DocuTime bows out and celebrates founder Paula Haller

Paula Haller presents “Science Fair” at a previous DocuTime Film Festival. (Courtesy of Mary Bradley)

The art of documentary filmmaking has always been the passion of Paula Haller, founder of the nearly two-decade-old DocuTime Film Festival. The festival will end for a good Sunday after the retirement of the octogenarian. Haller’s friends and colleagues will celebrate her at the Kenan Auditorium on the UNCW campus.

“She’s always been the driving force,” said WHQR Director of Development Mary Bradley.

Haller partnered with WHQR to host the annual event after moving from Los Angeles to Wilmington in 2003. Founder and programmer of the International Documentary Association film festival, Haller launched DocuFest Wilmington at EUE/Screen Gems Studios before to eventually move to UNCW. It evolved into the DocuTime Film Festival which will take place one day each winter.

“WHQR is proud to produce DocuTime with Paula, and with the help of UNCW Film Studies and the Landfall Foundation, for all these years,” said Bradley. “It’s part of our mission to serve the community.”

The event featured works from around the world and eclectic content. It was buoyed by the unbridled enthusiasm of Haller, a seasoned filmmaker in her own right. She attended UC Berkeley as a graduate student after being inspired by NBC’s “Tut The Boy King,” narrated by Orson Welles.

“As he narrated, browsing through the gallery of the splendid works of art, I was hooked,” Haller told the Port City Daily last year.

She began working at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which led her to make documentaries about Asian arts and culture. His first film, “Discovering the Art of Korea”, centered on a museum exhibit and was 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 has also worked with Disney Educational Productions.

Haller told the magazine a decade ago that 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 movie-centric city.

“She really helped build film culture in Wilmington,” Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley said. “His event was always so unique and did so much to increase the appreciation of independent cinema.”

DocuTime’s films covered diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnic challenges and ideas from around the world. 2010’s “Paper Clips” stands out; the film follows a college study of the Holocaust. The students collected six million paperclips to represent the slain victims.

In 2019, “Liyana” – considered genre-defying as it blended filmmaking styles including animation and documentary – featured a story about Swazi orphans in southern Africa overcoming past trauma.

Last year, at the height of Covid, Haller turned the festival into a drive-in, taking the helm of Cucalorus which hosted a pop-up cinema in the parking lot of Kenan Auditorium. DocuTime attendees were able to watch Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.”

Hard-to-find shorts and works by local filmmakers have also been shown over the years, each followed by Q&A sessions with the audience. Haller brought her own style to each event, dressing thematically to present the works.

Bradley fondly thinks back to a few moments: “when she brought a pot and an old shoe and tried to eat it when we showed the short film ‘Werner Herzog eats his shoe’. Plus, and I’m biased here, when she brought my daughter and her science fair project out in front of the public before showing “Science Fair” And, when she rode her bike 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 guess we’ll both hold back our tears,” Brawley said. “Paula is such a treasure. … She’s a fearless, passionate filmmaker and she’s always willing to try something new. She has that kind of mischievous energy that I find captivating – nothing too dangerous but still fun. Really, she’s just a good friend.

The DocuTime finale will feature a documentary. “Julia” celebrates the culinary artistry of Julia Child, with never-before-seen archival footage of America’s first celebrity chef, culinary icon and cookbook author. The film traces the 12 years it took Child to create and publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)”, which spawned the TV show “The French Chef”. The book has sold over 2 million copies to date.

Bradley said a surprise short film will also be screened and a reception will be held afterwards with light appetizers, wine and beer.

The final DocuTime will be screened as part of the Lumina UNCW Arts Festival. 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 won’t be quite the same.”

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About Monty S. Maynard

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