of her sudden loss, is because Nancy was more than a person, an artist, a colleague. Nancy Buirski was a force. And in her brief time on this planet, she created something out of nothing, again and again. Where others saw a desolate downtown, she envisioned a thriving festival. A dead-end story with no historical footage? You just haven’t knocked on enough doors. She was indominable. She was kind. And she had impeccable taste.

Most people do not know that I met Nancy long before my job at Full Frame. Someone, I can’t recall who, had suggested to her that I might make a good impact producer on what would become The Loving Story. She had not yet decided to direct it, though I, like others, told her she must, and I remember meeting her in Beverly Hills, the wind blowing her dark hair, her eyes smiling, as she delighted in my rapt and enthusiastic consumption of her pitch. That was the first time I saw the twinkle. Nancy’s eyes twinkled. It made her seem impish, which is too casual a description of someone with such incredible intellect. Maybe it is because I often saw her when she was delighted. Because of course, eventually I almost always saw her with regard to Full Frame.

Nancy never, ever rejected a request to moderate, advise, or screen with us unless circumstances made it absolutely impossible. Every year when the Full Frame Advisory Board met at Molly Thompson’s A&E offices, she never missed it. And no one, absolutely no one understood anything I might be thinking at those meetings better than Nancy. She would intervene, politely, on my behalf, if someone recommended an idea that she knew was a non-starter from the go, alleviating me from awkwardly rejecting the “great idea” just presented. She was the only one at the table that understood what I did. Because she had done it, too.

In the over ten years I was at Full Frame, some of the greatest highlights were with Nancy: introducing the premiere of Loving was a symbolic passing of the torch and a huge gesture of generosity on her part to me. I also pinch hit moderating the screening of The Rape of Recy Taylor when someone dropped out, and always asked her to participate in The Speakeasy, a venue I watched over. Whether she was interviewing Stanley Nelson, Chris and Penny, or Barbara Kopple, these are moments I enjoyed firsthand and will happily live forever, archived at Full Frame for all.

It is my amazing circle of festival colleagues who have texted and emailed me in recent days. They feel Nancy’s loss as I do, they know the joy she did, of toiling to let someone else’s work shine. To stand behind an audience and watch them consume a film you know will blow them away. To watch a filmmaker who has made their career about turning a lens on other people’s stories stand briefly in the spotlight. 

I am eternally grateful that I was not only able to inherit that gift from Nancy but to watch her move from behind the audience to in front of them, where she undoubtedly belonged.

Nancy always said of Full Frame that I had “taken good care of her baby.” She rests well knowing the festival will return this spring, ably led by Emily Foster and Sadie Tillery, two women I adore, as did she.

May we all live as well as Nancy did. May we all create something where there is nothing, again and again.

Deirdre Haj
Executive director, Film Streams / Former festival director, Full Frame

Photo of Nancy Buirski and Sadie Tillery in conversation at a Q&A of 'Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy.' Photo credit: Emily Foster

I met Nancy Buirski in the winter of 2004, when I started as an intern in the Full Frame programming department. I knew very little about festivals and documentary film, but I learned more than I ever could have imagined seeing Nancy watch, talk about, and build programs around films. Nancy was an artist. Working with her, I saw firsthand that curation was an art form. Nancy’s determination to make Full Frame all that it could be was palpable, and I was captivated by the process of putting the festival together.

Over the years that followed, Nancy was a mentor to me. She inspired me to keep reaching, keep growing, keep learning. Full Frame also brought extraordinary relationships into my life, and I am grateful to Nancy for creating a festival that fosters connection and meaning between so many people.

Sadie Tillery
Co-festival director & artistic director, Full Frame

Nancy helped build the first platform for nonfiction storytelling at DoubleTake/Full Frame

She believed in us before we did in ourselves and then went on to become one of our most celebrated artists herself. She found forgotten stories and gave them the dignity and historical amplification they long deserved 

She will be missed and long remembered 

Geralyn White Dreyfous
Co-founder, Utah Film Center, Impact Partners, Gamechanger Films

Photo of Nancy Buirski and Chris Pennebaker Hegedus at dinner.

What can one say when they've suddenly lost a best friend? The person who is there when you need someone to talk to or when they need a friend to confide in. Nancy Buirsky was this for me but so much more.

Nancy Buirsky came into my and Penny’s life in the late nineties and like so many of my film subjects, through a “dog” friend in Central Park. Nancy asked us to help her start a film festival in Durham, NC. Our first impression of Nancy was a sweet, very tiny, middle-aged woman but not anyone we had ever heard of in the film world. Durham did not seem an obvious choice. It was a dead town having recently lost the tobacco industry that had sustained it. Definitely not a cultural haven or picturesque mountain destination like Sundance. The festival was called DoubleTake and was associated with Duke University. I think Penny encouraged Nancy to program solely documentaries, or at least supported this idea. We agreed to be part of the artistic board which consisted of a group of interesting people although not many were filmmakers. But we soon discovered that although tiny, Nancy was an absolutely determined leader—raising money, enlisting local politicians, and convincing filmmakers to come to Durham with their films. Unknowingly, Nancy began the festival at a turning point for filmmakers. New small digital cameras created a revolution in filmmaking putting the technology in the hands of many more documentary storytellers. The festival re-equipped the projection system to show video and the festival became the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. 

Through Nancy's charm and passion, Full Frame exploded into the largest documentary film festival in the US. Lured by the southern bbq (especially Penny!) that Nancy served at the festival, each year we'd head to Full Frame to screen our films, often bringing along our subjects: Branford Marsalis (charming), dancer Chuck Davis (a legend), Elaine Stritch (hilarious but such a troublemaker!), Al Franken (who inspired and laughed at his jokes louder than anyone), chef Jacquy Pfeiffer (constructed an amazing 6 foot sugar sculpture for the afterparty) and many others. Nancy became a close friend not just for us but for so many filmmakers who she supported through the years. She was a pioneer who lifted the documentary genre in countless ways.

When Nancy left the festival and decided to become a filmmaker, it was a surprise. But like everything else, Nancy attacked this new career with passion. For those who don't know, Nancy had already had successful careers, as a painter, the international photo editor of the New York Times—winning them the Pulitzer prize—and then she became a photographer. Her prints were shown in galleries and were published in a gorgeous coffee table photo book.

The Loving Story, Nancy's first film, was groundbreaking. She discovered historic footage of the Loving couple filmed by Hope Ryden, herself a trailblazing women director who had made films with Penny in the sixties. Penny introduced Nancy to Hope and helped her secure the rights to the footage that became the backbone of the film. Produced and edited with Elizabeth Haviland James, it was clear that Nancy had found her true calling.

After many beautiful and compelling films, every one made with Nancy's poetic eye and heartfelt relationship to the film subjects, she became one of our best documentary storytellers. Seemingly unstoppable, with both documentary and fiction projects in the works, Nancy was a powerhouse who was totally passionate about movies.

After moving to New York, Nancy became part of my family. We shared birthdays, holidays, and friends. It's impossible to think that Nancy will no longer be here, to support all of us in her own way. Her smile and laugh, so generously given along with her wisdom. She will be missed by so many friends.

Chris Pennebaker Hegedus 

This reflection and photograph have been republished here with Chris Hegedus’ permission.

Nancy gave us so much. Full Frame, the festival she created, nurtures the documentary community like the greatest backyard barbecue you’ve ever attended. Over many years, I repeatedly saw students and emerging filmmakers timidly introducing themselves to veteran filmmakers and legends like Sam Pollard, Barbara Kopple, and D.A. Pennebaker, ending up in lively down-home conversations. That was the Full Frame vibe—accessible, welcoming, curious. This was Nancy’s vision, and she willed it to become an essential hub of our loose-knit community.

Maybe a year before she left the festival, I was talking to her in one of the big, crowded hallways in the Durham Convention Center, home to the festival’s pop-up cinemas. She said she was getting ready to make her own film, about the Loving family, with some remarkable unseen footage of the Lovings, filmed by pioneering cinema verité filmmaker Hope Ryden. Nancy said she wanted to be directing her own films, in the next chapter of her life. She’d been helping all of us for years to get our films seen. But she had her own stories to tell.

I’m grateful she got that chance, though her death cuts more because she was in the middle of a real run, firing on all pistons. At least she leaves us with a handful of remarkable films. But our loss is huge. It’s like she’s always been here, always would be here, with her buzzy energy and that spark in her eyes.

Steve Bognar