Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest31 AltFiction – ‘Life and Nothing More,’ ‘A Ship of Human Skin,’ More

After a nearly 50 degree drop in temperature in the span of about seven hours, I sort of looked forward to the warm confines of a movie theater. Texas weather seems to have that effect on people, both in its extremity most times of the year and how bracingly fast it can change.

Retaining its motto “Film For Change,” Dallas VideoFest31 happily invited us into its warm confines with AltFiction, the second part of its annual film festival event that presents documentaries one part of the year and then entertains narrative films later. And, like last year, the event is not shy in showcasing a wide variety of creative output. From excerpts of television work to the highly anticipated demonstration of Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality technology throughout the weekend, the event shows it’s still just as vibrant and socially aware as ever.

The opening night’s selection exemplified this tonally curious nature with two distinctly varied efforts. Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky’s Autonomies is a five part, three and a half-hour series created for Israeli TV that’s just now beginning to make it here as part of Jewish Film Festivals around the States. Teasing us with only the first two episodes, on first glance this seems remarkably coy on the part of Dallas VideoFest’s programmers. Yes, I suppose its shrewd marketing to generate word of mouth, but it soon becomes irritating because the first two are so good, effectively drawing the viewer into a slinky and complex dystopian Jewish noir, complete with switched babies at birth, sexy feminine jazz musicians and a kidnapping plot that would feel right at home in the pages of a Raymond Chandler pulp.

Not just content to burrow into the foundations of mid-century American crime films, however, Autonomies creates its own temporal space by taking place in the near future,  where Israel is divided by a large wall after an unexplained civil war has left the country with two systems of life. Tel Aviv is the secular capital, while Jerusalem remains home to Orthodox Jews, called “The Autonomy State.” The only one who seems to be able to shift between both worlds is a funeral provider named Broide (Assi Cohen), who soon finds himself entangled in political gamesmanship between both states, involving a custody battle over a little girl.

Often eschewing its small screen aesthetic, Autonomies has the grand look and feel of something that could be the next whispered, cool-kid American TV cult classic. It’s confidence in strong characters and carefully meted narrative, which shifts between a dozen or so people with dexterity, is refreshing. So, yes call me irritated and excited-for-more at the same time.

Local filmmaker Richard Bailey’s short film work has been presented in the festival before and anyone who’s seen it would be hard pressed to forget its peculiar punk-rock attitude. And even though his latest effort, titled A Ship of Human Skin, is just as jagged in ideas and themes, the film failed to completely win me over. Showcasing some committed acting from a largely unknown cast, the film ultimately suffers due to a tonally uneven story and some dubious editing choices in a religious parable about two on-the-fringe teenagers and their resurrection from drug addiction.

Opening on a mystical event that happens to young Jeannie (Hilly Holsonback) while serving a stint in prison, the film backtracks and explores the relationship she builds with another wayward teen named SariBeth (Hannah Weir). Their days spent on a small Texas farm — the virtual brothel hell they come to live in with like minded drug addicts — and the religious transformations both experience all become meshed into one meandering tone-poem of a film that soars one minute and then thuds to earth the next.

The first half is the best portion, as Jeannie and SariBeth connect with each other on their own unique wavelength. Like extras cast about from a scrapped Terrence Malick film, director Bailey emphasizes a beautiful eye for the terrestrial haze of a Texas sunset and the way light surrounds both females as they commune with nature and themselves.

The rest of the film isn’t so beautiful, giving way to ponderous conversations about rotting teeth and visualized images, followed by a host of ideas about Jeannie’s miraculous (religious?) persona and how it affects the larger world around them. With enough ideas to fill two films (i.e. a music video about Jeannie and a head scratching sequence about the prison warden who sets up a website to sell Jeannie’s personal belongings), A Ship of Human Skin never succinctly balances the wild shifts in tone.

Antonio Mendez Esparza’s Life and Nothing More not only shares a title with Iranian master Abbas Kiarstami’s 1992 masterpiece, but also a spare aesthetic made all the more heartfelt for the way its richly drawn characters pierce the simplicity. If Kiarostami had decided to make a film in Florida, it probably wouldn’t look and feel much different.

In Esparza’s vision, however, the film charts the daily struggles of mother Regina (Regina Williams) to keep her 14-year-old son (Andrew Blechington) from slipping into the same cycle of violence and incarceration that has removed his father from their home. With a three-year-old to also take care of and a tenuous budding relationship with a man (Robert Williams), her emotional center is largely dissolving as Andrew drifts further and further away from her.

Through largely unwavering medium length shots placed at the opposite end of their dilapidated home or long shots where most of the film’s eventual violence occurs, Life and Nothing More follows its own centrifugal force of complicated conversations, heartache and simply trying to survive. Its title holds very true.

Dallas VideoFest31: Alternative Fiction ran from Thursday, February 7 through Sunday, February 10 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.