'Projections of America'

Dallas VideoFest 28: Dispatch #3 From a Festival Rookie

Wrapping up the festival on Sunday included a curious mixture of informative documentaries, special ceremonies (i.e. the fete of father and son comedy performer Bob and Chris Elliot) and strong narrative features- both short and long- that had us festival goers splitting hairs on what to see next.

Carefully nudged in the direction of Peter Miller’s Projections of America by festival promoters (who never steered me wrong all weekend!), the documentary is a lovingly crafted homage to screenwriter Robert Riskin and his team of Hollywood artists who assisted in the war effort by producing and spreading our own propaganda films immediately after liberating certain countries. Initially- and rightfully- distrustful of the Allied forces, Riskin’s films of everyday life in America, as well as the hugely popular Autobiography of a Jeep, helped to lessen the citizen’s unease. Juxtaposed with the difficult images of war torn Europe, filmmaker Miller also tells the personal story of Riskin and his romance and marriage to actress Fay Wray. Through interviews, actual footage of the films themselves and several historian points of view, Projections of America touches deeply on two of my favorite subjects- World War II and the movies- which only endeared the documentary to my heart and many festival goers as well.

Here Come the Videofreex, directed by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, also divulges the little-known history of subversive filmmakers, this time twenty years after Projections of America, but with equally turbulent times in mind. With the advent of videotape and non-film camera equipment, the means and affordability by individuals to grab hold of their own images and record the events happening around them grew exponentially. That’s exactly where Here Come the Videofreex begins. In the late 60’s, a group of politically-minded hippies discovered such equipment and formed their own collective in New York City, independently capturing the chaos of the times exploding around them. Even through grainy and splotchy images including talks with Black Panther Party leaders, Abbie Hoffman and then their own pirate TV station in the backwoods of upper state New York, the film becomes an energetic and passionate tale of anti-corporate journalism that may have been lost if certain members of the group hadn’t snuck back into CBS one day and stolen their videotapes back. As moderator Bart Weiss commented before the film, Here Come the Videofreex reveals a generation with the ability of a new format (video) to rise above their predecessors and speak in new tones. It’s exactly why the “video” in Dallas VideoFest has never been changed to the word “film”.

The Texas Show closed out the festival, highlighting ten carefully curated short films from the region and shown with some of the filmmakers in attendance. The two standouts included Jordan E. Cooper’s American Mother and Caitlin Stickels’ Uncommon Threads. Both films include a strong vision, sharp editing and a keen feel for the potent emotions bubbling underneath their narratives. In American Mother (which rightfully won the audience award tonight and was my favorite short at the event), a young African-American man is shot on the street by police during a riot, and while that tension is high enough, the film tightens on the spoken word soliloquy of the young man’s mother (played by Bianca Jones) as she speaks about his future. Angry, harshly lit and nightmarish in its disarming images, American Mother is a prescient exploration of our confusing and sad times. Stickels’ film, Uncommon Threads, is about as world’s removed from Coopers film both in tone and setting, yet it captures something just as distinct in our culture. Taking place in the desert hinterlands of Texas, a farmer (Drew Moore) keeps bumping into an older African-American woman in town and they share a mutual hatred. The farmer’s drinking gets worse and even the surprise worry visit from his daughter doesn’t help things. Stickels allows the somber energy and unspoken hurt to resonate throughout the film and her camera placement, mood and timing are all pitch perfect. Not that there’s ever any real worry, but I’d say the future of filmmaking is fine.

The highlight event of the day, for local film buffs anyway, was the tribute to cameraman/producer/director and show creator Paul Bosner. Personal photographer to Harry Truman after the war, cameraman in New York at CBS for over 19 years and eventual creator of the hugely influential Austin City Limits television show, Bosner is a true industry pioneer who spoke for over an hour about his life and career. One anecdote summed up the entire week nicely.

Paraphrasing here, but he told us how, one day early in his career, he told an artist friend he’d like to try painting. The friend instructed him to buy all the necessary equipment, canvas and paint. Once that was done, his friend told him to get an apple and set it on a neutral surface by the window for two or three days. His friend then said to him that one thinks they know what an apple looks like, but after those few days, he’d see what an apple really looks like.

This philosophy of truly “seeing” rather than “looking” defined the rest of his career and taught him to delete his own emotions and always try to convey the emotions of those in front of his camera instead. If anything, the art of “seeing rather than just looking” pulsated through Dallas VideoFest 28 and the films, people and stories that echoed within its curtained walls.

Event winners:

Documentary: (T)error (dir. David Sutcliff and Lyric R. Cabral

Feature: Krisha (dir. Trey Edwards Shults)

Narrative short: The Bravest, The Boldest (dir. Moon Molson)

Audience award, short: American Mother (dir. Jordan E. Cooper)

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