FESTIVALS: Cinematexas: The Ecstatic Truth of Werner Herzog and 125 Other Filmmakers
by Maya Churi
There are hundreds of film festivals that take place every year all over the country. Experimental, short, documentary, Jewish, African-American, human-rights — you name it, there is a festival to cover it. But amidst all the events, the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival stands out as one of the most significant and inspiring festivals in the country.
The home to this festival is Austin, Texas, which has a large film community and hosts numerous film festivals annually. It also has a renowned film school and is home to a number of well-known filmmakers and screenwriters. A considerably “young” town, it is full of T-shirt and jean clad boys on skateboards and funky girls in flip-flops. It is also a place — despite being surrounded on all sides by some of the country’s most conservative communities — that embraces the bold, the radical and the obscure.
Short films tend to get pushed under the rug. The fact that they have little ability to make money has caused them to be easily overlooked by much of the industry. But as Cinematexas’ artistic director David Barker points out, this is their strength, not their weakness. “[The short format] gives a greater range of creative freedom, and short films can be like the anti-bodies of cinema, fighting the disease that has made feature filmmaking so dull recently. We believe that short films are the laboratories of cinema.”
This year’s event, held September 17-21, was the seventh incarnation of the festival, and the turn-out was fabulous. Ticket sales doubled since last year and the fest attracted more than10,000 submissions. But Barker stresses that “One of the ways that we try to present our vision of cinema is by the overlay of what might appear to be very different programming: Buster Keaton combined with avant-garde shorts, a video installation, a movie about a sick duck, Werner Herzog, and a documentary about Wobblies in Montana.” The combination of films, multi-media installations, performance pieces, musical shows and workshops generated a powerhouse of a festival for filmmakers and programmers all over the world.
Cinematexas also serves as four film festivals in one by offering, in conjunction with it’s own programming, the University of Texas Student Competition, Cinemakids, and the Cinemaker International Super 8 Festival. Merging all of these festivals into one benefits the filmmakers and the programmers who come to town looking for new work. “We’ve become known to programmers around the world as a place to discover exciting new short work” Barker says. “Every year there are a couple that get spotted and programmed into Rotterdam or other great international festivals. But more importantly, there’s a great cross-fertilization between these and the other sidebars. We don’t make a distinction between formats, so it’s great to show a $50 Super 8 film up against an expensive 35mm animation in the same program. [We] treat them all equally.” With program titles such as There’s So Much Love in This House, Space in the Place, and The Leisure Class, one can’t help but be intrigued by the possibilities of films which can be categorized by such themes.
The International Short Competition program was full of gems by filmmakers such as Miguel Gomes, Kelly Reichardt, Paula Durette, Jon Jost, and Travis Wilkerson. And although the international competition was strong, it was the special screenings that got the most attention. Two films by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety were screened. Both films took a close look at the strength that exists within those who are ostracized by their community: the poor, the handicapped, the thinkers.
If one were to stay in the theater after watching Mambety’s films, they would be pleasantly surprised to see Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville‘s “France/Tour/Detour/Two/Children.” This 12-part series, which was originally made for French television, takes a critical look at existence through the eyes of children, all the while questioning the role of reporters and criticizing the industrial machine. Each 26-minute show contains a prologue in which we see images such as a mass of commuters existing a subway station, over which the narrator comments, “The monsters emerge from the bowels of the earth.” But the bulk of each show is an un-cut interview with one of two children in which the interviewer asks existential questions. “How do you know you exist when the lights are turned out?” or “If an atomic bomb destroyed your home and your school and there was nothing left, what would you do?” It is not for the light-hearted. But the kids are smart, and they answer the questions with uncomplicated insight and humor.
In the Face Off section, the festival director’s enlisted international programmers to curate a series of contemporary short films from their respective home countries. In addition to these guest curators, Terrence Malick programmed his own section entitled Silence, which featured four of his favorite silent short films.
If a festivalgoer was tired of watching only short films, there were other options. They could visit the moving-image installation series entitled Terra Cognita, which featured Leslie Thorton‘s, multi-screen look at media, environment, and language “The 10,000 Hills of Language.” They could slip into Forcefield’s intriguing, yet deafening, “Sad Robots,” or participate in a Disabled Environments Workshop for artists and people with disabilities. One could also get a sneak peak at a work in progress by performance/media/web artists Miranda July and a show by Tin Hat Trio, who performed over a screening of Wladyslaw Starewicz‘s animations.
But the most significant of all the events at the festival was a program entitled Lessons of Darkness: The Non-Fiction Films of Werner Herzog. Over the course of two nights, sold-out crowds were fortunate enough to view four of Herzog’s films and participate in a discussion with the filmmaker himself. Herzog completely captivated his audience with his sincere search for “ecstatic truth.” Herzog points out that in his documentaries many of the scenes are created and manipulated by his hand. He is forthright in his belief that an image can be just as truthful if it is staged. The first of the four films screened was his 1992 science fiction film “Lessons of Darkness.” Shot from a helicopter as it flew over the burning oil fields of Kuwait, the film never informs it’s viewers of where they are, what they are doing, or what they are looking at. Instead, they are told it is a world destroyed by war after a time of great prosperity. The images of the blackened earth, of 20-story-tall oil containers folded like fabric from the heat, and smoke turning day into night are as beautiful as they are disturbing. The earth looked unreal.
Herzog’s goal with the film is not to put blame for a crime against humanity, but instead to show a crime against creation; crimes that changed the face of the earth.
Cinematexas gave its audience a unique opportunity to find out what makes Herzog’s films so significant. Why does Hans Zimmer refuse payment from him for work he did on a recent project? What causes his contemporaries to bow at his feet when he asks them to let him direct a project that they have been working on? Herzog has the ability to articulate the collective dreams of human kind in a way that no other filmmaker has. He chooses subjects that speak to him and therefore speak to everyone. During one of the discussions Herzog stressed that the biggest problem with films today was that they took images for granted. He said the poetry of images is dying, lost to a world of sitcoms and mediocre movies. In his 1973 television documentary “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner,” the images made one feel as though they were flying and everyone, Herzog points out, dreams of flying.
In New York, Los Angles, or in Park City, one would not have the opportunity to have an intimate discussion with Herzog during a festival. Cinematexas gave its audience that opportunity two nights in a row. There is something to be said about the benefits of things that are small. Small towns, small festivals, big films in small bodies.
When asked what the festival directors hoped to accomplish most Barker replied, “Reinvigorate filmmaking and media making. Bring it back to life. Expand the boundaries of what that means beyond the four walls of cinema. Make it exciting to go the movies again.
[Maya Churi is a writer and filmmaker currently working on a web narrative about a gated community.]