A cherished movie takes viewers on a journey. Whether it's an impossible moment, a peek inside an otherwise unnoticed life, or an immersive soak in unfamiliar subject matter, a film's ability to shape our perception of the world is limitless.
As the curtain lifts March 30 on this year's Dallas International Film Festival, we will take our seats and ease into a curated collection of 170 handpicked movies. As we discreetly eat our way through smuggled snacks we'll be baffled by blind magicians, connected with youths at society's fringe and watch as surreal love dilates and contracts.
But the years of planning that led to our torn tickets go less noticed.
For DIFF, scheduling isn't a quick grift. It's a long game dealt with exacting detail by a small handful of programmers who have, collectively, watched more than 3,000 films to get to here. Each one searches for something unique. Their goal is uniform: They want to show the world Dallas, at its best. And they want to show you 170 really great movies.
The world met James Faust voice-first.
"KTXT, Lubbock's New Rock Spot," Faust belts out in his richest on-air tone. (He's still got it.)
That was James Faust's first gig, helming Texas Tech college radio back in the '90s. A low-budget operation, KTXT couldn't afford the schlocky drive-time sound buttons of their competitors, but they held their own. After clicking up the dial to a stint on a country music channel, Faust, a DFW native, returned home. He studied film at SMU before getting in on DIFF's embryonic precursor, the Deep Ellum Film Festival.
That was 17 years ago, and he's been with it ever since. Through the AFI years. The recession. The influx of local film fests (DFW now has 11). The rise of streaming services competing for the eyes of viewers and distribution rights of independent films. Throughout he's continued shaping DIFF's mission, recruiting talent with perspective and refining the strategy of how and why they choose what they choose.
His beat is narrative features. He's watched about 500 of them gearing up for this year. "I look for good movies," he says simply. "Movies that make sense. Sometimes I look for old stories told in new ways. I'm always looking for new stories."
Faust works for it too. "We go to other festivals. We talk to other festivals. We go to see the producers, the distributors, the exhibitors, and we talk to those people and we become better programmers." He also reviews hundreds of submissions and even some scripts, all to find a diverse, internationally sourced collection of films to resonate with his Dallas audience.
Still, he gets that words like "film fest" can be daunting. "Sometimes the festival can seem intimidating because it feels like it could be a heady thing, but we're more populist," he says. "I want people to know that film is the most inclusive and powerful medium in the world as far as I'm concerned. It's something for everyone."
His love for it all is infectious. From sci-fi to auteur-imprinted works, he wants to share his cinematic passions to Plano and back. "We average around 29 to 32,000 people a year. I want that to be 60. I want to spread this love across the city."
Here are five films Faust is excited to share with Dallas this year.
It's Only the End of the World
Angelika Film Center: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, and 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6
Adapted from stage to screen by Canadian Xavier Dolan (Mommy, I Killed My Mother), this is a story of a man who's been gone for more than a decade, finally coming home to family. They really don't know each other all that well, but Louis has returned to tell them that he's dying. It's shot tight, with its characters crammed in a little house, any remaining air consumed by nervous dialog, the room heated with tensions. This one's going to make you squirm. "It's so claustrophobic," Faust assures, smiling. This film has divided critics, won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was shortlisted for the foreign language Academy Award. Still, it didn't have an American distributor, so you can see Dolan's latest (packed with an all-star cast) on the big screen, likely for the first time.
Angelika Film Center: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and 9:45 p.m. Sunday, April 2
Surreal in design, relatable in story, real-life couple C.A. Gabriel and Renee Felice Smith's indie comedy, The Relationtrip, subverts the standard dating timeline in the weirdest way possible.
Beck and Liam are rebelling. All of their friends are settling down, but they have yet to pair off. So, they make a run for it. Hit the road. Have a bunch of sex. Tell jokes. That quick-clip stuff of lust and newness. Then, Faust explains, "They're sitting across the table from one another, and he says 'I don't really like coffee.' Then she says, 'I don't really like eggs.'" They stare at each other, reach across the table and peel skin masks off the other's face. "They realize how much they really don't know each other," Faust says. "It's two years of dating in two days. I find it really refreshing."
Angelika Film Center: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 7, and 12 p.m. Sunday, April 9
Parisian heavyweight François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women) sets his mysterious drama in Germany during the aftermath of World War II. Standing over her fiancé's grave, a woman meets Adrien, a French stranger. Details are vague, but he claims to have known her Frantz in the war. Starved for any connection to her lost love, she uses Adrien as a proxy and tries to get closer to Frantz's memory through his stories. But loneliness, love and guilt house secrets, played out here through flashbacks. "It's just a beautiful, beautiful film," Faust says.
Katie Says Goodbye
Magnolia Theatre: 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, and 10 p.m. Thursday, April 6
For Faust, Katie Says Goodbye is a great example of a brand-new story that makes one wonder "Could this actually be happening somewhere?" Katie wants to move on, away from the trailer she shares with her mom in New Mexico. So, she has sex for money, which her mother steals. Others in town also betray her innocence. But they can't keep a good girl down. "It's like watching a kitten get bludgeoned for a while, but you have the feeling it's going to be OK," Faust says. This one's a debut feature for writer/director Wayne Roberts.
Angelika Film Center: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, April 5
This Italian-American war thriller drops Armie Hammer's character in a remote stretch of African desert. After the soldier's mission crumbles, he steps on a landmine. It will explode if he lifts his foot. "It's just him, on a mine, for the next 45 minutes," Faust says. "He's hallucinating. He's flashing back and forth. And I have to watch it to the end because I need to know."
Sarah Harris knows a lot about Finnish cheerleaders, obsessive violin makers, New Orleans food matriarchs and plenty of other topics you've never considered. At any moment, she could talk about a remarkable magician in San Antonio or a secret clique of citizen reporters working in Raqqa, Syria, whose coded correspondences are vital to combating the Islamic State.
That's because as a consultant she programs documentaries and shorts for festivals year-round, from DIFF, where she got her start, to Sundance and the Seattle International Film Festival, the Denver Film Festival and Dallas' newest fest, Earth X.
"I've easily seen 800, 900 or 1,000 short films since last May," she says from her Los Angeles home. "And with documentaries it's probably close to 700 features as well."
Taking in all of those films, receiving those dispatches from hundreds of countries? To Harris, it's kind of like being a globetrotter. "I do feel like I'm more well-rounded now," she says. "I feel like I've been able to travel, in a way — even though I haven't — because I see stories from all over the world."
Docs are a niche she fell into when she still lived in Dallas, working with Faust in the fest's earlier years. When an opportunity to program them opened up, she dove in, total immersion. "I found that was the genre that I really enjoyed, this whole nonfiction world," she says. "Sometimes, it's crazier than fiction."
It can be a tough beat for a programmer. There's very little escapism in the doc world and a lot of heavy content — for every zany artist's tale there are dozens of important, but difficult, human rights violations to watch. "It still comes down to good storytelling," she says. "It needs to — and should — have perspective."
Here are a few of Harris' favorite docs that do just that.
City of Ghosts
Angelika Film Center: 10 p.m. Friday, March 31, and 7:45 p.m. Saturday, April 1
Director Matthew Heineman's 2015 film, the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, took us into the violent trafficking zones between the U.S. and Mexico. His latest, City of Ghosts, goes into what might be even more dangerous soil, Islamic State-controlled Raqqa. Now it's an ISIS stronghold, and the people trapped inside are forced to witness horrors we cannot fathom, like watching family members get publicly executed, at random. ISIS blocks communication from inside and replaces it with their own propaganda, but a small group of average citizens, nerdy tech types mostly, started filming, reporting and getting the word out to the world. "This is important," Harris says. "Especially in this world of 'fake news' this is a reminder of how journalism really matters."
Angelika Film Center: 7:15 p.m. Friday, March 31, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1
If he were so inclined, San Antonio magician Richard Turner could card-shark away a sucker's entire fortune. He's also completely blind, yet moves seamlessly through a deck of Bee playing cards. Despite being one of the most accomplished card performers in the game today, Turner has never wanted his lack of sight to define him — in fact, it annoys him when it's even mentioned. "Everybody has something like that about themselves," says Harris, "where they don't want to be known for this part of their life, but it's part of who they are." Go on this remarkable journey of Tucker's with director (and former Richardson native) Luke Korem. Korem and Turner will both be at DIFF; we're hoping Turner will show off those skills.
Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table
Angelika Film Center: 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, and 4 p.m. Thursday, April 6
In the 1940s, women weren't often in esteemed positions in business. Even fewer were changing palates through innovative restaurant ownership. In New Orleans Ella Brennan was doing it all: running successful restaurants, paving the way for celebrity chef culture by nurturing young talents like Emeril "Bam" Lagasse and creating new interactive concepts, such as bananas Foster and jazz brunch. "She is a pioneer," Harris says, "and it's a pretty wonderful little film. It will make you hungry."
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Angelika Film Center: 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and 5 p.m. Sunday, April 9
The latest by filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), looks at the only bank to face prosecution during the 2008 recession. "It was actually just a small, family Chinatown institution that never actually saw a bailout, but was brought to trial," Harris says. That family decides to fight back against the government, despite their limited resources, and the film follows them through to their day in court.
"My parents realized they could make me do anything as long as I got a movie at the end of it," says DIFF programming coordinator Daniel Laabs. When he was little, that could be any task: reading a book, crushing a bunch of cans. No problem. Laabs wanted movies, constantly. Now, he has them by the thousands.
What's first noticeable about Laabs is the care he invests in thinking about and discussing movies. A filmmaker himself, he's sensitive to the labor and passion invested in the process and the subtle, atmospheric details that audiences often overlook. As coordinator, he arranges discussion points and positions conversations for those last-round picks. He also works as a scout, traveling to meet with those who are still in the early stages of developing work.
His line of sight extends years into the future. He tags projects, directors and writers that DIFF should secure and opens lines of communication between them. "I love that there's a long game for tracking films," he says. "That really gets me excited, that you can advocate for your organization and also find out about all the new movies that are coming down the pipe, years ahead."
What does Laabs look for in a great film? "I really respond to movies that take you to impossible places, that take you to an impossible moment," he says. "If I can find a movie that gets me to that moment, that's a cherished movie, forever and ever."
Here are some highlights from this year's schedule that Laabs finds really exceptional.
Angelika Film Center: 10:30 p.m. Friday, April 7, 9:45 p.m. Saturday, April 8
Director Eliza Hittman is interested in how shifts in class affect sexual identity and culture, particularly in stretches of landscape that even time overlooks. For her follow-up to her 2013 Sundance breakthrough, It Felt Like Love, she returns to an unspecified part of Brooklyn's coast where shirtless guys with tough exteriors are known as "beach rats." Captured on 16mm by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Hittman's film closes in on one boy's vulnerability and struggle to sustain the expected — a summer girlfriend and time with the boys, by day, while secretly exploring his desires for older men online, late at night. "[Hittman] writes about sexuality in a way that isn't afraid of what you bring to the table," Laabs says. "I think American audiences are a little afraid of that sometimes, but I also think our audiences are evolving, and I know that our ability to comprehend complex sexual concepts and narrative — we are expanding that," he says.
Angelika Film Center: 2:15 p.m. Sunday, April 2, and 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 4
A24 snapped up two movies from Sundance this year, David Lowery's A Ghost Story and Menashe, a family narrative entirely in Yiddish and shot within New York's Hasidic community. Titled after its lead actor, Menashe Lustig, who off-camera is actually an Orthodox Hasidic stand-up comic, this film follows a father who's trying to pull it together in order to have a relationship with his son. Getting this film made within the closed-off community deserves a doc of its own. In a recent interview with IndieWire, director and co-writer Joshua Weinstein pointed out just how difficult each piece was to navigate — casting especially, since few in the Orthodox Hasidic community had ever seen a movie.
Angelika Film Center: 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, and 7 p.m. Thursday, April 6
Amman Abbasi's debut feature Dayveon has already made the 20-something a name to watch. Viewers are flies on the wall, observing a young boy who enters a rural Arkansas gang after his brother's death. Abbasi wanted it to be authentic, so he spent time with Southern gang members to study the emotional and economic elements that lure kids to that point. Abbasi's talent and drive caught the attention of fellow Arkansan director (and 2017 DIFF award recipient) David Gordon Green, so Green stepped in to mentor Abbasi and co-produce his film. "To see that torch be passed a little bit, between two paragons of Southern filmmaking," Laabs says, "that's an exciting aspect of the festival this year."
Angelika Film Center: 2:15 p.m. Saturday, April 1; Magnolia Theatre: 4 p.m. Thursday, April 6
Shot in an outlandishly scenic small Iceland town, Heartstone is a coming-of-age tale for two best friends. Christian and Thor have shitty home lives, with parents either missing altogether or being present solely to lash out. At least they have each other — until a desire to find romantic fulfillment threatens to strip them of that, too.
Lipstick Under my Burkha
Angelika Film Center: 4:45 p.m. Sunday, April 2
Lipstick Under my Burkha was never going to get through the Indian censorship board, so writer/director Alankrita Shrivastava instead made her film with American audiences in mind. Satirically structured and hilariously accessible, Shrivastava's film digs into the complexity and sexuality of Indian women through four different stories. It gives the non-initiated a look at the boundaries for Islamic women. Then it dares them to get defiant. "You know she's going to break all of those rules," Laabs says, "but it isn't that she breaks them, it's how she breaks them."
Faust, Harris, and Laabs are each drawn to different ways of telling great stories. By combining their perspectives and strengths as they do, they're able to appeal to the largely diverse tastes of the audience they represent, the community of Dallas. So whether you seek out work by new directing talents, or soak in classic favorites from the 1967 repertory collection, there are stories at DIFF to match every taste and perspective — even the most discerning critics. "If I can find two movies for my mom in the festival," Faust says, "I'm doing well."