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Dallas VideoFest DocuFest33: ‘Miracle Fishing’, ‘Herb Alpert Is’, ‘Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll’

Embracing and adapting to the change of a world reeling with new social distance protocols, Dallas’ longest running film festival opened last night in a hybrid form, mixing selections that can still be enjoyed with a crowd (via https://www.facebook.com/thetinstartheater) with those that can be streamed in the comfort of one’s own home (through https://www.falconevents.com.) It’s a new frontier for cultural events around the globe, but one that’s proven successful so far.

And if the opening night film, Miles Hargrove’s Miracle Fishing, is any indication, this year’s slate of documentaries will be a dynamic and persuasive bunch. A true crime story completely filtered through the home videos of the family who experienced the terror, Miracle Fishing is a heart-pounding personal diary cultivated from over a year’s worth of footage.

What begins as a simple series of travelogue home movies captured by young Miles as his ex-patriot family lives in Colombia soon morphs into a life and death negotiation for the life of his father, Tom, after his kidnapping and extortion by guerilla army forces in 1994. For the next 10 months, the film charts the day-to-day of the family and their small nucleus of associates. Part spy-thriller and part ensemble family drama, Miracle Fishing (which is the term the terrorists use in pulling over and taking people for financial gain) is edited with sly precision and driven by pulsating rhythms of mounting tension as the negotiations ebb and flow. And it’s all right there on camera as it happens, detailing the exhaustive efforts of the family and outside assistants to procure the freedom of their father. We get to witness the radio conversations between the family and the hostage-takers. We cringe alongside them as ‘proof of life’ episodes disappoint. And we get to admire the way everyone balances the grim with the goofy as they struggle to maintain their composure as a family.

More than the high-wire tight walk of life and death, Miracle Fishing is most memorable for these fleeting moments weaved together by filmmaker Hargrove as the family, neighbors and negotiators bond as a resolute unit of people working towards a common goal. The large dinners…. the moments of lighthearted ribaldry…. and the precarious acts that stall Miles’ mother (Susan) from doing something quite dangerous….. all compound into a dynamic portrait of a clustered family holding it together in the most trying of times. It’s here that the film, and Miles’ extreme forethought to observe even the mundane things during a momentous time, really pulls the viewer into the stratosphere of a lived experience. Miracle Fishing is a film that reveals, especially in our own clustered times, that human resolution can shine through even when it seems darkest.


As a record collector since my early teens, I must confess a bias. Go into any second-hand store and the easy listening/instrumental bin will assuredly hold several dozen copies of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The whipped cream and other delights cover. The lonely bull cover. The other one with a lady in a very 60s yellow dress. I always sigh and pass right by them, aware only of his tinkering trumpet piercings that sound like the music behind the soundtrack of every television show produced in the 60s.

But mining beneath the populist surface, John Scheinfeld’s new documentary on the musician, entitled Herb Alpert Is, made me not only admire the man, but actually stirred a desire to dig deeper into his music… especially his very funky late 70s and early 80s output that even finds diverse talents such as Questlove pontificating on the trumpeter’s musical legacy today.

Following most of the beats of a standard talking-head film about its subject, what makes Herb Alpert Is so much more fascinating is Alpert himself, still alive and kicking at the ripe age of 83 and continuing to challenge himself daily via his passion of sculpting (!!?) and playing with longtime wife Lana. He gets alot of screen time to reflect on his blessed life, some of it good and some of it troubling, generating a full-bodied assessment of his life without pandering or sounding falsely humble. He comes across as a genuine musician, producer and benefactor of the arts. The film is also highly informative, charting his progress through the volatile musical landscape of California in the late 60s and early 70s as the founder of A&M records. As the film roundly makes clear, Alpert was an incisive musical guru and knew talent when he heard it.

One of the most fascinating parts of the industry is the alchemy of the scene in the way writers, session musicians and producers bounced their talents back and forth until they came up with a winning formula, such as the incredible story of how Alpert helped The Carpenters score big, and Scheinfeld doesn’t gloss over this generosity. Herb Alpert Is is illuminating, moving, entertaining and, perhaps, it’ll even broaden your horizons to a strain of music once scoffed at. If that’s not the signpost of a good documentary, then I don’t know what is.


Less illuminating is Jon Brewer’s Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll. Featuring portions from an even earlier documentary on the legendary guitarist (Chuck Berry, Hail Hail Rock and Roll from 1987), Brewer’s glimpse at the hard-driving musician feels inferior to that one, both in capturing Berry’s magnetic stage presence and the paths that led him there.

As the author of such paramount hits that have shaped the boundaries of rock and roll, Brewer staggers his way through Berry’s life with some snazzy visual recreations, however, the film never really pulses with the energy of his music. Some asides about the disastrous events at a large parcel of land he owned called Berry Farm are given inordinate amounts of time in the hopes of raising metaphorical comparisons to his life and career. There are plenty of well-hued rock stars on hand to throw rightful praise on him, but the film feels more in awe of Berry the musician rather than peeling back the layers of Berry the man. Introductory fans of the music may gain something from it, but anyone looking for a deeper exploration of his well documented flaws and social rowdiness in a turbulent time of race relations will need to look elsewhere.

Miracle Fishing kicked off the festival at the Tin Star Drive-In on October 1.

Herb Alpert Is will premiere virtually on Friday October 2, at 7 p.m.

Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll will premiere at the Tin Star Drive In on Friday, October 2, at 10 p.m.

Visit http://videofest.org/festivals/docufest/ for ordering and ticketing.

Weathering the Storm: Dallas VideoFest33 Returns This Week

Starved cinema fans, Dallas’ longest running film festival returns to the North Texas area this week, despite challenging times. Like many other recent festivals around the world, Dallas VideoFest will resume as a hybrid event, presenting films in person via the Trinity Groves Tin Star Drive-In and virtual offerings through Falcon Events at https://www.falconevents.com.

As it’s done the past couple of years, this event — called DocuFest — will present only documentary efforts. And getting a peek at the upcoming schedule, this year’s line-up doesn’t suffer from slim distribution, featuring films as diverse as one by artist/activist Ai Weiwei that diagrams the burgeoning COVID-19 virus as it began to alarmingly spread through Wuhan, and another piece of curious cinematic archeology that suggests the possibility that Leeds, England is the actual birthplace of the global film industry.

The drive-in portion of the festival (naturally) looks to curate rollicking good times in the socially-distanced outdoors, featuring a variety of films that explore the influence of Lucille Ball, Chuck Berry, and Del Close. Sprinkles of local flavor are also on tap with the films Texas Trip: A Carnival of Ghosts about some visceral musicians and Proof which follows the arduous process of photographic salvation by Texas historian Byrd WilliamIV.

And if all of this sounds a bit too real for our current times, there’s also CatFest+, which promises plenty of feelgood feline found footage and animation.

Per the VideoFest release, here’s all the information you may need:

Dallas VideoFest to present hybrid
in-person/online viewing format for
33 rd -anniversary festival: #DVF33DocuFest
October 1-4, 2020

As our arts and culture community seeks ways to feel more connected in a time of social
distancing, Dallas VideoFest continues to innovate and broaden its reach

On the heels of its successful real-time, virtual Alternative Fiction festival in the spring, Dallas VideoFest will continue to reshape the film festival landscape with its fall DocuFest. VideoFest.org/Festivals/DocuFest/ Highlighting dozens of documentary features and shorts over four days, Oct. 1-4, DocuFest, offering drive-in style and virtual viewing followed by real-time Q&A with featured filmmakers.

The drive-in portion of DocuFest will take place at The Tin Star Theater (2712 Beeville, Dallas, TX, in Trinity Groves). The Tin Star drive-in theater is hosting the performing arts and a variety of shows in a socially distanced atmosphere. Please make sure you are following CDC guidelines in your car and on the premises. Masks are a must. With immersive topics centered on current events – including the 2020 presidential election – the festival is especially timely both in theme and content, said Dallas VideoFest Founder and Artistic Director Bart Weiss.

“Documentaries give us greater insight into the world,” said Weiss. “When we see these headlines or view an ad on Facebook, we’re seeing one moment. Documentaries give us a canvas to put things into perspective, to understand these topics in a different kind of way.” Meanwhile, the hybrid drive-in/virtual format offers viewers a way to interact and enjoy the quality and thought-provoking films safely at a time when many are longing for the theater experience.

That sense of connecting together in one space is one reason developing a drive-in experience for DocuFest felt important in 2020, said Weiss. “You can see people in their cars, and go up and say hello,” he said. “And, when people like something, they all honk their horns. There’s something very powerful in that.”

For the virtual viewing component of DocuFest, Dallas VideoFest will again partner with Falcon Events (falconevents.com) Dallas-based event producers, which specialized in producing live online and virtual events, to deploy the latest live online technology via a secure and robust platform to create a virtual film festival experience.

Everyone should bring an open mind and an adventurous spirit.
• A mask or cloth that covers your nose and mouth. Masks when interacting with festival staff or volunteers from inside your vehicle

A debit/credit card (some points of sale will be cashless due to COVID-19).

At the drive-in Please don’t bring: , Bad attitudes, Weapons of any kind, Drugs

Stay tuned to this site for reviews and updates as the festival progresses. Check https://videofest.org for information and purchasing information.

Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest “Alternative Fictions,” Part 2

On the final day of the festival, the best selections continued to emerge in compact form, as the various shorts programs — especially ones presented by the Houston Film Commission — revealed the biggest amount of potential behind the lens.

Genre bending seems to be the motif of filmmaker Travis Champagne as his short film Native (pictured above) waggles between several genres. Half-comedy and part Tarkovsky-like science fiction, it’s a daring film that follows a young native boy in an unspecified landscape as he deals with the same things most kids his age would. He flirts with a local girl, whose father gives him the appropriate stink-eye every time he’s around, shrugs off the masculine feat of hunting with his own father and just wants to run around and play. That is, until a spaceship lands from the sky and effectively kills off his whole tribe.

Displaying a keen visual sense through a wide-scope lens as well as a deft touch for blending several genres, Native is the calling card for a talent who should have a bright future ahead of him.

The next strongest film of the six featured was Lance Childers’ The Gold Line. Experimental and kinetic, imagine if British auteur Alan Clarke made a skateboarding film and one gets the general sense of Childers’ effort. Following a half dozen skaters as they make their way to a mammoth ‘free-use skate park’ just outside downtown Houston, Childers effectively places the viewer inside the soaring movement of the skaters through carefully planned tracking shots. There’s little dialogue, just music timed to the flowing images of bodies in constant flux, basically free of gravity and existing in their own space.

All of this would have been pretty damn good on its own, then The Gold Line concludes with an unbroken tracking shot as it hovers above the skate park, carefully absorbing the skaters’ choreographed moves before rising even higher in the sky to place the young men at the foot of a concrete jungle known as downtown Houston.

Filmed only during certain times of day as the sun is setting to capture that golden hue of day, Childers told me the entire shot lasts almost 3 minutes, and he captured it with a drone camera whose battery life was down to four minutes. The skating gods were certainly on his side.


Back for a third consecutive year, editor/director Allan Holzman (Grunt, The Forbidden World) complete his triptych survey of rescuing AFI Film Lab conversations with old Hollywood masters in The Art of Directing: John Huston. Giving the same treatment to Hitchcock/Truffuat/Spielberg in 2015 and Frank Capra last year, Huston’s footage is definitely the most worn of the three.

Found in a closet and basically forgotten, Holzman fluidly edits the grainy, black and white footage of Huston talking to a class with excerpts from a majority of his films. It’s not a deep dive exercise, but more of a mood piece about the man and his general philosophy on filmmaking.

One of the more illuminating moments is Huston describing that most good films need a strong plot, chiding “that Godard” and Breathless (1960) while praising John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). I heartily disagree, but Huston is rarely wrong about much else! Just seeing the clips of his masterpieces like The Misfits (1961) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) made everyone yearn for an immediate retrospective of Huston’s work. Once again, Holzmann scratches a magnificent itch to see and hear the old masters wax poetic on their trade.


Filling the regional filmmaking void at this year’s fest was Richard Bailey’s Telefoto. A film I admired more than liked, Bailey is an obvious and passionate proponent on the strong armed gentrification of his home, Oak Cliff.

Dotted with mostly non-professional actors, musicians and artists, the film is an odd mixture of hometown travelogue and ghost story that starts and stops its momentum several times by shoehorning a ton of material into its running time. Suspect acting and editing is also a problem at times, but the idea is a worthy one that seems to be infiltrating hard scrabbled, affordable artist communities around the U.S.

So with that, we bring a close to the 30th (!!!) Dallas VideoFest. The decision to stagger the event over two weeks this year was, in my opinion, a successful venture that gave prominence back to the films themselves rather than a juggled schedule that forced people to choose. As Allan Holzman (jokingly) said the first time he met program director Bart Weiss, he was in the back of the room excitedly pointing at a film and saying ” I want that at my festival.” I have no doubt Weiss has already started this process for next year’s VideoFest.

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.


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.

Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest30 Dispatch #2 – “Ex Libris,” Dallas Cowboys and Whale Hunting

The centerpiece film of the festival so far, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library, had been mentioned all week with hushed incantations of “beware, its fantastic but it’s three hours long.” Anyone familiar with Wiseman’s sprawling body of work would expect no less.

And it delivers magnificently. A typically thorough and humanistic survey of an institution and all its vital tangents, Wiseman is a master of peeling away the layers through seemingly random events in front of the camera to reveal a larger portrait of people. Board meetings, guest speakers, the teaching of children, benefit dinners, people going about their research in the library … all of these ordinary conversations and events are given holistic observation. They don’t judge. They don’t discriminate. All types, races, genders and creed are shown to be part of one living, breathing organism known as the New York Public Library system, in which education and the best practices for running such a large organization are examined.

Within his now customary style of exterior establishing shots, traversing all around the city’s numerous branches, Wiseman builds a narrative of employees, customers and community leaders in various modes of conversation, including interludes for a moving slam poetry presentation, Elvis Costello, and Patti Smith waxing poetic about the reality of truth.

Outside of these recognizable personas, we’re hardly ever given names of anyone (besides hearing it in conversation), but Wiseman has an elliptical method of revisiting certain people, as if he’s supplying them a narrative arch. Others are glimpsed momentarily as reaction shots to the people talking before them and the range of emotion, understanding and latitude on their faces becomes an overwhelming secondary character. These wide eyes (or half-asleep older men) become just as interesting as the person speaking.

Having seen 35 of Wiseman’s 45 films — I will find you, Aspen (1991) or Central Park (1990 — Ex Libris- New York Public Library ranks very close to the top as yet another monumental achievement in this filmmaker’s soulful exploration of, not only an institution, but the beating hearts and minds within it. And as Dallas Morning News editor Michael Merschel said at the beginning of the film, people who show up at 11:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning for a three-hour film about books and the library … we’re his kind of people.


Proponents of The Cove (2009) probably won’t enjoy Mike Day’s The Islands and the Whales. Towards the beginning of the film, there’s a massive slaughter of whales along the shore. The sea-faring mammals are chased into and trapped along the island bays by fishing boats, wherein the entire village wades in and quickly kills them, turning the water a kool-aid red.

Luckily, before this shocking event occurs, The Islands and the Whales succinctly expresses the established tradition and necessity of such a massacre. Living off the meat sustains the Faroe Island population for months. Located between Iceland and Norway, these people have lived this way for hundreds of years.

Shattering this accepted, antique way of life is Dr. Pai, the local health manager, who has been monitoring mercury levels in the island’s inhabitants for years. Seemingly, global pollution is infecting even this far northern coastline, contaminating the whales and creating possible health hazards for the people eating their meat.

Encompassing some awesome cinematography and giving equal time to both the sky-is-falling doctor and the people who see no other way in shifting a centuries-old custom, Day has created an involving documentary that will fit nicely into eco-thriller slots at many film festivals around the world.


Not being a Dallas Cowboys fan, I still have to admit extreme anticipation for screenwriter-director Mike Meredith’s (hopefully) forthcoming documentary about the now legendary Cowboys-Packers “Ice Bowl” game of 1967.

As someone with tangible connections to the event, Mike is the son of Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, who played in the game and is hallowed around these parts. Gathering extensive interviews from many of the still living players, Meredith wasn’t allowed to show the mostly assembled film due to NFL copyright restrictions, but his hour-long talk and robust, intriguing Q&A session only hints at the possible greatness buried within the innocuous events of a football game.

How this ‘game’ ultimately tied into the recuperation of Dallas as a city after the JFK assassination plus the unexpected longueurs of such inventions as the frozen margarita, the ATM machine and how a halftime anthem gave birth to the Cowboys franchise emerge as juicy tidbits of a story whose mythology and hidden facts have to be seen to be believed.

Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest30, Dispatch #1- ‘Hedy Lamarr’ and ‘Bad Ass Beauty Queen’

In a bit of radical re-programming, Dallas VideoFest, which remains the city’s longest running film event, is championing the idea that should be prevalent at all festivals: it’s the films that matter.

Splitting up the event over the course of two months — DocFest now, narrative films in November — this year’s 30th installment has carefully manicured 16 documentary features that will play back-to-back in the same theater. Not only does this schedule eliminate the hair-pulling task of having to choose one film over another, but, more importantly, it ingrains a strong sense of community within its festival goers, who can watch, digest, argue and bond over four days of shared cinematic contagion.

Developing themes within each day’s block of films, Friday night’s overlapping idea included “Films About Films, Filmmakers and Actors.” And even though Alexandra Dean’s film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is ostensibly about the life and career of the gorgeous, taboo-breaking beauty Hedy Lamarr, its winding path of information reveals the actress was far more than her resplendent screen presence.

Genius. Maverick. Inventor. Feminist pioneer. All of these descriptors apply to Lamarr. From her days of “walking into a room and having the whole room stop and stare” to a dilapidated, hermit lifestyle (and the butt of jokes from the likes of Mel Brooks and Andy Warhol on film), Dean’s effort portrays the actress as a complicated and conflicted character.

Breezing through six marriages that would have Freud jealous of the possible implications of father-abandonment issues, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story goes far beyond salacious Hollywood biography. Yes, there are those tidbits too. But did you know she created the idea of “frequency hopping” that informs the basic principles of wi-fi, bluetooth and GPS manufacturing today? Probably not, since the United States Navy shoved it aside and never gave the proper acknowledgement of this technology borne from someone as untrained as a beautiful Viennese-to-Hollywood transplant actress.

Taking as her cue the kinetic, wandering documentary style of films like Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015, about singer Amy Winehouse), director Dean told me that Lamarr’s story was never meant to be a simple history lesson. Fluidly crafted from a voracious cache of home movies, film clips, still photos, family interviews and four cassette-taped interviews conducted with Lamarr in the late 80’s that, once found stashed away in the garage of the magazine article’s writer, caused Dean to scrap six months worth of editing, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story fascinates the longer it runs in part because of so much archival information.

Watching Lamarr saunter around in White Cargo (1942) or attempt to explain away her celluloid burning charisma in Ecstasy (1933) as naivete on the part of her young age and directorial manipulation, Lamarr clearly was a woman who understood how to use her powers of beauty early on. But what’s fascinating about Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is the emerging paean to a screen goddess whose outer beauty was overshadowed only by her inner intelligence.


The second headstrong woman of the night, Anastasia Lin, gets anointed as BadAss Beauty Queen in Theresa Kowell-Shipp’s documentary about the Chinese-Canadian beauty queen, who has used her instant beauty/fame to speak out against the atrocities of the Chinese government since the mid-60’s and the Cultural Revolution purges.

In doing so, she not only challenges the regime back home where her father, unfortunately, still works and lives, but spotlights the knotty relationships that exist between world governments and the sponsorship of something as innocuous as a beauty pageant.

Lin is revealed to be a redoubtable woman of resolve who understands how to play to the camera (like Lamarr) but BadAss Beauty Queen is hampered by portions that tell us more through inter-titles rather than allowing Lin’s actions to speak for themselves. The film also builds towards a cathartic release of empowerment that doesn’t quite reverberate as the credits roll.

Billed as its world premiere, Shipp’s abbreviated film (running 60 minutes) feels more like a rough outline than a full-fledged expose.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story will open in New York and Los Angeles in December 2017.