July 1, 2007

Festival Focus: AFI Dallas International Film Festival

From Richard E. Robbins' Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. Courtesy of AFI Dallas International Film Festival

We Texans like to boast that everything is bigger in the Lone Star State, and despite the fact that numerous local festivals have flourished in the Dallas film community over the years, SXSW--a three-hour drive to the south--has been the only festival in Texas to come to close to competing with the likes of the Toronto or Seattle International Film Festivals. That is, until March 22, 2007, when the 11-day AFI Dallas International Film Festival made its debut with a top-notch line-up of over 150 films and celebrity appearances by Lauren Bacall, Sydney Pollack, Morgan Freeman and Marvin Hamlisch.

With $4.4 million in cash and in-kind contributions from such corporate sponsors as Victory Park, Target, American Airlines and Lexus, and Star Awards designed from Steuben Crystal courtesy of Neiman Marcus, the festival had no shortage of star power, bling and even that enticing "new car smell."

According to AFI Dallas founder and local marketing legend Liener Temerlin, the festival "may now hold the world record in size, films, venues and sponsors for an inaugural film festival." Temerlin, a former member of the AFI board of trustees (responsible for conceptualizing the institute's acclaimed 100 Years, 100 Movies), partnered with fellow Dallas resident and AFI graduate Michael Cain to launch the festival. Temerlin explains, "After careful consideration, it became clear to me and others that now was the right environment, timing and opportunity for a festival of this size and scope [in Dallas]. AFI saw the synergy with its own mission, and so began our consulting relationship."

Cain, the former director of Dallas' Deep Ellum Film Festival, and his team worked closely with Christian Gaines out of AFI's festivals department in Los Angeles to program a solid mix of star-studded features and thought-provoking documentaries. Staying true to Texas talents, AFI Dallas opened with Dallas native Steve Sawalich's Music Within and later screened fellow Dallasite Amy Talkington's Night of the White Pants.

As for the Documentary Competition, the goal was to discover the best and brightest of today's creative voices, with 10 groundbreaking documentaries competing for a $25,000 Target Filmmaker Award. The slate included Joel P. Engardio and Tom Shepard's Knocking; Darryl Roberts' America the Beautiful; Logan Smalley's Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life; Ashley Sabin and David Redmon's Kamp Katrina; Socheata Poeuv's New Year Baby; Richard Robbins' Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience; Bonni Cohen, Richard Berge and Nicole Newnhams' The Rape of Europa; Robert Stewart's Sharkwater and Grace Phan's Where the Sun Rises.

One of the most powerful documentaries in the line-up was Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. Actors such as Robert Duvall and Josh Lucas read the heart-wrenching poetry, journals, letters and short stories written by American servicemen and women. The film includes interviews with mostly unknown writers, but authors such as Tobias Wolff and Tim O'Brien weave together these politically unbiased vignettes artfully crafted from original footage shot in Iraq, animation, re-creations and still photography. The film was produced by The Documentary Group, which was founded by the core members of the legendary broadcaster Peter Jennings' PJ Productions following his death in 2005.

Based on the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning history by Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa is an extremely polished and all-encompassing film documenting the theft and destruction of Europe's art treasures by the Nazis during the Second World War and recounting the heroic efforts of the US Monuments Men sent to Europe to recover and return the masterpieces after the war.

Carrolton, Texas resident Socheata Poeve's New Year Baby is a moving personal journey to discover the truth about her birth in a refugee camp outside of Cambodia to parents who preferred never to discuss their escape from a life of oppression and genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Winner of the jury prize at the San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival, New Year Baby deservedly earned the $25,000 Target Filmmaker Award for Best Documentary.

As a former soccer player and "Zissu" fan (as the French national soccer player Zindine Zidane is fondly called), I was really looking forward to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, directed by visual artists Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon. Seventeen super-35mm 'scope format cameras were set around the Madrid-based Bernabeu Stadium focusing solely on Zidane during the entire 92 minutes of a Real Madrid vs. Villarreal match. Although the film was not in competition, and not at all what I expected (and was 30 minutes too long), the trance-like soundtrack by Scottish band Mogwai and the contemplative images of the man while he played the greatest game on earth slowly and quietly won me over.

Other noteworthy docs include Rob Stewart's HD documentary Sharkwater, which won the $10,000 HDNet Award; Logan Smalley's Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life, Audience Award-winner for Best Documentary; and University of Texas professor Andrew Garrison's Third Ward, TX, named after a Houston neighborhood where a group of African-American artists took over a block of abandoned homes just before their leveling. In A Lawyer Walks into a Bar, filmmaker Eric Chaikin follows six people striving to become among the measly 39 percent that pass the California bar exam; the film won the Texas Competition. A Fair to Remember is an entertaining look at the social history of the State Fair of Texas, produced by Dallas filmmakers Allen Mondell and Cynthia Salzman Mondell. When asked what they thought about AFI coming to their hometown, the Mondells replied, "Like our film, AFI Dallas captures the heart of the Lone Star Statebig, spirited and brazenly proud!"

To complement the slate of documentaries, the festival hosted several educational forums at the elegant Nasher Sculpture Center in the Dallas Arts District, two of which focused specifically on the business of documentary filmmaking. "Re-Educating the Documentary Filmmaker" included lively dialogue among several of the festival's documentarians discussing everything from redefining a "good" documentary film, to financing and distribution, to festival strategy. "Using Film as a Learning Tool" featured Mark J. Mallardi, general manager of education and training for Scope Seven, and his colleagues in a discussion on how filmmakers can utilize the educational market as an avenue for distribution. Standards-aligned documentaries and feature films such as Super Size Me and TV Junkie: Faces of Addiction are examples of documentaries that have been transformed into educational DVDs to deliver a truly original classroom experience for teachers and students. More information can be found on Scope Seven's website, www.scopeseven.com.

While organizers can't deny they have ambitions to be the biggest film festival in Texas, Cain understands that you have to be patient and pay your dues. Dallas Video Association director Bart Weiss, who was initially critical of AFI Dallas, states, "Having more attention paid to the independent spirit of cinema will make the city a better place to live, and Michael should be commended for the outreach work he has done with the other (local) festivals." Looking to the future, Cain notes, "Five years from now, we'd like to be attracting world premieres. We want to see this first crowd of filmmakers come back with another film as they move along in their careers."


Michele Goodson works with Media Projects, a Dallas-based documentary film company focusing on social issue films.