Arts & Culture News

From Student Shorts To Irish Dark Comedies, This Year's DIFF Celebrates Compassion

Alamo Cedars was one of the theaters bringing new and old films to movie fans.
Alamo Cedars was one of the theaters bringing new and old films to movie fans. Kathy Tran
The Dallas International Film Festival's opening weekend brought to mind the words of famed Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who once said that “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” 

In its 16th year, DIFF debuted a wide variety of awards contenders, local indies, riveting documentaries and student shorts that sought to inspire, perplex and activate the minds of filmgoers. For North Texas cinephiles, it was once again the must-attend event of the year.

There’s an incongruity in the fall festival season that has existed for decades within the film industry. First-run festivals like those in Venice, Toronto, New York and Telluride are granted access to exclusive titles and world premieres, and as a result they’re likely to receive the most press coverage from national publications. Where does that leave other major cities with an engaged population of filmgoers? It’s a tricky scenario that forces local programmers to consider the intent of their celebration.

The value of festivals like DIFF is in curation. While it was certainly not lacking in exciting titles, the festival’s opening weekend was not simply a random selection of awards-friendly titles that are bound to be discussed endlessly until next year’s Academy Awards ceremony in March. There was a recurring theme within the films that played this year; they are stories of the triumph of the human spirit that speak to the current state of world events. Whether it’s a bitter disagreement between two lifelong friends in The Banshees of Inisherin or the kaleidoscopic memories of a lonely daughter in Aftersun, DIFF’s films offered interesting perspectives on the nature of compassion.

There was a diversity of options for North Texans looking for a unique night of screenings. Take for example the Friday night bill. Alongside James Gray’s Cannes-approved autobiographical drama Armageddon Time was the independent drama Acidman and a restoration of Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run. These are films of different sizes, but they might not be as different as they look based on the synopsis summaries alone. Armageddon Time is an intimate study of the racial divide in New York during the 1980s, Acidman is the story of a recluse who opens himself up to new experiences and Run Lola Run is an experimental 1990s German action film that eventually found its cult audience. In their own ways, they’re all stories of outsiders who find a community.

While some filmgoers may see festivals like DIFF as an opportunity to get a head start on their Oscar pool, the showcase screenings at this year’s festival helped spotlight titles in need of traction. The Banshees of Inisherin has been getting award season buzz since its debut at the Venice Film Festival, and its success at DIFF could boost its profile for more casual viewers before the film hits Dallas at the beginning of November. However, films like Armageddon Time, Aftersun, The Inspection and Corsage have been generally relegated to the “also in contention” slot, and a boost from DIFF should help them from fading out of the public consciousness.

DIFF also programmed some recurring themes celebrating music at the movies with “Deep Ellum Sounds.” The Return of Tanya Tucker told the story of one of country music’s most trailblazing artists, and Hargrove showed a different side to a jazz legend’s reflection on his career. Yet, this was also a festival that felt exclusive to Dallas, as the “Texas Competition” portion offered a robust selection of titles analyzing what it means to live in the Lone Star State in 2022. It’s no coincidence that these were largely stories of activism and political awareness; Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom deconstructed the complex intersection between race and religion, A Run For More picked up with one of Texas’ most exciting political campaigns and Shouting Down At Midnight examined how a pivotal filibuster inspired a younger generation to become more politically aware.

A festival like DIFF also has the opportunity to spotlight emerging artists with its short film showcase. It’s no secret that the theater-going demographic was on the decline even prior to the pandemic, and the number of regular filmgoers willing to trek out to a theater to see a short can’t have been high. DIFF reinforces the importance of the next generation of filmmakers by programming slots of shorts in block screenings (including one dedicated to Texas filmmakers). Additionally, the 3-minute visual spectacle Touch The Earth was screened before showtimes of the documentary Take Pains Be Perfect.

The value of festivals like DIFF is in curation. While it was certainly not lacking in exciting titles, the festival’s opening weekend was not simply a random selection of awards-friendly titles that are bound to be discussed endlessly until next year’s Academy Awards ceremony in March.

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The short film events got a major boost this year from a nationally recognized pair of cult filmmakers. Jared and Jerusha Hess’ coming-of-age comedy Napoleon Dynamite has an active online fanbase, and the pair’s 2016 Texas crime comedy Masterminds was notably one of the last films released by Relativity Media before its bankruptcy. The pair made a Dallas appearance with the animated short Ninety-Five Senses, featuring renowned character actor Tim Blake Nelson.

That’s not to say that DIFF had its eyes purely on the future, because the classics also got some respect. In addition to the restoration of Run Lola Run, DIFF also hosted a Monday night screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1948 thriller Rope. It was a fascinating choice; Rope isn’t generally referred to as a classic on the level of Rear Window, Vertigo, Rebecca or Psycho, but it has gradually found a larger audience over the past few years. The film’s innovative “one continuous shot” device has been replicated by recent Oscar winners Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) and 1917.

At the 2020 Academy Awards, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho proclaimed that “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” DIFF responded to his call to action with fascinating titles from around the globe. Among the nations celebrated were Austria (Corsage), South Korea (Project Wolf Hunting), the United Kingdom (The Lost King), Japan (Finding Satoshi) and India (All That Breathes).

The Oct. 14–16 weekend was not a positive one for the film industry. A new Halloween movie was made simultaneously available on streaming and in theaters, and films like Bros and Amsterdam continued to underperform. If you look only to the box office as a barometer of success, you might feel discouraged about the future. However, fests like DIFF prove that for those who seek it out, cinema has a future.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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