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Here's the Story: Austin Film Fest Opens Up to Docs

By Kathleen Fairweather

The "happiest place on earth" is said to be in Anaheim, Calif., but every October in Austin, Texas, more fun can be found at the Austin Film Festival (AFF). Now in its 15th year, AFF features a full-blown screenwriters conference complete with screenplay competitions and screenwriting and film industry panels. The AFF distinguishes itself from Austin's SXSW and other fests by catering primarily to a narrative-driven audience with professional screenwriter and filmmaker aspirations.

Noticeably absent were black-clad Starbucks swillers, snarling into cell phones at local restaurants. Everyone at the AFF seems to be in a good mood, happy, relaxed-wholesomely reminiscent of the old-school Sundance days when it was truly about the art of the film.

But I digress. This year's fest featured 190 films, including 20 feature-length docs such as AFF's 2008 Jury Award winner Les Ninjas du Japon, directed by Giommi Giovanni, and the Jury Award-winning short documentary, Zietek, directed by Bartosz Blaschke.

The AFF Audience Award went to Eric Bricker's Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, and Best Documentary Short was awarded to Road to Tlacotepec, directed by Berndt Mader.

Other festival favorites included This Dust of Words (Dir.: Bill Rose); Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Dir.: Bestor Cram); Largo (Dirs.: Mark Flanagan, Andrew van Baal); School Play (Dirs.: Rick Velleu, Eddie Rosenstein); and Six-Man, Texas (Dir.: Alan Barber).

Unfortunately I did miss out on several screenings, as a number of the documentaries were scheduled back-to-back at different venues. This made it doubly frustrating, as I did hear good feedback on all docs in the AFF line-up. And, given that this fest is currently narrative driven, I was curious what expansions the AFF might be planning for next year. I posed a few questions regarding the documentary sections to Jesse Trussell, AFF's film competition programmer.

IDA: The AFF distinguishes itself from most festivals by focusing on screenwriters and the screenwriting process. Obviously, there is a tie-in with feature films as they are screenplay driven, but why does the AFF include documentaries in such a narrative-focused festival?

Jesse Trussell: AFF's goal is to always champion the story. In the beginning we focused only on narrative works, but a few years ago we chose to add documentary to the festival. The films we select have some of the best stories you will see in the fest in any given year, and operate using the same dramatic principles as fiction films.

IDA: That said, among AFF's many screenwriting and production panels, there was only one panel on doc production. Do you have plans to expand your documentary panels and screenings?

JT: AFF is always looking to expand, and we hope to steadily increase both the number of docs we show, and panels for documentary filmmakers.

IDA: It is a common misperception that documentary films are not "scripted" or storyboarded. However, most documentary filmmakers do transcribe their interviews and storyboard their shots, thus pulling a working script in which to organize their documentaries. Do you plan to offer seminars in narrative nonfiction scripting and shooting in the future?

JT: That would probably be the mostly likely direction of our new offerings for doc panels.

IDA: You had a very diverse slate of documentary films in your fest line-up. What do you look for in your submissions beyond great storytelling? Do you have slots for different subjects such as music, art or science?

JT: We don't hold slots for any specific genres at AFF. As we like to say, all we are looking for is a great story well told.

IDA: Some of the docs had played in other festivals or were screened on television. Why not stick to premiers? Was there a shortage of quality first films?

JT: AFF doesn't require a film to be a premiere to screen at the festival. We are looking to play the best overall slate of films.

IDA: Many doc filmmakers have crossed over into narrative films, and it would be interesting to hear them discuss their approaches to narrative and nonfiction filmmaking. Would you consider offering a seminar with filmmakers who have accomplished this?

JT: That would be a very interesting panel. It will be on our list for potential panels next year.

IDA: Do you have any tips or suggestions to doc filmmakers who are looking to submit to AFF next year?

JT: Don't hesitate to submit! Even though AFF has traditionally focused on narrative films, we offer great resources and networking to the documentary filmmaker.

Former ID Editor Kathleen Fairweather is now based in Austin, where she continues to run into friendly LA film expats on a daily basis. She can be reached at