Skip to main content

The Dallas Video Festival

By Melinda Levin

It's difficult to separate the Dallas Video Festival from that of the personality of its founder and guiding force, IDA member Barton Weiss. Truly passionate about diversity in media and committed to presenting all forms of video to a wider audience, Weiss earned his undergraduate degree at Temple University in his native Philadelphia, a school with a reputation for nurturing aspiring documentary film and video makers. In the early 1980s, armed with a graduate degree in film directing from Columbia University, Weiss was programming videos for nightclubs when he founded the Dallas Video Festival. On January 9th, 1997, the festival began its 10th annual offering with four days of eclectic screenings.

Given Weiss's academic background, it's not surprising that his festival not only highlights narrative and experimental video work, but also actively showcases some of the most challenging and powerful offerings in the non-fiction genre.

Weiss shoulders most of the burden for the jurying process: "Everything but the 'Texas Show' on the last evening is chosen by myself as festival director. The 'Texas Show' is juried and includes work only by Texas videomakers. Aside from that, I watch every submission the festival receives (numbering in the hundreds), most of these tapes in their entirety. I do that because I like to watch material and because I feel I owe it to the producers themselves. I make sure there's a subject balance in order to speak to different communities who attend the festival. That's not hard, because my own interests are so eclectic."

The non-fiction offerings in this year's festival range from works commissioned by the BBC and HBO, to high art documentaries, campy comedies, video diaries, archival historical programs and short low budget pieces.

Diversity is the one consistent aspect of the festival's ten-year span. Held at the Dallas Museum of Art since its inception, the festival inventively arranges up to two hundred titles in back-to-back screenings, at times presenting six programs concurrently. Says Weiss: "We screen a broad view of everything, from high budget feature-length programs, to more experimental documentaries, to short and gritty nonfiction communications. What sets us apart from other fests that include video is that we're not a culturally specific festival. The Dallas Video Festival caters to a diversity of styles and technologies, and the technique and aesthetics of the documentary form are very much a part of our past and our future."

The 1997 Dallas Video Festival presented a broad range of documentary talent on video to packed audiences. Roam Sweet Home, a feature-length road trip video from New York media artist Ellen Spiro, is an eloquent and humorous examination of age-old American restlessness. With her dog (and video narrator) Sam and her 1964 Airstream trailer in tow, Spiro examines the widespread community of aging loners living on the road full-time. This is a campy, personal offering from a talented video maker.

Bengt Norborg and Bo Sand's gritty exploration, Socialism or Death, tells of Cuba's young fans of the hard-core rock scene. Confronted by daily street sweeps aimed at destroying their culture—and observing that AIDS patients are fully supported and cared for by the government—many of these youths have injected themselves with HIV-tainted blood. Assuming that the virus takes five years to develop and that within that time a cure will be discovered, these young rockers expect to live in government­ funded sanitariums free from harassment and manipulation, while listening in relative peace to the music which is their passion. Given Castro's slogan, "Socialism or Death", they have made that choice.

Vote For Me/Politics in America, from Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Paul Stekler and Robin Espinola, is a humorous non-fiction video tackling the age-old American question: "What does it take to get elected?" Posed to dozens of hopeful candidates, political junkies and public officials across the country, the answers are startlingly blunt and familiar. A candid and painfully funny backroom look at American politics.

Beautifully photographed and edit­ed, The Faithful Revolution: Vatican II/ ­Genius of the Heart takes a well­ researched look at the history of the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of all Catholic Bishops in the world each fall, 1962-65. The documentary by Texas producer and director Mark Birnbaum powerfully confirms Vatican II's impact on religion and social commitment.

"Last year, someone commented on how many documentaries we screened in the festival," said Weiss. "It surprised me, only because I hadn't really realized it. Because in some ways, video and documentary go hand in hand. We show more video than any other festival in the United States, so it makes sense that we show what is currently out there in the documentary world. In terms of the festival, I define video as anything shot or edited on video primarily, or meant to be exhibited or distributed on video or a monitor screen. This allows me to include media works that may have had a theatrical run but whose main source of revenue will come from home video release. From the festival's beginnings, we've included video installations, high definition documentaries, interactive CD-ROM programs, as well as a very early version of virtual reality. I subscribe to the idea that documentary can transcend film and video­ tape, and I consider all of these forms as part of the future of non-fiction media. After all, it's not called 'Virtual Fiction,' is it?"

For years, audiences at the Dallas Video Festival have had a firsthand look at HDTV projected and screened with HDTV-compatible equipment. The 1997 festival offered no less than eleven such programs, the majority of which were non-fiction. "Not only can small equipment change the form and content of the documentary, but the sheer size and difficulty of recording in the HDTV format in the United States has prompted unique and visually stunning non-fiction works in the past few years," says Weiss.

In addition to projected videos and HDTV screenings, the "Interactive Zone" of the festival in 1997 swelled to include 45 CD-ROM's, 27 of which were documentaries: Starwave's Sting All This Time, on the rock musician; The Alamo: Victory or Death by Archimedia, with appearances by Sissy Spacek, Dan Rather and Freddy Fender; Developing: The Idea of Home, an exploration of housing and land use by Nancy Buchanan; and Jayne Loader's Public Shelter, from the documentary producer of The Atomic Cafe.

"Bart has created the most important showcase for video in the country," says Ruby Lerner, executive director of New York's Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. "Of course, often when video is included in a festival, it ends up as a sidebar event, some­ what marginalized. The Dallas Video Festival is on the frontier in many ways. In the festival world, life is not easy for the video documentarian in particular. The fact that this festival celebrates video only serves to benefit the documentary form as well. In no small way, this festival contributes to the national and international discourse on the non­ fiction form today."

The Dallas Video Festival has become a smorgasbord of talented and dedicated documentary video artists. For information, contact Video Association of Dallas, 1405 Woodlawn, Dallas, TX 75208; phone: 214-651-8600; web-page:


C. MELINDA LEVIN is an independent documentary filmmaker and Assistant Professor of Radio, Television and Film at the University of North Texas.