Here's a look at some of the films screening on the final day of Dallas VideoFest, at the Angelika Film Center. Another event happening today is the tribute to local actors Juli Erickson and Grant James. Read our feature of them here.
The Gold Spinners
1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
The Gold Spinners, a documentary by Kiur Aarma and Hardi Volmer, is flat-out crazy awesome to watch. It’s a wild and colorful accounting of the only commercial film studio in the USSR during the Cold War.
Peedu Ojamaa started out as a documentary filmmaker. Of course, though, his only client was the Soviet government. After a visit to America Krushchev had come back to the Soviet Union with a declaration that the USSR should grow corn, like the Americans. The problem was that corn would be difficult to grow in general in Soviet Russia, and Krushchev decided to plant it into the most inhospitable parts of the country.
Obviously, it didn’t grow. But, Ojamaa was told to make a documentary about the corn production. So, he faked it, and in the process developed a love for, lets call it, advertising. The ability to dress something up to more than it is in order to sell it to someone who desperately wants to believe. To Krushchev, he sold corn. But, to the rest of his comrades, through the Soviet Union’s first commercial film studio, Estonian Commercial Film Producers, he sold goods.
The thing is, though, there weren’t a lot of goods to be had. So, what was Ojamaa selling exactly? Well, that’s what Aarma and Volmer explore in their film.
What’s interesting, besides the colorful storytelling and old Russian TV commercials, is the contrast it draws between the United States and Russia. More than just advertising, there’s a lot to be examined in comparing the two cultures, and the role of advertising in our lives.
The one critique is the subtitles. Naturally, most of the film is in Russian, and the subtitles are a small font and always in white. They are sometimes hard to see, especially when placed against a light background.
Besides that, this is a fun film. It’s definitely a more interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain. A departure from the typical droll gray narrative of waiting in line for turnips and vodka. This, instead, was a world that wanted to be America, without the capitalism. Obviously, it didn’t work, but Ojamaa played an interesting part in the experiment.
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
Her Wilderness, the new film from Frank Mosley, is intentionally vague in its title. A multiple, non-linear narrative, this film is exploratory both literally and figuratively. And like many explorations, there are is a lot of slow plodding with sparks of excitement.
A woman draws a bath. She lights candles and puts on some music. Then, settling into the tub, she makes a phone call. An affair? An obsession?
A little girl walks through a wooded area. A couple expects a baby. A woman washes windows. The little girl struggles.
These are snapshots of lives. Lives that contain struggle, both physical and emotional. These are meditative shops. Ron Gonzalez’s photography is beautiful, full of color and slow pans. The soundtrack by Clint Niosi adds to the contemplative tone. It’s a slow film, but slow on purpose.
The dialogue is often jaded and unnatural, but there’s an indication that it’s on purpose. There is a palpable detachment in everything happening. People talk on the phone instead of face to face. Or if they are together, they almost never make eye contact. There’s a potent feeling of going through the motions, ad if reacting to a script. The little girl walks the path because that’s the only way to go, for instance. We all fall into habits and scripts.
There’s something curiously intriguing about Mosley’s film. Something that just draws the viewer in. The eyes can’t turn away, even in painful moments. It’s just incredibly human, and yet on some level, artificial. Inauthentic in a familiar way; at once distancing and engrossing. See it. The resulting conversation will fill the rest of the day.
A Conversation with Francois Truffaut: Master of the Independent Cinema
3:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
Allan Holzman gives film nerds a special treat with his film A Conversation with Francois Truffaut: Master of the Independent Cinema.
The short documentary is exactly what it claims to be. It’s a taped interview with the legendary French filmmaker, from 1979, in which he talks about his his experiences and lessons in filmmaking. Simple enough, and footage that is probable not too hard to find for the industrious person.
However, Holzman has combined film from the interview with footage from the films of Truffaut, both as director and actor. For instance, who was aware that Truffaut actually played Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Adding the visual aids to Truffaut’s (translated) words adds depth to the recollection of his experiences.
Truffaut was enamored with filmmaking from a young age. He started his own film club when he was young and eventually became a film critic for the famous magazine Cashiers du Cinéma. He was brutal as a critic and eventually decided to put his money where his mouth was and make his own films. After a first film that never had a public screening, and the short film Les Mistons (The Brats), Truffaut made one of the greatest films of all time, The 400 Blows. He would go on to the one of the major figureheads of the French New Wave film movement.
For anyone in to the filmmaking process, this film is a must watch. Truffaut is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and listening to his experiences and pearls of wisdom is invaluable. For people that aren’t as intense about behind the scenes stuff, the documentary is still full of fun anecdotes as Truffaut was a very personable fellow and lived an interesting life.
Screening with Holzman’s film is a short film by Gordon K. Smith called Just a Cigar? The film is a collection of clips from old movies, specifically during the Production Code era, which use specific words and visuals that could be construed is having a sexual double meaning. Some of the clips are right on, while others are stretches. Of course, isn’t that the nature of sexual innuendo? It could or it couldn’t be. Smith certainly makes his case here.
I Don't Understanding Love
4:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
The weak link of the festival is appropriately ditched on the afternoon of the last day. The I Don’t Understanding Love short program is full of ineffective weirdness and bash-you-over-the-head “subtlety.”
Robert Hannant’s I Don’t Understand kicks the program off with an exceedingly abstract piece that is mostly noise. There are multiple images on the screen at once, not seeming to have much, if any relation. A woman in the center frame occasionally delivers a short phrase. There’s 12 minutes of this. Being under the influence might help in watching.
Charles Chintzner Lai’s Keep a Tidy Soul is the strongest offering in the program. A woman loses her soul whilst brushing her teeth. A koala bear acts as some sort of antagonist as she searches for fulfillment. The film is kind of like if Wes Anderson made a black-and-white absurdist film. So, not that bad. The bright spot in a murky showcase.
Melody Brooke’s Lavender is simply very amateur. There’s a cutesy mistaken identity story at its core, but the film is poorly made. The sound is atrocious.
If Anti-Gay: A Tourist Stopover sounds like the least subtle title ever, it is. Jeffrey Wolfshohl’s film gets points for throwing some shade at Texas A&M and Southern conservatism in general, but it does so in an in-your-face way that leaves no doubt the incredibly biased message. Look, it’s 2014. Most people can now agree that equality is good and discrimination is bad. This film takes dead aim at the shrinking minority that still thinks homosexuality is wrong. That’s good in concept, but it hurts in the execution. The main character calls everything, even his direct attempts to thwart funding to an LGBT friendly group, “gay and stupid.” He says it about everything, all the time. He says it so much that he becomes a cartoon character. We get it. He’s a bigot. Respect that the audience will get this without turning him into caricature. And, of course, his hostility is hiding something. Because of course it is. Wolfshohl might as well have just filmed himself saying bigots are bad people, and likely hiding something about themselves. It would have been just as effective. Making a film with a message doesn’t have to forfeit actual storytelling in order to get its point across. This is a predictable film with a cartoonish main character, which negates the potentially powerful message.
The concept of the program is right. Love can be strange. Sometimes it’s so strange that it just doesn’t make any sense, or seems eerily and poorly scripted. That’s the case here.
5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
The Visual Twisters short program is exactly what it says it is. Visually twisting. In a good way. Abstract can be fine when given a direction, and these films thrive on inventive and contemplative visuals.
Jane Terry’s The Drawer plays with absence and presence in a simple, yet engaging way. The drawer is never quite defined, nor does it need to be.
Rick Fisher’s Arcadia is a strange trip, drifting down a river of sorts. Odd landscapes are mixed with odd humanoid figures dancing. What it represents is unknown. Is it the journey of life? Maybe a bit too deep, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
Cynthia Johns’ Chasing Clouds uses mostly nature shots, buttressed by profound subtitles to talk about life. Making too much sense of anything in this program is probably putting more effort in than is required.
Other films include Tongue Twister Variations, Dream Big, A Man Without Love, and ask not/art thou.
This is a program for watching. Simple enough. For those interested in visual storytelling, this is an interesting program.
8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
Closing out the festival strong, the Texas Show short program brings thirteen films by Texas based filmmakers together for an exciting look inside the Lone Star state film scene.
The star of this bunch is Ya’Ke Smith’s dawn., which tells the story of a woman trying to re-adjust to life after being released by prison. This is a rare treat for the festival as it’s the only film to screen twice. It screened earlier at the South Dallas Cultural Center, and if you missed it there, see it here. Smith is a talented filmmaker, and this film is stunning.
Kennedy Baruch adds a bit of animation whimsy with the fun, little Ned’s Rocket. Surely, many people remember the gleeful experience as a child of riding the mechanical rockets or animals out in front of the supermarket. The imagination takes hold, and Baruch’s film offers a nice little throwback.
A couple of films focus on interesting professions. Ramekin Nikzad’s Courtroom Sketch Artist gives a unique perspective on art by telling the story of the downfall of courtroom sketching as it gave away to cameras and photographs. But, there is a silver lining as the sketches find a second life as what they really are. Art. The film offers a discussion about the importance of art in a society that seems to increasingly devalue its role.
David Goodman’s Critterman shows the routine of the title character, a man who does animal shows, à la Jack Hanna. It’s an interesting career of which most never get a behind the scenes view. Seeing the animals’ lives in cages, versus the freeness of the presentations, somewhat conflicts with the delightful image of the animal trainer.
Rehearsal is a grotesquely surreal offering from Tom Rosenburg. As a large group of people prepare for an emergency preparedness drill, participants happily douse themselves in fake blood and prosthetic scars. But, when the explosion goes off that signals the beginning of the drill, the scene descends into chaotic madness. The participants get very into their roles, almost as if the prosthetics and fake blood actually create a mental connection with real injury. In an era of terrorism, the contrasting images of an idyllic middle class American town with the sudden madness that strikes it is a stark take on our world today.
Catherine Licata’s Housekeeping is up there with Smith’s film. Masterful in every way, Licata takes a familiar story, the love triangle of a husband, wife and nanny/housekeeper and tells it in a wonderfully executed, gut-wrenching way. The subtle touch with which Licata directs the film is admirable. It’s definitely one of the strongest entries of the festival.
Other films in this collection are Kayla Cesari’s interesting, if not a little odd, Mr. Henry; Daniel Laabs' EASY; Travis Aitken’s Liability; Mei M. Makino’s Evidence for Santa; Mark Sharon’s Super 8 film descanso means a place to rest; Mark and Angela Walley’s Walley POS-86, parody; and Janaye Brown’s Genesis.
This is one of the strongest programs of the festival and an exciting look at the state of Texas filmmaking. It’s a great way to close out the festival. Definitely make sure to catch it.
» Read our story on Bart Weiss and this year's VideoFest here.
» To see the Dallas VideoFest schedule and info on dates, venues and pricing, go here.