Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest30 Dispatch #3: Hampton Fancher, “Big Sonia” and More

Heavily backloaded with impressive titles on the final day of the festival, Sunday’s atmosphere was boisterous. Between the live jazz band in the lobby after a Thelonious Monk documentary to surprise filmmaker appearances, one would be mistaken to assume the final day is reserved for a lackadaisical or exhausted experience.

What will exhaust someone is watching Escapes, the new film by Michael Almereyda about the adventurous life of screenwriter-actor Hampton Fancher. Barely showing Fancher for the first 30 minutes or so, Escapes cobbles together decades worth of found footage and Fancher’s own bit roles in TV and movies to create a visual collage as he breathlessly spins one of his many yarns. In between these clips, Almereyda flashes bits of information about Fancher’s life that read like something from the madcap hobo lifestyle of The Catcher In the Rye. It’s a bold and fleet-footed high wire act that kept my eyes burned to the screen.

Skipping among his many romances (Teri Garr, Barbara Hershey, and a nameless secretary in Pennsylvania that pivots into one of his most unbelievably rambling but entertaining tales), Fancher has lived a Hollywood life for sure.

Culminating with his breakthrough as the writer for Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking sci-fi classic Blade Runner in 1982 after a long ordeal to secure the rights from Phillip K. Dick’s original source novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” the most lucrative and successful episode of Fancher’s life barely registers when compared to the whirlwind of his early years.

I’m not sure how much of Escapes actually happened the way Fancher describes, but it’s clear that storytelling is rooted deep into his bones. And knowing that Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was playing in the theater next door with its ominous booms and thuds serving as a wall-shaking soundtrack to the festival all weekend, it felt pretty perfect to be seeing this film at the same time. Perhaps all these weird coincidences that happened to Fancher throughout his life were spilling into ours as well.

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Two documentaries that didn’t quite hit the mark included Miao Wang’s Maineland and Andrea Simon’s Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon. Both films tackle impressive subjects with professional execution, yet they failed to grasp me.

In Maineland, Wang follows two Chinese exchange students, Harry and Stella, from their home country to a school in the Portland, Maine area for their last two years of education. Both strongly controlled by their parents, who come from wealthy backgrounds, the most fascinating part of their journey comes in the way Wang shows their slow dissolution of independence based on their parents’ tight grasp.

Once here in America, Harry and Stella dare to implement their personal life choices of studying music composition and education, but after a short summer break back home in China, they both return to the school and change their majors to business. As a cultural dissection of the difference between Chinese teenagers and the more “carefree” American ones, Maineland succinctly analyzes this divide. As a film that captures the swirling inarticulate and dazed emotions of said high schoolers, Maineland remains at a weird distance, revealing little beyond the surface. Filmed by current indie “it” guy Sean Price Williams, the film does look incredible, though.

Andrea Simon’s expose on Bulgarian screenwriter and filmmaker Angel Wagenstein looks at the man in two different ways. First, charting his rise in film through his politically allegorical scripts and secondly as a constant socialist martyr, left in the cold as Eastern European politics erode and evolve from 1948 until the late 80’s. It seems no matter what party comes into power, Wagenstein finds himself on the outside looking in. His beliefs can be summarized in one joke he tells a friend. “What’s the worst part of communism? What comes the day after.”

Like most European dissidents of the time, Wagenstein used art as a clandestine perch for ideals, and filmmaker Simon was able to utilize bits from most of his films — the only one I’ve seen is his West German sci-fi film Eolomea from 1972 — to elevate his status as a sly genius.

Traditionally edited and told in a forthright manner, Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon is a film I admire more than like. It tells a great story with a larger-than-life character, but its routine arch and dry historical approach feels more suited to the small screen.

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Larger-than-life certainly applies to Big Sonia. As a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Kansas City, she’s an anachronism in every respect. Toiling away in her tailor shop in a half-empty strip mall, Sonia decides to begin talking about her experiences to anyone who’ll listen. At schools, prisons and corporate events, Sonia becomes an oral history of her survival and the atrocities she witnessed across three death camps. Big Sonia had pretty much everyone in tears.

The best portions of the film, however, aren’t the horrific events retold and animated in a heartbreaking mixture of origami and cartoon, but the impact that Sonia slowly develops with people. Seeing the reactions of kids or inmates as Sonia bravely tells her story, the film ultimately is about forgiveness and acceptance, however unbelievable that may seem.

Winner of the festival’s “Best Documentary” award, it’s wise of director Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s grandaugter) and Todd Soliday to imprint Sonia’s life on film as a lasting reminder that goodness does triumph.

Dallas VideoFest will present its Television and Feature Film portion of this year’s festival on November 2nd-5 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas. Check http://www.videofest.org for upcoming details. 

 

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