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

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

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

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

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