There has always been much to love about the Dallas Video Festival: its eclectic scheduling of full-length features alongside experimental shorts that last this long, its awards named for unheralded pioneers and visionaries (Ernie Kovacs, and now Albert Maysles) and the unbridled, contagious enthusiasm of its founder and artistic director Bart Weiss, who so loves the moving image he'd probably come over to your house to program your TiVo for you, too. Now in its 18th year, the DVF ranks at the very top of this city's film fests, which vie for space with new releases at the art-house mini-malls. That's not to slight its fellow fests, which are only as good as the goods on their schedules, but to underscore the importance of Weiss' child, which has finally reached the age of consent. The DVF is where the oddballs, eccentrics and other freaks feel safe to speak their piece, without fear of derision or condescension from the Cool Kids aiming low for that mainstream dough.
This year's DVF schedule reveals an embarrassment of riches, chief among them the years-in-the-making debuts of local filmmaker Steve Mahone (Radiant, a paranoid sci-fi mind-fuck) and former Dallas Observer film critic Matt Zoller Seitz (Home, about singles sweating out a summer's-eve shindig in Brooklyn), Andrew Wagner's hysterical, heartbreaking The Talent Given Us (starring Wagner's family, though not as his family) and latest feature from former music-video director Jem Cohen, whose Chain, more or less about two women at opposite ends of the economic and cultural spectrum, presents a rather dispiriting portrait of a world consumed by megamalls, hotel chains and voice-mail messages. Also among the don't-miss entries in the fest are documentaries by Simone de Vries (Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso, a surprisingly thoughtful biography of songwriter-novelist-gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman) and local institution Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck, whose The Big Buy details Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the 2002 redistricting of Texas that gave control to the Republicans.
Radiant, especially, has the potential to be a breakout debut on the festival circuit--sort of like Primer, by local filmmaker Shane Carruth, which won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Like Primer, Radiant's a million-dollar movie made on a thousand-dollar budget, a claustrophobic creepshow that takes place in the middle of the wide-open nowhere, where a scientist named Teller Blackpool has congregated a handful of patients infected with indefinable diseases he hopes to cure with a so-called super virus. But problems ensue, as they always do, when government agents arrive and accidentally unleash the unproven virus into the atmosphere, contaminating all but Ed (James Cable, who also produced the movie), who narrates from the confines of his protective HAZMAT suit. The movie's shot like a fever dream, in blown-out colors and washed-out images, which, combined with Cable's deadpan voiceover, are almost hypnotizing and certainly terrifying if you succumb to its end-of-the-world vibe. It's as though you're wearing Ed's suit, waiting for the grisly inevitable.
18th Annual Dallas Video Festival
Alas, though there's too little space here to mention some of the most noteworthy offerings--or the most fun, including Travis Davis' mordant Boy-Next-Door, about a man tired of being rejected, even by a gay rapist played by Richard Moll--there are two you must seek out, or else risk never seeing them at all. One is Al and David Maysles' 1965 Meet Marlon Brando, a rarely screened short from the doc-making brothers in which the young actor pimps his latest movie, Morituri, by hitting on female journalists and interrogating the interrogators. Al Maysles, of course, will also attend the fest to present, what else, the Albert Maysles Award to filmmaker Nelson C. Walker, whose documentaries deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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But without question, the festival's undisputed highlight this year is writer-director Kevin Willmott's CSA: The Confederate States of America, a hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where IFC Films purchased it for distribution. Yet unlike other celebrated snow bunnies that emerged from Utah with big-money deals, including Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State and Super-Size Me, CSA hasn't yet received a proper theatrical release in the United States and probably won't. Unlike those easily digested comedies and exhibitionist docs, it will peter out on the film-fest circuit, get a few playdates overseas (it's a hit in Spain) and wind up on the Independent Film Channel, where the indie can at least recoup some of its investment.
The reason for its art-house snub is simple: CSA, which presents itself as a made-for-Brit-TV documentary about this country as though the South had won the Civil War, is a genuinely provocative film that gives the adjective back its power; you can't simply watch it, giggle at it and then dismiss it as a novel but hollow joke. At first it plays almost like a wicked Mr. Show sketch, with its subversion of old photos and footage used to tell an alternate history in which slavery's still legal and abolitionist Canada is an enemy of the States. The movie appropriates and mocks Ken Burns' too-reverent documentary style and grows increasingly more unsettling the longer (and the further) it goes. That it hasn't seen the inside of a theater is easily explained: It's the gutsiest movie about race, religion and U.S. imperialism ever made, rolled into one giant fist. And it's the only film in the DVF that's being taught at Harvard, by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell.
"After I saw it at Sundance, I thought it showed a kind of malicious wit that's never associated with movies about African-Americans by African-Americans," Mitchell says. "CSA is a movie you gasp at as you laugh at it... My students all loved it, but they were shocked they hadn't heard about it before."
It's films such as CSA that make the Dallas Video Festival essential to this city and its arts culture: Without it, we'd be left wanting and wondering what's going on in the world, real or imagined or somewhere in between.