FESTIVALS: Random Acts of Video at the 13th annual Dallas Video Festival
by Debi Bryant
(indieWIRE/4.5.2000) -- Deep in the heart of Dallas, video fans got to sample a little bit of everything at the five-day Dallas Video Festival held March 22-26. With main facilities at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater that sits serenely above azalea-lined Turtle Creek, this year's vid-fest featured more than 200 screenings, two award ceremonies, various and sundry parties, filmmaker workshops and generally calm spring weather (not always a certainty, as anyone who has flown through DFW Airport can attest).
Festival Director Barton Weiss served as sole judge and jury on all selections, except for the opening night's "Texas Show," which showcased local and regional talent. He told indieWIRE that he has no set criteria for his picks. He wanted to show a broad range of topics and styles -- "to show all the ways video expresses itself to the audience." He was exceptionally enthusiastic about the development of new technology that has improved video's quality while lowering costs. "Independent video artists can now express themselves in extremely different ways. People from different cultures and different aspects of society have a chance to tell their stories in the medium of their time," he said.
If there was a theme for the festival, it had to be variety. Screenings fell into diverse categories: documentaries, narratives, exposes, art pieces, animation, religious, ethnic, gay/lesbian, music, environmental, pop culture, just to name a few.
In a piece that surely has some sphincter muscles tightening in religious circles, "Segregated Sunday," which was directed by John Carstarphen and produced by Rebecca Rice, asked the question -- why are churches the last bastions of segregation in this country? It was filmed locally, which Dallas-based Carstarphen explained was caused by budgetary constraints, but given Dallas' reputation as the jewel on the buckle of the Bible belt, it was a happy accident. Several prominent churches refused to be interviewed, but the brave souls who did participate offered thoughtful and invigorating commentary on that combustible mix of race and religion.
A piece by Errol Morris called "Stairway to Heaven" took a look at an autistic woman who has developed a humane method for taking animals to the slaughterhouse. Ron Mann's "Grass, " an evenhanded documentary on the use of recreational marijuana, created a lot of festival buzz. On the same topic, in "Gatewood for Governor!" filmmaker Mark Birnbaum followed Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith, a bona fide American character, on his quest to legalize hemp and marijuana.
In "Did We Go?," Aron Ranen proved to the five percent out there who don't believe we made a lunar landing that, yes, in fact, we did. Along the way, he also discovered the presence of the KKK and former Nazis working in the U.S. space program. Italian director Marco Bartoccioni tagged along with a group of Mexican shamans and healers in "The Teaching of the Shamans." The piece is part of his larger, 10-year effort to document shamans in many cultures, including China, Siberia and Indonesia.
Other notable mentions go to David Nelson's "I Am Scorpio," a partially autobiographical drama of child molestation and narcissism; "A Nappy Hair Affair," in which Linda Jones captured, in home-movie style, a gathering of African American women called "Twisted Sistahs" talking about hair; and Shelli Ainsworth's "Spa," a funny tale of an overburdened working mother who goes on a spa weekend and almost decides to stay.
Kids were given prominent attention at the festival -- and not just onscreen. Media literacy lectures and hands-on camcorder workshops were held as well as a screening called "Kids on Violence," a series of shorts produced, directed and starring high schoolers. Most were of the quality and earnestness that you'd expect -- with one dramatic standout. Sixteen-year-old filmmakers Matt Brundige, Patrick Parker and Taylor Allen put together a surprisingly sophisticated storyline and image sequence in their piece.
When indieWIRE asked the three boys why they chose a female as their protagonist, they said they thought it would be interesting to see things from a female viewpoint. What they didn't expect to find was so much female cruelty. Parker said, "With the girls we interviewed, we found they go through a lot of small, day-to-day emotional hurts." Keep an eye on these kids -- they've already mastered basic marketing. With $1.29 in white shoe polish, they promoted their production company "Apple Stealers" by painting up their car.
For entries that didn't make the cut, festival organizers chose a democratic route by teaming up with Yahoo! Broadcast to stream all entries online. This online outlet allowed viewers to vote on a People's Choice winner who got Friday night screen time. Filmmaker Ramzi Abed won with "Awakening," an eight-minute visual meditation on death and judgment inspired by a Franz Kafka novel. Abed said, "It was weird sitting in there Friday night because after it ended, there was dead silence. No one knew what to think. I usually get extreme reactions like that with my personal work since so much of it is about exorcising my demons."
The event concluded Sunday night with an Academy Awards event, which at first glance, seemed an odd ending. After all, not many of the attendees looked like the types to take the Oscars too seriously. But when the cast with a billion viewers comes to your back door, you might as well join the party.
After 12 years of putting this show on, the organizers have gotten it down pat. Presenters kept their remarks short; few screenings experienced technical glitches; features ran on time. After the first two evenings, though, the crowd and atmosphere seemed a bit subdued. Fans may have been suffering from some fatigue after the monster South by Southwest affair down in neighboring Austin the previous week. Or there were plenty of local distractions like the aforementioned sunny days and nearby parks, or the blues festival in downtown Dallas or the Body Art Ball held Saturday night in funky Deep Ellum.
On Thursday evening, actor Martin Mull received a festival award after which he conducted a scathingly funny question-and-answer session. Although Mull still earns a living in TVLand, his heart now belongs to painting. He said, "With my painting, I try to get my intellect and self out of the way. I subscribe to what Matisse said about us making art in spite of ourselves." That's also a good description of many of this festival's video artists and the subjects onto which they turned their cameras.
[Debi Bryant is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She and husband Craig photograph drive-in movie theaters in all their various states of degeneration and regeneration.]