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DISPATCH FROM TEXAS | Newbie AFI Dallas Fest Kicks the Door In

DISPATCH FROM TEXAS | Newbie AFI Dallas Fest Kicks the Door In

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The inaugural AFI Dallas International Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 1 in Texas.]

Four hours north from the Whole Earthy shops that sell “Keep Austin Weird” merchandise, an upscale Dallas thread shop displays, for twice the price, their own T-shirt: “Keep Dallas Pretentious.” And with no apologies, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival began as founder Liener Temerlin, an unabashed “old ad man,” stated that Dallas “may now hold the world record in size, films, venues, and sponsors for an inaugural film festival.” Though the birth of yet another new film festival shouldn’t make much of a ripple, Temerlin and company might have started a new franchising trend. Licensing the AFI brand for a festival was probably akin to attaching stars to a script — it brought in a laundry list of big blue chip sponsors.

Artistic Director Michael Cain, previously of the Deep Ellum Film Festival, and his team built a program heavy on Texas-born talent, AFI alum (David Lynch‘s “Inland Empire“), and suggestions from AFI Los AngelesChristian Gaines (“Drama/Mex” and “Screamers“). Opening the fest with Dallas-native Steve Sawalich‘s “Music Within” was the safe choice. Starring Ron Livingston as a deaf Vietnam vet fighting for the disabled Americans’ rights, the film rides the middle of the road well, though breaks no ground.

Fellow Dallasite Amy Talkington‘s light, cheery romp, “Night of the White Pants,” turned a circus mirror onto the furs and boots in the audience. Shot locally, it stars Tom Wilkerson as an ex-millionaire Dallas dealmaker battling lawyers, greedy ex-wives, spoiled children, and his own spoiled past. Wilkerson threw himself into the North Texas drawl with both feet and fists, but within all his character’s good ole boy ego, Wilkerson’s hound-dog eyes keep his performance refreshingly grounded. The audience ate it up, as they’ll do with Talkington’s next target: Dallas debutantes.

Narrative competition films included a few imports from Sundance 2007 including Steve Berra‘s “The Good Life” and Martin Hynes‘ “The Go-Getter,” a lost-in-America story that, despite genuine moments of young love between the illuminant Zooey Deschanel and Lou Taylor Pucci, manages to lose its way mid-story.

Crowds inside the Majestic Theater in Dallas attending the inaugural festival. For more photos, check out the festival’s Flickr photo site. Image courtesy of the festival

Among the docs, Joel P. Engardio and Tom Shepard‘s “Knocking,” put the audience inside the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for a change. In its best moments the journalists follow a Witness family into a “bloodless” liver transplant. Witnesses don’t believe in using another’s blood, or even a stored bag of their own, during surgery. Most even carry a card instructing caregivers “no blood.” When a father decides to donate a portion of his liver to his ailing son, the family searches far and wide for a hospital that will do a transfusion-less transplant. They find it at USC who, in exchange, want to use the surgery to test new procedures that will reduce the need for donor blood. Using that as a jumping off point, the filmmakers continue to outline Jehovah Witness history, including their imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps and their victories in litigating for free speech in the US and abroad.

Other noteworthy docs included University of Texas professor Andrew Garrison‘s “Third Ward, TX,” named after a Houston neighborhood where a group of African-American artists took over a block of abandoned homes just before their leveling. After creating unique artist spaces, parks, and much-needed low-income housing, the group then faced the result of their success: gentrification and myopic real estate development. In the aptly titled “A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar,” filmmaker Eric Chaikin follows six people striving to become among the measly 39% that pass the California bar exam, including one unlucky subject who’s failed it 41 times.

While potshots at Dallas pretension are easy, it’s as useless as shooting barrel fish. Dallas doesn’t care what you think. They like their art and they like to pay for it. The Dallas Contemporary, The Nasher, and neighboring Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth are all well funded and arguably premiere destinations for modern art in the Midwest. And while Variety reported the fest’s pricetag at $4 million, much of that money seemed spent on the filmmakers: from the first class airfare to the swank W Hotel rooms, complete with a 3-bottle gift of fine wine in a fancy Target-designed box (just one item among the avalanche of swag). And when Dallasites show up to see David Lynch present his three-hour, interior-view of Laura Dern‘s head, they do it in their Neiman Marcus best, they stay through the whole thing, and they applaud when it’s over. There is pretension here, and there is also class.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Mike Jones is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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