Films with a Lone Star State of Mind
by Bridgette Poe
Over the past decade, The Dallas International Film Festival has not only showcased works made within the state, but also films that have some connection to Texas – be it a native filmmaker, a story based-connection, etc. Films that are screening in this year’s DIFF continue to proudly build upon that tradition.
OCCUPY, TX is one of two films shot in Dallas that also has a Texas-based story. Beau Baker is a ‘disillusioned Occupier’ who is called home to Texas from his protest point in Zucotti Park. Director Jeff Barry not only embraces and takes advantage of the beauty of our North Texas city in his serio-comic, moving narrative, he also makes great use of another one of our most valued resources – talent. Barry’s OCCUPY, TX cast is rounded out with some of the area’s best character actors, such as Gail Cronauer and Libby Villari.
William Kaufman’s DAYLIGHT’S END also shares these aspects. While taking a completely different approach – Kaufman’s story is about a mysterious infection that turns the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a band of survivors are desperate to survive – this movie also features many recognizable Texas actors and actresses. Audiences of DIFF in the years past will definitely recognize some of the strong female talent. (One of the supporting leads, Heather Kafka, also turns in a strong performance this year in the Austin-made short, MIDNIGHT MOTEL.) Farah White, who served as both producer and an actor on DAYLIGHT’S END, has brought both capacities and more to countless productions over DIFF’s tenure. In addition to capitalizing on Dallas’s on-camera talent and location features (the downtown area and skyline was especially put to good use) director William Kaufman’s tense, horror tale of survival also utilized some of the area’s best production crew. There’s no question that our fair city added quite a bit to DAYLIGHT’S non-stop, heart-thumping action!
Another film worthy of recognition for being shot entirely in the North Dallas area is LATE BLOOMERS, which is enjoying a 20th anniversary screening at this year’s festival. It’s the story of how small-town, Bible-belt suburbia reacts when two middle aged women, the High School basketball coach and the school secretary, fall in love. This heart-felt comedy was especially ahead of its time on the subject of gay marriage – and much of the cast was comprised of Dallas’ best. (Many of whom viewers will recognize because for the most part, as established actors, all still do notable work on screen and stage) Growing up in the area, the filmmakers were certainly aware that North Texas talent isn’t limited to just actors, the band Brave Combo is also highly featured. The film was written by Julia Dyer and directed by her sister Gretchen (who passed away in 2009). Julia Dyer’s 2011 film THE PLAYROOM was made as a tribute of sorts to the creative partnership between the sisters and was also shot in Dallas.
The hilariously off-beat ‘coming of age’ tale SLASH comes to us from Austin-based director Clay Liford. This Texas Competition feature is based on his same-titled short that played DIFF in 2013 – as did his Texas-made films WUSS and EARTHLING (2011 and 2010, respectively). As with the films already cited, by employing some of the area’s best talent and crew, Liford has crafted yet another work that serves as a solid reflection of our state’s film making industry.
In addition to the features, several docs playing this year also have Lone Star State connections. The most obvious of course, A SONG FOR YOU: THE ACL STORY. The music aspect aside, one would be hard pressed to find a more quintessential film about Texas. To trace the 40-year history of the PBS concert series is basically to review everything that has happened for the past four decades, both locally and in the world-at-large, as filtered through the significant musicians of each era. Growing up in Texas, at a time when television channels and offerings were limited, there’s a good number of us who are (ahem) of a ‘certain age’ that absolutely remember the first airings of “Austin City Limits” – and how quickly it became significant and what a direct cultural impact it made. THE ACL STORY presents its real-life story in a highly entertaining context, but a couple of other docs programmed for this year take a much different approach to examining some true Texas situations.
From Austin-based director Cassie Hay, THE LIBERATORS is an outrageous, yet totally true story that culminates and (almost) solves the grand mystery in a tiny Texas town. The theft of the “Quedlinburg Treasures” at the end of World War II is only the beginning of this saga – and for the man trying to locate the stolen art, after trekking all over Europe and to New York, finding himself in Whitewright, TX is somewhat mind-blowing. “Colorful” doesn’t even come close to describing the characters that inhabit this place – they might come off as quaint, simple folk but as they add their insight and opinions on the case, it’s all delivered with an certain irresistible charm and a glint in the eye.
On a much more somber note is UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT, a true story about a young mother in Corpus Christi, on trial for killing her adopted son. The filmmakers (Jenna Jackson and Andrew Jackson) are native Texans whose 2014 doc, TOMATO REPUBLIC about the tiny town of Jacksonville, TX, screened at DIFF in 2014 and received a Special Jury Prize. (The close-knit East Texas community they highlighted in that film actually shares a certain sensibility with the afore-mentioned citizens of Whitewright.) UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT thoroughly examines how frightening the legal system can be when it goes awry. In stark contrast to their prior film, this piece definitely shows the filmmaking team’s range. Co-director Jenna Jackson’s background in journalism and investigative television becomes very apparent in this balanced, yet thoroughly documented case. While a tough one to watch – the payoff (and subsequent faith in humanity restored) makes it absolutely worthwhile.
Another film intent on adding some value to the conversation is SIGNS OF HUMANITY. The idea originated with Willie Baronet, advertising legend and SMU professor. Willie’s project not only takes on a humanitarian mission aspect, it challenges the norm of documenting a story and the cinema-verite’ aspect. Portions of the screening proceeds will be donated to The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, a Dallas-based shelter. SIGNS OF HUMANITY beautifully serves as a reminder that not all film is simply meant to entertain – art can (and does) make us more actively aware of the world around us and can even contribute to change.
Two other films playing this year’s Dallas International Film Festival also take on stories with substance, but both use specifically different approaches to the traditional documentary. TOWER and BOOGER RED are incredibly unique and use different mediums to achieve their goal, yet both of these distinctive and disturbing stories come back to a Texas foundation.
TOWER is an imaginative retelling of one our darkest moments in history, or as phrased by the tagline, “When the worst in one man brought out the best in so many others.” Director Keith Maitland details the unknown stories of all those who were caught up in the University of Texas tower shootings. Described as a ‘seven character ensemble,’ the first half of the film, set in 1966, is intermingled with archival footage and rotoscope animation recreation (based on real witness interviews) – it then works its way to the current day where actual survivors are revealed. An incredibly powerful piece, regardless of how familiar with the event – every viewer will definitely be moved. (Maitland has clearly put his ‘documentary stamp’ on DIFF, he also directed A SONG FOR YOU: THE AUSTIN CITY LIMITS STORY and his work THE EYES OF ME was in doc competition DIFF 2009).
BOOGER RED breaks all kinds of rules and traditions. Like TOWER, BOOGER RED is hybrid of sorts – except here, the blend is between documentary and narrative filmmaking. Director Berndt Mader casts an actor (Onur Tukel) to portray a journalist investigating a true case of an alleged child sex ring being run from a swinger’s club in Mineola, TX. His search for the truth, however, brings up even more to consider. Well-acted and with stellar production values, BOOGER RED weaves a uniquely engaging tale. Mader shot his film in East Texas and it was made in collaboration with The Bear, an Austin-based production company. (Mader, who grew up in Dallas, took home the Grand Jury Prize from the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival for his feature 5 TIME CHAMPION.) While in no way meant to be a fully comprehensive list – all these films (and every single person involved with them) only continue to add to Texas’s well-deserved reputation as a wildly creative and accomplished movie-making state.
DALLAS STAR AWARDOscar-nominated cinematographer Ed Lachman’s selected credits as a cinematographer include the Emmy nominated HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce and films including DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, and the Academy Award nominated film, CAROL.
DALLAS MAVERICK AWARDOur inaugural honoree, director, editor and producer Monte Hellman, has a career that spans six decades. He has exemplified cutting-edge filmmaking across multiple genres, working with budgets, from high-to-low, and with casts featuring stars to complete unknowns.