Red was all the rage at the March 31 opening ceremony of the 5th annual Dallas International Film Festival. Artistic Director James Faust’s bright red tie was indicative of the evening’s affair, where filmmakers, members of the press and the general public gathered to kick off the 11-day festival with a screening of Constance Marks’ Sundance- approved, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.”
The event marked the first screening to take place at the Winspear Opera House, the multimillion dollar structure in downtown Dallas completed in 2009. Inside, the venue’s modern, retractable chandelier shone a glowing red light. The evening began by honoring two of its special guests, film star Ann-Margret (she co-stars in “Lucky,” which premiered at the festival) and Dallas Film Society founder and chairman emeritus Liener Temerlin. Former presidential candidate and honorary festival chair Ross Perot introduced Temerlin, the man behind AFI’s popular “100 Years, 100 Movies,” in a lively speech that segued into a video featuring both former Presidents George H. W. and W. Bush, congratulating the honoree.
The kickoff encapsulated the festival’s curious balance between independent film and a high-profile/high-influence aura. Red carpets and screenings of more mainstream films like Sean McNamara’s “Soul Surfer” and Jason Winer’s “Arthur” remake coincided with screenings of homegrown independent productions – a factor that wouldn’t have been problematic if it weren’t for the city’s logistical transportation difficulties. With three screening venues spread across central Dallas, the festival faced a challenge that wasn’t helped by the city’s poor public transportation system. A fleet of cars provided by sponsor Cadillac mollified the situation, but wasn’t able to solve it outright. The festival will continue expanding as it enters its final weekend by moving to three different venues altogether, with some functions taking place as far as the neighboring city of Plano.
Despite these hiccups, this year’s edition boasted a strong and diverse slate. A string of Sundance and SXSW favorites have their prerequisite presence complemented by an array of international and Texas-centered productions. Spotlight sections on Indian and Latino Cinema reflect upon the region’s demographics and help give exposure to burgeoning filmmakers. Other foreign standouts also featured prominently with new films from established directors like Alex de la Iglesia (“The Last Circus”), François Ozon (“Potiche”) and Takashi Miike (“13 Assassins”).
Texas filmmakers have their own competition in the festival, but it is by no means an exclusive domain to dump Lone Star productions together. Texas filmmakers also had work screen in other sections, as was the case with Tom Provost’s supernatural thriller “The Presence,” which enjoyed its Texas premiere in the festival’s narrative competition. A stark work, “The Presence” is a visually oriented ghost story that goes 17 minutes without a single line of dialogue. “I was born and raised in Texas and I still consider it my home, so it’s an honor to be able to get it on the big screen here,” said the director, who cites Roman Polanski and Alan J. Pakula as inspirations.
Ash Christian’s “Mangus!” was another fresh local voice at the festival, participating in the Premiere Series alongside new films from Miranda July (“The Future”), Morgan Spurlock (“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”) and James Marsh (“Project Nim”). indieWIRE has been following Christian’s second feature since it appeared in our “In the Works” column last year. The film about a handicapped young actor who dreams about playing the role of Jesus in his high school’s musical exudes the quirky sentimentality of a John Waters picture with the visual edge of early Almodóvar.
Christian was able to enjoy the premiere of his latest film at a sell-out screening in his hometown. “They seemed to really get it,” Christian said of the audience’s reaction. “I was nervous because of the whole religious aspect of my film, but they seemed to really enjoy it. There’s a great arts culture here in Dallas and we are happy to have smart audiences who come out to show their support.”
What the Dallas Film Festival has proved in its short span is that the thriving Texas film scene doesn’t begin and end in Austin. After accepting his honors at the opening night gala, Temerlin hinted the event would move in a new direction that reflects SXSW’s growing success. The chairman emeritus announced plans to incorporate a music component to the festival within the next five years, an ambitious plan that mirrors the development of the Austin-based festival that takes place in March. If these plans materialize, they will beg a difficult question: after forging its own identity following its split with the AFI, can Dallas prove that Texas is big enough for two high-profile film and music festivals that take place less than a month apart?
The Dallas International Film Festival runs through April 10.