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Writer and director Ryan Hartsell, right, preps actor Chris O'Dowd for a scene in a giant testicle hot air balloon called Skyballs for Flight School Studios' virtual reality film The Evolution of Testicles, one of the many films that mix new media forms with traditional cinema for Dallas VideoFest's Alt-Fiction Fest.EXPAND
Writer and director Ryan Hartsell, right, preps actor Chris O'Dowd for a scene in a giant testicle hot air balloon called Skyballs for Flight School Studios' virtual reality film The Evolution of Testicles, one of the many films that mix new media forms with traditional cinema for Dallas VideoFest's Alt-Fiction Fest.
courtesy Dallas VideoFest

VideoFest's Alt-Fiction Fest Puts You in New Perspectives Both Cinematically and Virtually

Even if the mainstream has squandered media's powers, television, film and new advancements in virtual technology still possess the amazing ability to transport audiences to new places and perspectives.

So many new and exciting ventures are exploring these growing art forms that the Dallas VideoFest can't share it with just one festival. Last year, they split it into the traditional VideoFest that showcases the best of new and classic video art and the Alternative Fiction Fest that shares bold, new dramatic expressions through the medium of film and TV.

"Two years ago, we decided instead of doing 150 films in six or seven days, let's break up the festival in two," says VideoFest founder and chief executive officer Bart Weiss. "The idea here is to show narrative work for either TV or film and how they deal with storytelling in the world in different kinds of ways."

The Alt-Fiction Fest features several film screenings of local filmmakers and its first exploration into virtual reality film at the Angelika Film Center through Sunday.

"We have a Dallas-centric festival with a lot of local work that we thought was really important and needed to be highlighted," Weiss says. "We have a lot of prime-time slots where we are going to show Dallas-based films."

Actress Jo Schellenberg, left, and actress and director Jenni Tooley talk about their new film Stuck that's screening in the VideoFest's Alternative Fiction Fest at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Angelika Film Center.EXPAND
Actress Jo Schellenberg, left, and actress and director Jenni Tooley talk about their new film Stuck that's screening in the VideoFest's Alternative Fiction Fest at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Angelika Film Center.
Danny Gallagher

Some of the films are old favorites, such as musician David Byrne's satirical tabloid comedy True Stories, and tributes to pioneering female filmmakers, among them actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino and her classic film-noir The Hitchhiker and groundbreaking film director Alice Guy Blaché. The festival offers new works of cinema, such as actress and director Jenni Tooley's multi-layered, female-driven exploration of human memory, Stuck, which screens at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Weiss says the films the festival chose were selected for their artistic merit and achievements and to push the work of women in cinema both past and present. His goal is to have the roster of films for his festivals equalized by 2020.

"As a teacher of film, I give my students a list of 100 films to see," Weiss says. "It's very clear that women are not as equally represented in those lists and that's a real problem."

Tooley's Stuck tells the story of a woman struggling to recall her memories. It then morphs into a dramatic trilogy of connected stories of a drug-addict ballerina and mother, a country singer who tries to remain anonymous and hidden in her hometown, and a sister struggling between the thoughts in her mind and the feelings in her heart.

Tooley says the inspiration for her film came from a tragic moment in her life. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Tooley wanted to know what was going on in her mind as her memories slipped away from her.

"It's about what it's like to lose your mind," Tooley says, "what it's like being stuck and not being able to move forward in life."

Tooley shot her film in 2016 in Dallas on a small budget after earning recognition from her role in director Richard Linklater's Oscar-nominated Boyhood. That experience helped secure funding and support from the community, even though she was "someone who hadn't made a full-length movie."

Actress Jo Schellenberg joined Tooley's project in one of Stuck's leading roles. She says the first time she watched it, "It jarred me for the first few minutes, and I just let go and was able to follow the rhythm of this and get the payoff at the end."

"I'm not going to tell you too much about what it's about except that we all live with memories and pieces of our lives," Schellenberg says. "The story and the manner it was filmed is so clear about how our brains work and how we see our lives as we keep going."

Visitors to the festival can also see films on the much more isolating and immersive stage of virtual reality, with a series of demonstrations of Dallas-based Flight School Studios' film work for the Oculus VR for Good program. VR for Good is a tech-driven, social awareness project that supports filmmakers who want to use the headset to create experiences that have a positive effect on the world.

The immersive educational documentary The Evolution of Testicles, starring Chris O'Dowd, discusses the history of this key part of the male anatomy by using humor to start a dialogue about more serious subjects like testicular cancer.

"I was selected and paired to do a piece on testicular cancer, and I was like, 'How the hell am I gonna make something about balls?" says VR filmmaker and director Ryan Hartsell. "Humor, that's how you get guys to pay attention. When you get too clinical, they take the headset off."

O'Dowd discusses the subject in a variety of locations and experiences, from prehistoric times where the viewer "gets tea-bagged by a Brontosaurus ballsack," to high in the sky above the Bonneville Salt Flats in a "100-foot-tall nut sack balloon" called Skyballs, a creative awareness tool launched by the Male Cancer Awareness Campaign, Hartsell says.

Some of Hartsell's other films also utilize VR's immersive and exploratory vision to tell deep, dramatic stories like the Emmy-nominated Manifest 99, an eerie story on a mysterious train with four strangers who unfold the tragic stories leading to their deaths through the viewer's eyes. Wonder's Land is a short augmented-reality film for children that offers a fresh, new take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland universe.

Hartsell says an immersive viewing experience doesn't just serve as a neat trick to make an audience member feel like they are in the film or experience they are watching.

"People are more vulnerable to what they experience, whereas an audience has a lot of distractions and they read off whatever people are experiencing," Hartsell says. "This is an isolating, solitary experience they're more intimately involved in, and when you're in that VR space, you feel their presence."

It also sucks all of the viewer's senses into the film and even into the messages it is trying to convey.

"When you're in the VR space, you feel their presence," he says. "It's an opportunity for creating engagement by letting people have an emotional tie in VR."

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