Tag Archives: documentary films

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.

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.