Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest “Alternative Fictions,” Part 1

Continuing with its fall season event, Dallas VideoFest returns with “Altfest,” the portion of the program which includes narrative films and television work. One may ask why exactly is a ‘film’ festival touting the exemplary work of its main competitor from the small screen?

Perhaps because some of cinema’s giants (Scorsese, Fincher et al) are embracing the opportunities provided them and because now, more than ever, the language of cinema is being transposed to television with bracing acuity and wit. The bigger question should be why aren’t more festivals celebrating this unique marriage of talents?

Having said that, I’ve spent the last couple days immersing myself in narrative and short films … with the exception of watching a sneak preview of two AMS Pictures made-for-television procedurals with the evocative titles Scandal Made Me Famous and Murder Made Me Famous. Re-enacting and detailing the wild 1990’s stories of Monica Lewinsky and David Koresh, respectively, these shows, which premiered Saturday, November 4 on the Reelz channel, should satisfy those who crave the salacious details around both culture-shock events.

In the short films block, sponsored by Women In Film and Flicks By Chicks, there were two standout efforts. Hira Nabi’s The Return fittingly gives thanks to Abbas Kiarostami and feels like something straight from his deceptively simple oeuvre. After dropping off the other three people in a shared cab, the last man on board asks the driver to show him around town. Intermittent radio broadcasts describing horrors around the world play over the image. But what should be a sight-seeing event turns into a decaying travelogue of what once was in the town. A film school started by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dilapidated and empty. A natural forest is barely overgrown, abandoned when a local nuclear power plant melted down.

Sadness reigns on the passenger’s face, which is the only image shown except the passing countryside outside the cab. His final words , which reference a story only heard on the radio before, echo with regret and resignation, providing a shocking close to a film that understands the ugly vestiges of time. Nabi has done right by Kiarostami and implants her own name as a worthy successor to his observational masterpieces of landscape and man’s eroding place within it.

The other knockout short was Allison Unger’s If You Only Knew. Technically assured and well acted, the film follows a young woman as she returns home to her parents’ house for a celebration of her graduation from law school. Filmed mostly in one swooping, gliding long take, Unger builds an unbearable sense of unease from the very beginning, but we’re not sure why. As the film builds, the dance of characters in and out of the frame and the young woman’s mounting disorder play out like the brilliantly conceived scene in P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) in which Adam Sandler juggles an increasingly chaotic workplace.

Unger, like Nabi before her, displays an incredible balancing act of obscured storytelling that comes crashing into place during its final scene. Though neither one won the Audience Award or Jury prize in the short film category — that honor went to Alex Yonk’s respectable but maudlin A Taylor Story — both films showcase a filmmaker of strong promise and exciting vision.

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Winning the Dramatic World Cinema Audience Award from Sundance earlier this year, Ernesto Contreras’ I Dream In Another Language (pictured at top) proves that a dying language has nothing on the repressed emotions of two individuals.

Shot in a languid, dreamy aspect that matches the film’s occasional lapses into magic realism, linguist Martin (Fernando Rebeil) travels to a remote Spanish village in the hopes of recording the nearly extinct language known as Zikril. The only problem is that two of the last three people who speak it refuse to talk to each other due to some hazy argument when the two were best friends. With the help of a local girl (Fatima Molina), Martin slowly forces Don Isauro (Jose Poncelis) and Don Evaristo (Eligio Melendez) to rehash their old experiences with damning consequences.

Like Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2016) or James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2017), Contreras constructs a believable moment of frozen time existence in his film. The myths about the Zikril’s past, their otherworldly beliefs, and quite the unique way they pass into the netherworld upon their death are told in compelling fashion. Ultimately, it’s a film that reveals no matter how ancient one’s belief system may be, the fallible arch of complicated human love always wins out.

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