The scheduling of a film fest relies on too many variables to allow for consistency of thesis or quality. Organizers are subject to the whims of filmmakers' calendars or availability of prints; they're forever caught between booking movies made popular on the circuit and the orphans that remain unloved. But look closely at the Deep Ellum Film Festival schedule, the most impressive in the short lifetime of this upstart fest, and, indeed, a small pattern begins to emerge--if not a theme, exactly, then perhaps the first few bars of a melody. From a handful of screenings, perhaps, a small segment of the audience will emerge wondering whether they've just seen something that actually happened or something sprung out of whole cloth from the imagination of a filmmaker. They so blur the chalk line keeping apart fact from fiction they erase it altogether, though not in the service of exploitation or manipulation; we're not talking Blair Witch here, the fake-out without purpose other than fooling people into handing over cash to fund a false franchise.
Ben Coccio and Neil Burger bring with them films that play like documentaries but are, in fact, only inspired by real events: Coccio seeks to make sense of the Columbine massacre in Zero Day; Burger pokes sly fun at conspiracy theorists with Interview with the Assassin, about the man who claims to have killed John Kennedy. Both movies are witnessed through the lens of a video camera, which the subjects address--meaning, they are always talking to us, drawing the audience into their sad and horrific stories without leaving us much room in which to maneuver. They're make-believe features but feel awfully corporeal: We know the kids in Zero Day, even if we don't want to; we believe Walter Ohlinger, Kennedy's would-be killer, even though we know he is full of shit.
Jordan Melamed's shot-on-digital-video Manic, about teen-agers locked away inside a mental hospital and themselves, doesn't pretend to be a documentary (it has too many movie stars, among them Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel), but that doesn't temper its power; we're trapped in the nuthouse, getting angry, going crazy. And in Night of the Golden Eagle, Adam Rifkin uses a real ex-con to play one on-screen. When you're watching it, keep in mind that Vinny Argiro, the film's lead, is in prison at this very moment.
Then there are the documentaries consisting of people and predicaments no one could dream up: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's hysterical and heartbreaking Lost in La Mancha, about filmmaker Terry Gilliam's doomed attempts to make his Don Quixote picture; Jeffrey Blitz's thrilling Spellbound, in which eight children compete in the National Spelling Bee; Paul Justman's galvanizing Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which rescues from oblivion the men who built the funky foundation upon which Hitsville, U.S.A., stood during the 1960s. It speaks well of a film festival put on by filmmakers that its three best offerings are about real things--and, too often, real bad things--happening to real people. It's as though fest founder and director Michael Cain is telling his audience to get their heads out of the clouds or the computer monitor, or elsewhere, and to look around them; there's a double feature playing just around the corner, not in a theater but in the home of a neighbor.
"Because the stories that have been going on in our world are so impactful lately, filmmakers are turning back toward their lives, toward real life," says an exhausted Cain, operating on moments of sleep in the days before the fest opens. "Most of what we have this year are artists' interpretations of what's going on around them, and when we look at these things 10 years from now, they will maintain."
Now in its fourth year, the Deep Ellum Film Festival distinguishes itself from other local fests by positioning itself as an event for filmmakers and about filmmaking. There will be weekend panels with industry folks, a 90-minute presentation of short films made by Arts Magnet students ("You're ready to make a movie as soon as you can hold a camera," Cain says), discussions with visiting writers and directors and producers after screenings (and, more likely, during the copious parties thrown during fest week). With the move to the Magnolia Theater, the fest has expanded by four days, which has allowed for more locally made films (35 shorts and features) and more room for risk.