Dallas — This year’s Dallas Videofest presentation of Docufest features two documentaries by women filmmakers that draw on historical footage to tell true stories that are every bit as relevant today as they were in the eras they cover.
With its mash-up of government nuclear paranoia/propaganda footage as political satire in a feature format (think Dr. Strangelove told with Cold War scare films), 1982’s The Atomic Café broke new ground in what a documentary could be. It was done without narration, despite pressure from investors and an offer to have John Belushi do it. Co-director Jayne Loader, a Weatherford native, explains how the film evolved and was reborn with a stunning 4K restoration for 2018.
TheaterJones: How was The Atomic Café conceived?
Jayne Loader: You can credit my partner Pierce Rafferty, he found this notebook listing 7,000 government films and decided to make a film out of them. It wasn’t about the atomic bomb at that point, it was just the concept of doing a film about propaganda. The most interesting ones were about the atomic bomb, and that’s how we narrowed our scope. Pierce and Kevin Rafferty and Stewart Crone moved to Washington, D.C. in early 1977, and I joined them about six months later. I was teaching film theory in New York and working for Seven Days Magazine at the time.
This was the pre-internet days, so you must have spent an ungodly amount of time watching 16mm films with cranks and projectors.
We did, it took five years to make. We went all over the country to these really obscure film depositories for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. Every one of those archives in the end credits is a place we had to visit. It was much more expensive than it would be now, because all that film had to be duplicated, you couldn’t just download it. As far as I know no one held anything back from us, and we never had to file a Freedom of Information Act request. And unlike some people, we cleared all the rights. We don’t have illegal footage in our movie.
TJ: Perhaps the most memorable and startling clip in The Atomic Café shows soldiers ordered to march directly into a nuclear blast mushroom cloud.
Yes, we were at this army base in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, and they had no viewing facilities except hand cranks and a moviescope. So we cranked through everything and suddenly we see footage of soldiers walking into a mushroom cloud, and it was just amazing. There were two army guys just sitting at their desks in the same room and they were like “Whoaaaa”…we wanted to shout “Eureka!” but we were trying not to react, to control ourselves from jumping up and screaming. “Well, this is interesting, don’t you think?” “Yes, very interesting. Ahem…”
What led to the 2018 revival and reissue?
In 2016 The Atomic Café was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, as one of the best films ever made in the US, along with E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Tootsie and Raiders of the Lost Ark from that year. We needed to send the Library of Congress a good print, and we didn’t have one. Turned out Sandra Schulberg of IndieCollect [a film preservation group] had one, we each had material on it. The Library of Congress gave us money to do the restoration. We met and got it all done, and we still had the original films, which is why it sounds so great. We kept the look and feel of the original films—the dust spots, the hair in the gate, the schmutz on the frame—we didn’t completely clean it up. And we didn’t replace any of the original footage with newer copies—in fact, for a lot of the footage in The Atomic Café, you’d be hard pressed to find better versions [now] than what we had [then] …And it would be harder; the Army’s only official response to the film was to get a bit defensive, shut down Tobyhanna and move all those archives out to Norton Air Force Base in the California desert.
Who knew we would ever have to be thinking about this again, and here we are.
Yes, isn’t that depressing? We’re now in a new period where we’re stressed out about whose button is bigger.
» Jayne Loader will attend the screening on Oct. 11, and recommends the film’s legion of fans get Kino-Lorber’s new 4K-restored DVD and Blu-Ray Collectors Edition, a “big improvement” on the old 2002 DVD release.
Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor is the debut feature of Alexa Foreman, longtime researcher for Turner Classic Movies. Her good friend, the late TCM host Robert Osborne, inspired her to make this doc about the Oscar-winning star of Hollywood’s Golden Age who was at the center of a sensational custody battle involving sex and lurid diaries in 1936, while she was shooting the classic Dodsworth.
TheaterJones: How did Robert Osborne inspire you to make Scandal?
Alexa Foreman: He loved Mary Astor and got TCM to make her Star of the Month in 2014. He was fascinated by her. Most people know her as the femme fatale of The Maltese Falcon and Judy Garland’s mom in Meet Me In St. Louis…with the severance money I got [from TCM] in 2015, I started working on this documentary just about the trial. I talked to Robert about it and he recommended Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times critic, he’d know a lot about it. I interviewed him, and by the time I got back to Atlanta, from the trip, Robert had already died, right after he appeared in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Three months later I got a brown envelope from New York: Robert had left me money in his will to finish the documentary. It paid for the Dodsworth clips to the penny, and he loved Dodsworth.
How long did it take to make?
I had two years where I was floundering. I got in touch with Astor’s daughter Marylyn, she was 84 at the time, so I thought, let me get her on film now! I flew into Utah with a crew, got her on film; she brought out some scrapbooks, just fantastic. Next I got David Wyler, William’s son…then back to L.A. for Leonard Maltin, then to New York for Molly Haskins…so it took two years on four different locations, six different shoots, and it fell into place. I didn’t get Robert, but it starts off with his quotation from a script, and it’s dedicated to him. It’s only an hour, but Astor deserves a four-hour doc: the parents, the silent films, through John Barrymore, winning the Oscar, Warner Brothers, MGM, going on stage, doing TV. I wanted to center on her standing up to everything, and I think I achieved that.
What makes this particular Hollywood scandal story so compelling for today?
The themes are universal—mother/daughter, the media, the old Hollywood studio system, standing up for what you believe in, being a survivor. You just shake your head. I don’t know how she survived, but she did.
» Alexa Foreman will be in attendance at the screening on October 13.
Below is the omplete schedule for Docufest 2018, October 10-14. All shows are screened at Angelika Film Center Dallas, except for the opening night presentation at The Texas Theatre.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 10
The Texas Theatre
The Great Buster: A Celebration — Renowned film director and historian Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) delves into the genius of one of Hollywood's timeless comic greats, Buster Keaton. 2018 Venice Film Festival Award Winning Documentary!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11
The Angelika Film Center, Dallas
The Atomic Café — The groundbreaking 1982 cult documentary by Jayne Loader (in attendance), Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, assembled entirely from jaw-dropping, hilarious and horrifying Cold War-era government nuclear paranoia films, is timelier than ever in this stunning new 4K restoration. “Duck and cover!”
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12
Angelika Film Center, Dallas
2 p.m.: Dallas Bar Entertainment, Art & Sports Law "boot camp" legal panels
7 p.m.: Run Like the Devil — Steve Mims’ up-to-the-minute doc explores the 2018 senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke.
9 p.m.: Mr. Soul! — Premiering in 1968, Soul! was the first nationally broadcast all-Black variety show on public television, merging artists from the margins with post–civil rights Black radical thought. Filmmaker Melissa Haizlip in attendance.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 13
Angelika Film Center, Dallas
12 p.m.: Shorts Block
1:45 p.m.: Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor — Using interviews with Mary Astor’s daughter Marylyn, along with film historians Molly Haskell and Leonard Maltin, this film tells the story of Astor’s sensational 1936 child custody case. At the same time the trial was taking place, the actress was filming the classic Dodsworth (1936), directed by William Wyler. Produced, written and directed by Turner Classic Movies researcher Alexa Foreman (in attendance) and narrated by director and Academy Award-winning actress Lee Grant.
4:30 p.m.: Filmmakers Unite (FU): A Collective Response to the State of Our Union — Filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Ellen Bruno have curated a collaborative film project that documents diverse thoughts and feelings about the current political situation in the United States.
7:15 p.m.: Roll Red Roll — Go behind the headlines of a notorious high school sexual assault to witness the social media-fueled “boys will be boys” culture that let it happen. Nancy Schwartzman’s doc is presented by Community Partner Women in Film Dallas and Flicks by Chicks.
9:15 p.m.: Blue Notes Records: Beyond the Notes — This film explores the vision behind the iconic American jazz record label. Director: Sophie Huber.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 14
12pm: Valley of the Sun — Video album of songs about Phoenix in the Anthropocene. Original music composed and performed by Hayden Pedigo and stunning cinematography by Christopher Beaver propel Chip Lord’s film.
1:15 p.m.: Tia Chuck: A Portrait of Chuck Ramirez — Captivating feature length directorial debut by VideoFest alum filmmakers Angela and Mark Walley chronicling the life and work of the late artist Chuck Ramirez (1962-2010). Primarily employing large-scale photography, Ramirez’s artworks investigate everyday life and are charged with metaphors of cultural identity, sexuality, and mortality.
2:45 p.m.: 209 Rue Saint-Maur, Paris 10ÈME – The Neighbours — After selecting a building at random in a Jewish neighborhood in Paris, French director Ruth Zylberman meticulously reconstructed its community of inhabitants during the German occupation. Presented in Partnership with 3 Stars Jewish Cinema.
5 p.m.: 306 Hollywood — A magical realist documentary of two Jewish siblings who undertake an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s house. By Elan and Jonathan Bogarin, presented in partnership with 3 Stars Jewish Cinema. Preceded by the short teaser, Mr. Stanley, The Merchant Prince.
6:45 p.m.: Call Her Ganda — When Jennifer Laude, a Filipina transwoman, is brutally murdered by a U.S. Ma- rine, three women intimately invested in the case -- an activist attorney (Virgie Suarez), a transgender journalist (Meredith Talusan) and Jennifer’s mother (Julita "Nanay" Laude) -- galvanize a political uprising, pursuing justice and taking on hardened histories of U.S. imperialism. Director P.J. Raval in attendance.
9 p.m.: Our New President? — By turns horrifying and hilarious, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film is a satirical portrait of Russian meddling in the 2016 election that reveals an empire of fake news and the tactics of modern-day information warfare.
For tickets and a schedule, CLICK HERE
Programs and showtimes are always subject to last-minute change so check http://videofest.org daily for updates.