Tonight, the Dallas Video Festival kicks off at the Angelika Film Center. For 23 years, Bart Weiss and his cohorts have been pulling together innovative and challenging programming for the festival that always makes this one of the most fascinating movie-watching weekends of the year. What I’ve always enjoyed about Video Fest is its efficiency. What you don’t get at the festival are the kinds of mid-budget, mediocre feature films that clog the programming of most full-fledge film festivals. Video Fest’s movies are nearly always medium-conscious, and as a result, no matter what screening you walk into, what’s on screen will be something entirely fresh in either form or content or both. Sometimes the experimental, self-conscious fare doesn’t quite work, but rather than a shortcoming, this makes the festival feel like a breeding ground for ideas, an arena of experimentation that keeps the festival relevant.
There are a number of excellent films at this year’s festival. Jump to find out which selections are not to miss.
Some will call Memories of Overdevelopment (Angelika 2, Sunday, September 26 at 6:15 p.m.) a boring, slow-moving, indulgent diatribe. But I found this feature film about a conflicted former Communist academic from Cuba teaching in New York to be one of the most fascinating novel adaptations I’ve scene. Comprised of voice over, collages, short scenes, and historical footage, Memories of Overdevelopment succeeds in creating a very personal, first person narrative in a medium that is so often forced to look at things from the outside-in. This extreme cinematic subjectivism roots the conflicts of history in the soul of the movie’s main character, bringing to light the legacy of many social-political quagmires of the 20th century that still haven’t been put to rest.
Forgetting Dad (Angelika Videocafe, Thursday, September 23 at 8:30 p.m.) seems like a straightforward enough documentary, about a son who explores his father’s Alzheimer’s. Rick Minnich’s father lost his memory after a minor fender bender in the early 1990s. Doctors have never been able to figure out a physiological explanation for the memory loss, and so Rick’s relatives have split into two camps: those who believe some unexplained psychological phenomenon caused the memory loss, and those who believe that Richard created his condition, acting as if he had lost his memory in order to sever ties with his family and his life and create a new life as “New Richard. As the story unfolds, we discover Richard was not the perfect father or husband, and Rick lays the case for the possibility that Richards created his condition. The movie becomes a powerful and deeply moving exploration of personal identity, the capacity for suffering, and the fragility with which the human self clings to our physical bodies. We become aware in a new way of the tangled web of fictions, lies, and facts that comprise our understanding of ourselves.
Documentaries are Video Fest’s forte, and Burynski (Angelika 3, Saturday, September 25 at 5 p.m.) is the kind of information-based storytelling that is difficult to see in any other setting than this festival. The film takes a look at our much maligned medical industry from a new angle: that of a drug developer. In the 1980s, Dr. Stanislaw Burynski developed a controversial treatment for cancer that showed remarkable success in his own clinical trials. However, once he sought FDA approval for the drug, he ran into a mindboggling of difficulties, which expose a corporate-influenced medical system that, as a business, is structured and regulated to maximize revenues by protecting the inadequate, outdated, and tremendously lucrative cancer procedures most common today (radiation, chemotherapy, etc.) Understanding the controversial and highly debatable nature of the material, Burynski’s filmmakers take a risky approach to moviemaking – they sacrifice sensationalism and entertainment to carefully lay out a linear argument in Burynski’s favor. This means the movie often feels like an article in a medical journal, and long segments consist of reading passages from letters, reports, medical documents, and legal briefs. As a result, Burynski is deeply convincing, making its view of the medical more troubling than a Michael Moore takedown because you can’t doubt it or brush it off.
Burynski paints a picture of a medical industry and government out to get the little guy. Erasing David (Angelika 3, Sunday, September 26 at 2:15 p.m.) is a documentary/experiment that indulges whole-heartedly in government paranoia. After receiving a notice from the government that sensitive personal information went missing from a state-maintained database, British filmmaker David Bond begins to wonder just what information the government, corporations, and other entities have keep store away in their massive databases, and what personal risk this poses. His exploration unveils an unseemly side of the Big Brother state contemporary Britain is rapidly becoming, and it inspires an idea. Bond decides to try to disappear for just 30 days, and he hires two well-known private investigators to try to track him down by using the copious amounts of personal information available to any crafty citizen. With this setup, the documentary manages to both tackle an intriguing social-political issue and study Bond’s personally psychological response to the experiment, all the while masquerading at times as a highly-entertaining chase and hunt spy thriller.
Other interesting choices:
Austin-filmmaker Mark Duplass had success earlier this with his film Cyrus, a movie that brought him out of the cult subgenre of mumblecore, for which he is primarily known. In MARS (Angelika 3, Saturday, September 25 at 8 p.m.) Duplass stars in fellow Austin-moviemaker Geoff Marslett’s first feature, an animated move about some unlikely astronauts on their way to Mars where they find new life forms. MARS offers an innovative approach to making a space drama on a miniscule budget. The animation in MARS looks like computer renderings in pen and ink of real-life staged shots, creating something like an live action animated movie. As you might expect with Duplass’ presence, MARS’ strength is in its slacker, underplayed gen-X humor, the premise of sending regular dudes into space offering the opportunity to riff on just how un-heroic 30-something Americans have become.
Pollack (Angelika 3, Saturday, September 25 at 1:45 p.m.) is first-person based documentary made by Polish-American/gay filmmaker Jim Kenney, whose inquiries about the origins of Polish jokes lead him into an exploration of recent Polish history and an increased identification with his native country. As he travels to Poland to learn more, he is challenged again by the strong presence of anti-homosexual sentiment in the Eastern European country.
Before seeing Everyday Sunshine (Angelika 3, Friday, September 24 at 9:45 p.m.), I had only heard of the band Fishbone because of a Lollapalooza ‘93 compilation CD I wore out in the 1990s. The movie tells the story of the all-but-forgotten band who remain legends in musician circles, where they are still recognized as one of the most talented, musically adventurous, and entertaining bands that never made the big time. Coming up in the L.A. club scene in the late-1980s – contemporaries of bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Fishbone was an all-black motley crew of individual talents and vivacious personalities who forged a new sound that fused punk, funk, rock, metal, hip-hop, and jazz, confounding preconceived notices of race and musical style. Though it feels at times like a Behind the Music episode, Everyday Sunshine succeeds at bringing focus to amazing musicians who have struggled for two decades with the relentless inequity of the American Dream.
Image at top: Ron Blair in Memories of Overdevelopment