"If you don't want to see sex with a duck, leave about an hour and 10 minutes in," says Bart Weiss, Dallas VideoFest's organizer and programmer. We're eating a sensible breakfast in Oak Cliff as Weiss describes a historical documentary called Natan, which screens this weekend at VideoFest. It's about an unsung silent-era filmmaker who was declared guilty of pornography without proof, stripped of his French citizenship and sent to Auschwitz. The film dissects Bernard Natan's exceptional career and builds to this duck-sex scene, presenting the damningly vague evidence responsible for his eventual conviction and concentration camp death sentence.
"It's powerful," Weiss says. "It looks nothing like him."
Weiss considered requesting an edited version of Natan, or finding some other work-around. Sex with a duck is, well, graphic. He knows that omitting it would have increased the film's palatability for a greater audience. But applying censorship that detracts from a work's thesis inevitably puts power in the unknown. That stunts the generation of factual dialog, and that's highly antithetical to Dallas VideoFest's mission.
The scene in question was the sole evidence provided to end a human life: Had a few more people watched it critically before declaring him guilty, history would have played out very differently for Bernard Natan. (Natan screens at 9:15 p.m. Thursday.)
Labeling Weiss a provocateur is unfair, as is saying he thrives on the divisive. For more than a quarter century, he's devoted himself to locating and retrieving the world's most authentic stories, then screening the things here in Dallas. He's particularly drawn to work that presents multiple sides of a tale, or gives a broader perspective of a pressing, contemporary political topic through an unconventional means.
For the festival's 26th year, Weiss has found a wacky sci-fi flick about African Americans attempting to escape oppression by colonizing Mars; a documentary about abortions performed on international waters called Vessel; and an "un-Kennedy Kennedy film" told through the recall of Tammi True, the head dancer at Jack Ruby's strip club, which opens the festival tonight at Gilley's. He's also holding a panel on Google Glass, to examine technology's reach into personal privacy.
There's levity, too, as in Sunday's panel discussion featuring the locals who create those Dallas Mavs Megatron videos, which immediately follows a film about Wilt Chamberlin working awkwardly at a resort in the Catskills, pre-NBA fame. The 26th Dallas VideoFest runs Wednesday through Sunday; the beef of it is carved out at the new Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson.
There's so much to see that we asked Weiss about the films and panels dearest to him. He humored us, but also promised that anyone looking for a day-by-day cinematic Sherpa should email him. He will happily custom-build you a schedule based on your interests, free of charge. Here's a few that we find especially exciting.
A couple years back, filmmaker Diana Whitten gave a talk for TEDxAmazonia about her new film Vessel, which gets a preview screening at DVF. The documentary focuses on an organization called Women on Waves, which uses a Dutch ship to provide legal abortion services and education near countries that outlaw the practice. Roughly half of terminated pregnancies in the world happen where abortion is outlawed, Whitten explained, and this boat provides a safe, sanctioned loophole: When it's off the coastline, it prevents women from seeking more harmful options.
Women on Waves anchors its floating clinic 13 miles from shore, then shuttles those in need out to international waters. Once aboard the Dutch vessel, abortion becomes legal. When considering Texas' recent restrictions regarding female reproductive rights, which go into effect on October 20, Weiss considers this film a critical selection.
"The dialog ended when Wendy Davis sat down," Weiss says. "The implications of what went on are happening now. This is very much something that could happen here."
Vessel will show at roughly 98 percent completion, so it will still be eligible for Sundance premiere status later this year. You'll get a first look at 6:45 p.m. Thursday and another at 9:45 p.m. Friday.
Music producer. Cultural archivist. Sound hoarder. All seem acceptable terms to describe Arhoolie Records Label roustabout Chris Strachwitz. Through the cameras of Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon you'll follow Strachwitz as he tracks beats from Appalachia to the bayou. He's insatiable in his hunt, searching for moments of musical authenticity that deserve or require preservation. Added bonus: This film has a killer backbeat.
Home Movie Day
Prior to the festival, DVF made a public call for home-movie submissions. Super 8, VHS, DVD: All formats were welcome. During the home-movie portion of Saturday's programming, which teases a nation-wide celebration happening a week later, you'll witness publicly how your upbringing compared with your peers' as these lost moments are exhumed and aired out on a giant screen.
"In everybody's mind they have some sense of what their parents were like, and it may be worse or better than they remember it," Weiss says. "Home movies really preserve the realities of the past, in a way that historical documentaries and historical dramas don't."
They're also great fast tracks to therapy, so check your provider coverage before arrival. (Noon to 12:45 p.m. Saturday)
University of Kansas film educator Kevin Willmott writes, directs and stars in this science-fiction romp, set in 1930s America. After select secret meetings, aging black leaders decide there's only one way to escape the racial constructs that trap them: build a rocket to Mars and colonize the planet. There's a twist, naturally, involving the time/space continuum and lots of fantastic globe-shaped helmets. Lock yourself in for cultural hyper-launch and prepare for a wacky other-world adventure, laced with political overtones.
Throughout the Nixon administration, Super 8 was on the rise. Recording adventures and exploits wasn't just a joy for suburban families; those closest to Nixon were equally addicted. Three Nixon aides -- Dwight Chapin, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman and John Ehrlichman -- were especially enthusiastic about the new medium and brought cameras everywhere they traveled.
That gathered footage was later confiscated during the Watergate investigation, then held in the National Archives until director Penny Lane and the crew of Our Nixon paid to have the things made into high-quality transfers. Now the renegade Nixon movies are available to the public. For this film, those historical snippets are collaged into a presidential portrait through film reels, auditory recordings, news reports and this never-seen Super 8 footage. You'll watch the world unfold through the eyes of those who shaped it.
Known foremost as the producer of the wildly popular television programs The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, the New York born-and-bred Sheldon Leonard had the trust of TV execs. What's interesting about him is how he leveraged that value with I Spy, the first dramatic series to feature an African American lead, played by Bill Cosby.
Weiss says that Leonard had to fight for that, and getting Cosby a role that humanized and evened out the characteristics between the show's cross-cultured stars was integral in moving public perception forward.
"My real belief is that as much as civil rights marches made an impact on America, seeing African Americans on television and on television commercials was so important," Weiss says. "My sense is that when you understand someone else, it's hard to hate them. So casting Cosby in this role is like, 'Oh, I don't know any black people, but that guy's OK.'" Learn more about Leonard's legacy at 7:15 p.m. Thursday.
Due to its high price point, you probably haven't had much facetime with Google Glass, the trendiest new tool in augmented-reality eyewear. Here, you can leach information off of those who know and can afford more than you. It's the American way.
Bart tells a story that targets his fascination: A friend of his was walking down a street in New York when his Glass displayed a message that his flight was a half-hour behind. "Now I want you to think about this for a minute," Weiss says. "It's not like he said, 'Google Glass: When's my flight?,' or 'What's my status?'" The eyewear carries with it all the data that Google has on you, which is seemingly everything from emails and correspondences to where you're going after you finish that drink.
It saw an opportunity to be helpful and volunteered the information. "This is both scary and useful," Weiss says.
In addition to the generous level of trust users are placing in a device designed to shepherd them through the world, Glass comes with its own inherent set of personal privacy issues, like people not knowing when or if they're being recorded. Learn the joys and pitfalls of this new technology at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
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can be purchased individually, bunched, or as day or weekend badges. All-access pass holders gain entry to the festival lounge. (Mmm, lounge.) You can download a free festival schedule to your phonehere