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notes from sx film and a few things to see at AFI Dallas
by Bart Weiss 19 Mar 2008

Guest blogger Bart Weiss, head of theVideo Association of Dallas, has great suggestions from SXSW and insider tips for upcoming AFI Film Festival. Notes from the dark It is always a pleasure to go to SXSW. This year was a bit different, since I came on Wednesday (5 days after it started), after all the workshops are […]


Guest blogger Bart Weiss, head of theVideo Association of Dallas, has great suggestions from SXSW and insider tips for upcoming AFI Film Festival.

Notes from the dark

It is always a pleasure to go to SXSW. This year was a bit different, since I came on Wednesday (5 days after it started), after all the workshops are done, the out-of-towners are again out of town, and sadly all the film parties are over. The good news is that no screenings were full so I could get into everything allowing me to hit my 5 plus films a day habit. The bad news, was sxsw music started. As crazy as sxsw film is, music has at least 10 or maybe 100 times as many people walking and driving around and parking, which is never easy at South By and now is a major pain, all day, every day. But I did get to see some great work. Some of these films will be at AFI Dallas coming up, more on that later.

I rushed in from Dallas to see The King of Texas,  Claire Huie and Rene Pinnell’s documentary about Rene’s uncle, Eagle Pennell. Eagle was a Texas filmmaker who really paved  the way for the modern independent film. When Robert Redford saw Eagle’s first film The Whole Shooting Match,  he decided to start the Sundance Festival and Institute. Eagle was brave, bash, endearing (when sober) and in the end had a really bad drinking problem. He died way too young, living on the streets in Houston. Last year at the Dallas Video Festival, we showed a restored print of The Whole Shooting Match and this new doc about him was initially  produced to be on the Shooting Match DVD. It’s a good film that fits in the genre of great self-destructive artists (a few years ago at South By, there were 4 brilliant docs Be Here to Love Me, about Townes Vans Zandt;  The Devil and Daniel Johnston;  Derailroaded about Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, and You’re Gonna Miss Me, about Roky Erickson.

              Eagle’s Whole Shooting Match had its first screening at the USA Film Festival, and as part of the film, there is audio from the fest intro. I hope we will get to see this doc at  USA this year.

Later that night I saw Choke , dark and funny, but not that memorable.  OK, I need to speed this up if I want to get to the AFI list. On Thursday I started with Margaret Brown’s new film  (She made Be Here to Love Me.The Order of Myths is about the 2 worlds of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama: one white, one black. Being that she came from there, she has good access to both worlds. Myths works as a see-the-unseen film and it gets to a beginning of understanding  film. 

 I then saw Emily Hubley’s The Toe Tactic.  Emily is an animator and the daughter of innovative animators John and Faith Hubley. This is her first live feature and is mostly live-action. It has a lovely quirky touch, which I enjoyed. I know that quirky is overused when describing the indi film thing but this is good quirky.

Then on to Tulia Texas, a doc about the drug busts gone bad. It is one of those kind of indie films that takes a story that caught our attention for a while and puts it all together to give us a deeper meaning to what happened. It also in a way reminded me of Mark Birnbaum’s Larry V Lockney.

Then rushed across town to see Suzanne Mason’s Writ Writer about Fred Cruz who blazed the path to prisoner’s rights in Texas by filing a constant stream of writs. Suzanne has been working on this film for 10 years (makes me feel better that I have only been working on my fundamentalist film for 3. ) She finally got funding from ITVS which is why it is an hour, not the 90 minutes that most docs are these days.

After all this social political angst I moved onto music. (Hey, I was in Austin.) Saw The Upsetter:the Life and Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry, the  master producer who was a the center of so much of the critical years of reggae. And what a character  – important for any doc: he sings, produces, writes poetry, makes videos  and is one strange guy, in a good way.

Then it was off to the new film from Alex Gibney (Enron  and Taxi to the Dark Side.” ) His latest, Gonzo, is on the life of Hunter S. Thompson.  Gibney does a great job capturing his spirit and the spit of the times he worked in, and music of course is a major part but I am getting sick of hearing the same tracks for every ’60s film (Hey, I was there. We had a large inventory)  On Friday I saw Shot in Bombay that follows a bollywood gangster film shoot, only mildly interesting, and then Mongol, a very nice epic film about Genghis Kahn, this will be at AFI.  It  plays allot like an American western, if you are into the historical epic you will enjoy this for sure. 

Next was the indi dramatic film New Year Parade about a troubled family being torn while father and son try to win at the annual Mummers day parade in Philly.  The film captures a truer  version of South Philly than the Rocky series.

  Next  on to The Black List which will also be at AFI. You may remember Elvis Mitchell from when he was writing in Ft Worth. His first film, a documentary, takes the idea of a “black list” and turns it around, interviewing a group of inspiring African Americans, and it is quite a fine list. The style is simple and the effect is nice, and it really builds on you, the stories are good, and the whole defiantly more than the parts. It seems simple but is of course deceivingly complex.

The came Wild Blue Yonder,  a new doc by the daughter of David Maysles, of the Maysles brother fame (Grey Gardens, and Salesman).  It is one of those searching- for- my-father films (in a sense similar to The King of Texas that began my journey into sxsw this year ). Celia wants to get footage of a film that David was working on before he died that was not made with his bother Al. She goes to see Al (with camera rolling), and asks for the footage, Al refuses, which is really odd, he is usually so helpful and giving for so many young filmmakers just like her. The film makes Al the bad guy, which is really hard for me to stomach. Having spent quite a bit of time with him in the last several years, this is something I just have not seen. Those who don’t know him  will think what a jerk this guy is.

It is clear that after David passed away there was a very messy battle between David’s widow and Al over the rights to his films, so I am sure that was the major part of it, and everybody knows how messy family stuff is. Be that as it is, in all of Al’ s films he shows great affection for his characters and has never dumped on them the way he is dumped on here.  It just seems wrong.

Another oddity about the film is the way it used the new fair use guidelines  that allowed Celia to use generous parts of Salesman and Grey Gardens. In this case it is not about money. Is it really a good thing to have the ability to use a copyright holder’s material when they expressly do not want you to use it? I could passionately argue both sides of that one, but would probably end up wanting the footage shown.

I finished out the night with a music video program (a current and former student had nice pieces in it.) Nice to see how the form has evolved since the ’80s.

Finally, Sunday. I started wth  Crawford  (also at AFI) , about how the town was affected by its famous resident. (I recommend it). My last film was Secrecy, Robb Moss’s meditation on what secrecy is, and how it effects us. Robbs’ films in the past have been mostly personal, and this is more like a Fog of War kind of thing. (By the way, can we all say it is  WRONG to use either music from Philip Glass or Philip Glass-like music in a doc, unless you are making fun of it?) Secrecy is a very rich film, very heady, brings up lots of questions and provides no easy answers.  It stays with you and keeps your head spinning, and after that, my tires were speeding home (with no speeding tickets,) 

So lots of good films, all different all inspiring, and a really nice juxtaposition with my previous week at a national conference of religious broadcasters.  Both groups really want to change the world, they just have different visions , and the religious broadcasters have more money.

When AFI Dallas was first starting up,  I was critical, much from wrong information. In year one, they did an incredible job putting on the festival, getting people to come out to see films who otherwise don’t,  getting all the screenings and details to work.  It is a major accomplishment. I think the programming was not as strong as it might have been, but it was a rocky year. This year, aside from some big Hollywood-star films that I really don’t care about, there is lots of good in there. Lots.  Like many big festivals, there is something interesting along with the glitz. Here are some things I recommend.  (Remember, I have not seen most of the schedule ) 

I saw the powerful  The Iron Ladies of Liberia while judging American TV programs for a conference. I also saw Please Vote For Me there and loved this tale of Chinese children running a campaign for class monitor, seeing the communists  learning how to be little Karl Roves  I have heard good things but have not seen “Intimidad”  And you should always go and see The Searchers when you can see a good 35 print. (I hope it is a good 35 print.)

The Mondells’  The Monster Among Us is a brilliant and important film about anti-semitism in Europe. It reminds us where things might go as the economy tanks here, and shows what is going on there. I really liked it as a rough cut when I saw it; I’m sure it is more powerful now that it is finished.

Ciao, Yen Tan’s beautifully directed new feature, is about an odd romance.  

Baghead is from Austin’s  Duplass brothers, whose shorts I have loved (and programmed) for years. This is their first feature.

And there’s Glass: a Portrait of Philip in  12 Parts (OK,  I guess Glass music is on in this one. )

Other music docs worth checking our are Lou Reed’s Berlin, Joy Division (which I missed at sxsw), Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake , and Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordrome:  

Also Vickie Meeks has recommended  the short Paris.

Black List, Crawford, Gonzo,  Mongol, and Tulia Texas   were mentioned before,

The Video Association of Dallas (my organization)  is sponsoring a few programs at AFI, including last year’s  Texas Show a compilation of short film and video from around the state  It has some great shorts on it, like the Abernathys’ I Believe which was cut from the DVD. We will also be doing our yearly college showcase at the fest. This year you can see the best of SMU, UNT, UTA and UTD and TCU. This is always a great night and a rare chance to see what the local film schools are doing. This screening is not a competition but a celebration of creativity, craft and dedication.


We are also showing ‘The Tracy Fragments’  a  film that literally fragments the screen, an effect that first seems so cool then seems a bit much, then finally seems to effetely tell the story. and ‘Operation Filmmaker’  a doc about a fascinating ban aggravating young filmmaker that is opening in NYC this week.

And then there is  Stop the Presses. Of course I have to admit my biases. I am good friends with both Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza, so I am really glad that I really like their film. When Mark first told me about it, I admit I wasn’t very excited, but these guys really hit it. Newspapers are important to our democracy, and an informed public is key to making all this work. Sure there is lots of info on the net, but an editor has not vetted it, and checked it, and there are no real ethical standards. The Mark and Manny film shows how we got where we are and what it means. It’s a great collaboration between documentary mensch and inspiration for all future documentarians, Mark Birnbaum (who has a big birthday coming up), and Manny Mendoza who worked at the Dallas Morning News (and took the buyout). Manny has been interested in documentaries for many years. His wealth of knowledge and contacts along with Mark’s doc knack make this this thing Rock. I expect every one of you that is in Dallas for one these screenings to catch one of them. Nuff said.

And don’t forget the black Cinematheque of Dallas presents   The Black Women’s Film Festival ends on Friday March 21 at 8 pm with a searing documentary on rape entitled NO! Confronting Sexual Assault in Our Communities.  One of the great things about all Black Cinematheque screenings are the lively discussions afterward.

I am in at the Dallas Contemporary (and actually now at the UTA Gallery as well). Each day I shoot a 15 second video with the cell phone and send it to the gallery by phone. My slant on this is to do something about shopping and consumerism, but I don’t have the control of mobile phone video l that I am used to in video so it all looks and feels different, I have no control of focus, color , sound, buy every day there is a new one up. Check out all the work here.

Speaking of on-line work  and shopping,  check this out .

So there you are.  Many opportunities to be inspired at the cinema, and I haven’t even looked at the seminars yet. Truly having all of these festivals in town has enriched us.  See you in the dark.