Festival Files: DVF31 DocuFest, Dispatch #1

Now in its 31st year, but only the second to call itself “DocuFest” and solely program shorts and non-fiction efforts, the tagline for this year’s incarnation of Dallas VideoFest is “Film For Change.”

Choosing films that settle into distinct categories, including Women Who Make Movies, Jewish Cinema, Cinema History and Current Social Issues, festival programmer Bart Weiss seemed to create an event that felt even more progressively-minded than previous years. Just listening to the post film Q&A sessions where both filmmakers and audience members spoke with ferocity and despair about our current climate of division, hatred and intolerance, one can sense the palpable frustration of everyone trying to grasp the topsy-turvy (and unbelievable) state of the state. This is not just an event to sit back and enjoy a film (although there are those too), but one that’s asking radical questions and posing even more radical solutions.

One of the best documentaries of the first batch of films I saw included Nancy Schwartzman’s Roll Red Roll (pictured at top), a film that certainly could be the cinder for a larger explosion of answers and responsibility. Documenting the 2012 rape of a student by members of a successful high school football team in Ohio, Roll Red Roll pieces together the various tangents of the crime from police interrogation room footage, interviews and social media postings that ultimately helped to construct a case and then prosecute the teenagers involved.

Most remarkable about Schwartman’s investigative journey is the evolving black mirror of social media. Opening with only voices of (obvious) teenage boys laughing at the rape video they’re watching, passed among friends, Roll Red Roll later revisits said video in full screen splendor. Not only does this re-position our disgust at the events we only heard earlier, but it hammers home the sociopath nature of a group of teens and, eventually, an entire town that values the hollow glories of high school sports over the broken life of a rape victim. The film is disarming for the inconsequential way people laugh at a broadcasted crime. It’s infuriating the way people still don’t do a damn thing about it.

Like last year’s premier of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, the festival has reached back into the annals of black and white actress history and culled another fascinating chapter out into the light. Directed by an ex-Turner Classic Movies researcher and personal fact checker to Robert Osborne for 20 years, Alexa Foreman’s Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor looks at the child custody battle that erupted between said actress Astor and her divorced husband in the mid 30’s. Featuring all the salacious material you’d guess would be involved, Foreman’s researcher’s eye for detail illuminates the story from what could’ve been just another TCM documentary in between other films.

Featuring clips from Astor’s films, Foreman wisely only uses these excerpts as background for the real story of Astor’s taxing legal battle, including the exploitation of a diary she kept most of her life. Even attempting some dicey psychoanalysis of Astor, Scandal‘s biggest takeaway is the verve and tenacity of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day and her transcendence beyond the little box she was marketed in.