Tag Archives: docufest 33

Dallas VideoFest33 Docufest: ‘The First Film,’ ‘Texas Trip,’ ‘Proof’

David Wilkinson’s The First Film fits snuggly into an avenue of programming Dallas VideoFest often champions, which is the inward exploration of film itself, either through a certain filmmaker or a unique tangent of its long history. I’d dare say this film probably extends back into cinematic history as far as one possibly can.

As an actor, writer and producer since the early 1970s, Wilkinson has struggled to gain acceptance of his idea that an early technological pioneer named Louis LePrince is the man responsible for the very first film images taken in the British town of Leeds. Not Paris. Not New York. But Leeds.

Fortunately for him, very small snippets of three LePrince moving pictures still exist. One of them is of a busy street in the center of Leeds’ square. The second documents an employee of LePrince as he slowly skulks around a concrete building corner. And the third (and most impressive) is a seemingly carefree parade of bodies (namely his family) as they pose and have fun on the lawn.

From these seconds of almost deteriorated film, Wilkinson spins a documentary that borders on the conspiratorial. He examines the war of technology being waged around the world, identifying at least 11 other figures who could also be called the fathers of cinema. He visits museums where original cameras belonging to LePrince are housed, giving the viewer a clinic on how they work. He chases down great-great relatives of the man in Memphis and rummages through old letters for clues. He even interviews an attorney to explain how patents are generated.

And did I mention that all of this becomes clouded by the fact that, not long after completing these indelible images in late 1888, LePrince boarded a train and disappeared, never to be seen again? It’s enough to make your head spin, or at least heavily induce the myth that Edison really was a shred businessman with tentacles that could dissect his competition across the ocean.

And Wilkinson does just enough head-spinning and myth-making as he proceeds down various rabbit holes, piecing together tiny strands of long-lost information and inferring what he can from them. And while that can be interesting at times, it also creates a sense of lethargy. Because he follows so many possibilities, The First Film loses its energy in the middle. It’s scholarly, but rigid. It’s determined, then scattershot, especially in the inclusion of certain interviews. It presents too much information, and then not enough. It’s clear Wilkinson is passionate about his life’s project, but it could have used a more incisive thoroughfare to the heart of its subject.

All of this aside, there are piercing moments of cinema history that deserve to be discussed. The full truth of LePrince’s hand in the formation of movies may never be reckoned, but Wilkinson is doing the noble thing by asking questions.


Whether it’s their choice of subject matter or the expansive and chameleon-like landscape of the country, America often looks different when confronted by European filmmakers. Think of the American films of Wim Wenders (especially Paris, Texas) or Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, one of the best films of the 60s for how it elevated the usual California backdrop into a golden playground of vistas for its main characters.

Well, Texas looks downright otherworldly in Steve Balestreri and Maxime Lachaud’s Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts, a free-floating exploration of both dilapidated drive-in theaters and the Texas noise-music scene. An odd combination, yes, but one that works.

We’re first introduced to Mother Fakir, an artist in the Austin area whose voice-over lends a poetic tinge to the film. He talks about his art and the pain that he’s able to block out on stage while performing acts of body horror, which will later get its full due, alongside his droning, pulsating music. Also observed is the band Attic Ted, known for the painted, over sized masks they wear while performing … and apparently while grocery shopping as well.

Interspersed between these bands and their creative-filled days, Balestreri and Lachaud’s film becomes a lament for the weed-infested parcels of land once known to house bustling drive-in movie theaters. Sometimes, the bands take over the space for a concert. Most times they lay dormant and forgotten. There’s no grand statement on how these two tangents of the film intersect. Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts doesn’t seem overly interested in making anything other than a document of a select few people and their environment. This is especially true in the staged tableaux of people in Attic Ted masks standing motionless against a hectic backdrop, most often I-35 or a Wal-Mart parking lot. Hints of a Harmony Korine vibe infest the film, but rest assured, Texas Trip is its own unique beast.

As their debut film, Balestreri and Lachaud have a keen eye for landscapes. They way they capture a seemingly winter Texas sky or the care in which they situate their camera to observe the ruins of once-loved cinema hot spots display an understanding (and even reverence) of time and place. They also seem to have a deep affection for the types of films that used to play here. Lachaud has written a book called Redneck Movies (available only in French) and Texas Trip deploys horror movie clips at just the right time, reminding us of the fringe culture being observed here and how these musicians spin their own horror shows. It’s almost as if Lachaud has made his own redneck movie finally. And seen at an actual drive-in at DocuFest is the most perfect homage imaginable.


Crisp black and white images that capture moments from the past are my bag. I follow several Twitter accounts devoted to images of Texas history. They’re never less than jaw-dropping, freezing people, faces and places that stir the imagination and challenge our understanding of the non-modern world.

Mark Birnbaum’s Proof takes such images as its starting point. His subject, Fort Worth’s own Byrd Williams IV, has taken it upon himself to excavate and preserve three generations worth of his family’s photographic history. The film is also an exploration of Byrd himself, reconciling some violent moments in his family’s past as well as the conflicting thoughts that race through his mind as we all deal with an ongoing pandemic and how art reflects those times.

Following a fairly routine documentary set-up, Proof is only as good as its subject. Fortunately, in Williams IV and his restless sense of archival research, the film has a good anchor.

DallasVideoFest33 DocuFest: ‘Finding Yingying’ and ‘For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close’

One tenet of Chinese culture is the strong reliance on dream interpretation and the ability of past souls to visit their families in this neuro-netherworld. As haunting as the disappearance of a young girl can be, the full force of devastation is felt when one family member explains her belief that the girl in question is still alive because she hasn’t visited her in dreams yet. It’s this state of purgatorial hell that shrouds a majority of Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s remarkably moving new documentary Finding Yingying as a family struggles to understand and then come to terms with the sudden disappearance of their only daughter while she attends a Chicago college in 2017.

Shi spells out the bright personality of missing Yingying early on, reading portions of her diary to reveal a curious but culturally frightened academic as she tries to adapt to her new life in America. The words and thoughts spelled out make her extraordinarily human, full of hope, love and childish ramblings that drip from the mind of every young person looking ahead to their dreamed life.

But then, she disappears, and Finding Yingying becomes a true-crime exploration of the last minutes anyone saw her, pieced together through CCTV footage and the eventual world-wide media explosion on both sides of the ocean that detail a widening gulf between the families who trust their sons and daughters to come to America and the painfully turgid law process that governs our land. Shi balances the political with the personal seamlessly, rightfully giving a majority of the film’s run time to Yingying’s committed family and boyfriend as they refuse to give up hope … even after it seems painfully clear there’s a monster in their midst.

Gaining traction earlier this year at South By Southwest, Finding Yingying is a tough watch and reminds us that the world is not always a dreamed life experience. But the way Shi remains fixed on the humanity of Yingying’s family and the small spotlight given to Yingying’s effervescent nature through her very personal hopes and dreams, she’s reclaimed some of that dream. Here’s hoping she visits her family in their dreams soon.

Finding Yingying screens virtually on Saturday, October 3.


Heather Ross’ For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close wisely doesn’t try to dissect the man completely. That could be an impossible feat. Or at least one not fit for a 90-minute foray. Here’s a man who largely embellished the stories around the suicide of his father. Here’s a man with a lifelong addiction to hard drugs and committals into psychiatric hospitals. Here’s a man booted out of both Second City and its Canadian cousin, SCTV for being too radical and/or unconventional.

But all of these troublesome aspects aside, Del Close was also an actor/graphic novelist/teaching guru who established “The Harold,” an improvisational method that has since become hugely influential in the acting world and touched the lives of many greats. Think “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and that (sort of) defines the loose intelligence of what Del was going after. Whatever shards of his manic style that contemporaries such as John Belushi, Tim Meadows, Jon Favreau, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Bill Murray gleaned and carried forward, many of them are on-hand in Ross’ film to cast praise on Del the man. And that respect to a largely unsung pop culture mover-and-shaker bleeds through every scene of this enjoyable film.

Rarely seen onscreen — his acting credits on IMDB include a mere 26 mentions in small roles in films as diverse as The Blob (1988), The Untouchables (1987) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — Close’s midas touch is most felt in the resonance of others. Although his major breakthrough in teaching came late in life alongside his partner Charna Halpern and their ImprovOlympic theater, For Madmen Only shows a wired genius from the very beginning of his life when he picked up flame eating and joined various carnivals at a young age.

Drifting to San Francisco in the late 1960s and then finding his manic edge in comedy with Chicago’s highly influential Second City, it seemed Close was on his way to something big. But drugs, a volatile temper, and a sense of genuine madness never allowed him to reach the heights of others. Actor Bob Odenkirk reveals a telling story of Del’s insouciance when, as a young college reporter, he runs into Del by accident and asks for an interview. Back in Del’s cramped apartment, Odenkirk inquires about a broken window allowing a frigid February wind inside. Del tells him a jealous husband broke it a month earlier and he’s just never gotten around to fixing it.

For Madmen Only is littered with these asides about Del, but also buttressed with the moments of greatness he so heartily shared with his students and peers. It’s a precarious back and forth that reveal so many shades to a complex, secondary giant in the world of comedy. Genius or madness? Even after seeing the film, I’m not sure. But it’s fun taking the journey.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close screens Saturday, October 3, at the Tin Star Drive In.

See https://videofest.org/festivals/docufest/ for schedule and ticketing.

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.