By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 8, 2008 at 11:39AM
At first glance, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival appears to have a lot in common with the similarly nascent Tribeca Film Festival. Both gatherings are in their first decades of existence, emphasize locality by spotlighting the works of filmmakers from their own communities, and rely on major corporate sponsorship to stay afloat. However, AFI Dallas senior programmer James Faust and programming coordinator Sarah Harris compare their eleven day event, which concluded its sophomore run last weekend, to September's far sturdier Toronto International Film Festival. "Dallas isn't as big or metropolitan," Faust said, "but, structurally, that's the way we're laid out."
Given the density of the program and the ambitiousness of applying the AFI label to yet another film festival (following Los Angeles' AFI Fest and Maryland's Silverdocs), AFI Dallas does appear to carry a weight beyond its years. "Honestly, it was a little daunting at first," said Faust, formerly programming manager and managing director of Dallas' Deep Ellum Film Festival, where Harris served as his intern (and AFI Dallas CEO and artistic director Michael Cain ran the show). Faust said the crowded line up of international titles has been an experimental process. "It's hard to say no," he explained. "We want to cover so much. We're just growing and seeing what we can support."
As a result, it's hard to get a sense for the festival's five or ten year plan, but Faust, Harris and the rest of the Dallas-based organizers have smartly assembled an aesthetically compelling affair without negating the relevance of the scene. "It's a chance for some people to see great films and other people to feel cool," said Faust. Although not exclusively a haven for small films, AFI Dallas has managed to retain an independent slant. "We want to make sure that every film is good and that we're behind it, and we are," said Harris.
However, a great deal of the program has yet to find theatrical distribution, including some films with built-in visibility. Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened," an endearingly perceptive adaptation of producer Art Linson's zany Hollywood memoir starring Robert De Niro, came to town at the end of the week with director, writer and lead actor in tow. Major theatrical prospects for the movie were quite possibly squelched by an overhyped Sundance premiere, and it now appears that executive producer Todd Wagner's Magnolia Pictures might take it on.
Levinson told the audience that the cut had been only slightly altered since Sundance. "There are still things to finish on it," he said, adding that it hadn't landed a distributor yet because they feared that the general public wouldn't comprehend the industry humor. "That's the insider thinking," he said. "That only they can understand it." De Niro echoed the sentiment. "It's a world that we know," he said. "That was part of the fun of it." Nevertheless, that conceit seems oddly ironic, because the subtle humor of "What Just Happened" as its jaded protagonist stumbles through various ill-fated, star-studded projects, features a surprising amount of universality. Despite an overly self-satisfied finish, the latest cut of "What Just Happened" displays genuine concern for the pressures of a commercially-driven lifestyle.
Other festival successes that appeared here in slightly updated versions include "Triangle," the Hong Kong action flick robustly directed by Chinese genre masters Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, which has a delightfully weird slapstick finish regrettably preceded by an uninteresting trajectory, and Michael Addis' documentary "Heckler," wherein Jamie Kennedy confronts critics of his performances. Addis has kept his movie resolutely modern, as it now touches on Sean Young's recent heckling of Julian Schnabel, in addition to featuring a brief interview with her.
Despite an incessantly hilarious first act, unfortunately, "Heckler" falters once it begins attacking film critics. Addis primarily singles out young, witless junketeer types as its main targets without distinguishing them from other members of the field. Its intentionally (and often obnoxiously) provocative approach will surely instigate debate when it comes out this summer.
While "Heckler" landed a distribution deal months ago, the narrative entry "Disfigured" was bought by Cinema Libre just last week, following its Dallas screening. The touching and frequently entertaining story of an overweight woman (Deidra Edwards) and her bulimic friend (Stacy Lawrence), "Disfigured" speaks to a distinct crowd with a mixture of humor and intelligence, wavering only slightly when lesson-filled monologues take over near the end.
It's a little strange that "Disfigured," a tame, low-profile title, managed to secure the sole deal at AFI Dallas, while the magnificent Indian narrative "Amal" -- a much-loved hit at several other festivals -- still needs a buyer (although release plans have been secured in its native country and in the Middle East). A stunningly moving neorealist fable, "Amal" tracks the struggles of the titular rickshaw driver (Rupinder Nagra), a poor yet humbly satisfied man unwittingly awarded with a massive fortune. Thanks to a gut-punching finale that leaves audiences in perennial states of awe, "Amal" has amazing staying power. Twenty-nine year old director Richie Mehta doesn't expect it to play great in India, where, he said, it's an "automatic 'high art' film because there's no singing." But with the right American release, "Amal" could become an ideal awards movie (Mehta plans to submit it as Canada's Best Foreign Film entry).
The sensational documentary "Afghan Muscle" also looks like the kind of material to get co-opted for an American audience via an awards campaign if it weren't just under an hour long, making a theatrical release highly unlikely. Shot on low grade video, "Afghan Muscle" contains an intensely revealing inspection of Afghanistan's bodybuilding culture, focusing on the experiences of one competitor hoping to win the prestigious Mr. Asia title. Keenly paralleling the Middle Eastern nation's weakened stature in the international landscape, "Afghan Muscle" is nonetheless destined for obscurity outside the festival bubble, but that's the precise ingredient of independence that AFI Dallas should strive to maintain.
Meanwhile, the party environment works to its advantage: Dallas natives Polyphonic Spree played a characteristically lively set during the festival's closing night party at the House of Blues on Saturday night. A dozen musicians sang in harmony, with an extensive lighting scheme forming a lavish spectacle. The first set climaxed with an encore as all the musicians returned to the stage in angelic robes and played an upbeat cover of Nirvana's "Lithium"--an appropriate choice, considering that Stuart Townsend's "Battle in Seattle" screened earlier in the evening. The band played on, forming a sound best labeled as robust. Finally coming to a close, the festival itself adhered to the same description.
TARGET TEN NARRATIVE FEATURE: MERMAID
DIR: Anna Melikyan (Russia)
Cast: Mariya Shalayeva, Yevgeni Tsyganov, Mariya Sokova
HONORABLE MENTION: BAD HABITS
DIR: Simon Bross (Mexico)
Cast: Ximena Ayala, Elena de Haro, Marco Antonio Trevino
TARGET TEN DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA
DIR: Daniel Junge (USA)
CURRENT ENERGY EARTH FRIENDLY: FIELDS OF FUEL
DIR: Josh Tickell (USA)
MPS STUDIOS TEXAS: COOK COUNTY
DIR: David Pomes (USA)
Cast: Anson Mount, Xander Berkeley, Ryan Donowho, Polly Cole
HONORABLE MENTION: CIAO
DIR: Yen Tan (USA)
Starring: Adam Neal Smith, Alessandro Calza, Ethel Lung
HDNET FEATURE: TRACING COWBOYS
DIR: Jason Wulfsohn (USA)
Starring: Eileen Dietz, Megan Edwards, Sacha Grunpeter
SHORT: THE SECOND LINE
DIR: John Magary (USA)
HONORABLE MENTION: A CATALOG OF ANTICIPATIONS
DIR: David Lowery (USA)
STUDENT SHORT: THE VULNERABLE ONES (LES VULNERABLES)
DIR: Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt (Congo/USA)
HONORABLE MENTION: A DAY'S WORK
DIR: Rajeev Dassani (USA)
ANIMATED SHORT: KEY LIME PIE
DIR: Trevor Jimenez (Canada)
DIR: Richie Mehta (Canada)
Cast: Rupinder Nagra, Naseeruddin Shah, Seema Biswas, Koel Purie
DOCUMENTARY: THE BLACK LIST
DIR: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (USA)
Featuring: Chris Rock, Lou Gossett Jr., Vernon Jordan, Thelma Golden
SHORT: A DAY'S WORK
DIR: Rajeev Dassani (USA)