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Denton’s Thin Line Film Festival Continues to Push Its Boundaries

The 17th edition of the documentary film festival is becoming more and more of a showcase for different mediums.
The Thin Line Fest took over 10 venues across Denton in late April, continuing its push to broaden beyond just documentary. Lauren Shults

The 17th Thin Line Festival in Downtown Denton had a theme that declared it was “a different kind of festival,” backed up by a slew of films and musical performances. Artists of all kinds shared their work across more than 10 venues across town last month, continuing the festival’s efforts to broaden beyond the documentary programming it’s long been known for.

This year, Texas artists intertwined social matters and personal identity. Both shorts and features represented disability, mental health, and gender.

The lineups of local and out-of-staters included Oscar-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman; Lesvia, a film created in Greece; Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, about the legendary drummer and civil rights activist; and the story of Zydeco and Cajun performer Valerie Sassyfrass.

The five-day event opened with a double feature showcase of feminist films No One Asked You, which was awarded Best overall Documentary Feature, and another film called Reporting the News.

No One Asked You stars Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, on a cross-country odyssey in support of abortion clinics with Abortion Access Front. The film tracks the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, and subsequent changes in state abortion laws. Director Ruth Leitman’s film was a brave call to action, and set the standard as the first feature screened at the festival.

“In a place like Texas where folks are so frustrated with what has happened to bodily autonomy,” Leitmansaid in a statement, “this [award] means so much to our team.”

Pink clinics were boarded up and painted white as nurses explained next steps to patients. Leitman and Winstead connected with activists in the pro-choice movement throughout the documentary, in addition to healthcare providers. Winstead’s dark humor threaded the documentary together and kept the energy high for both Thin Line festival goers and the women in the film.

Following No One was Breaking the News, which featured traditionally-marginalized voices in news media, particularly women and LGBTQ+ journalists. Across the country, directors Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston, and Chelsea Hernandez collaborated to capture the launch of The 19th* News, an organization that was launched by women and queer people on a quest for more equitable reporting.

Hernandez participated in a Q&A with Dallas-based VideoFest’s founder, Bart Weiss, following the screening. Each of the film’s directors closely followed a member of The 19th* near its launch. She said that, over time, the journalists opened up for the documentary as they began reporting in their new positions. The film features behind-the-scenes video of interviews, including Errin Haines speaking with Vice President Kamala Harris after winning the 2020 election. Harris said she wanted her first interview after the election to be with The 19th* because she aligned with its purpose.

Austin-based Emily Ramshaw, co-founder and CEO of the The 19th*, said the organization provides the news through a women reporter’s perspective, and doesn’t only concern women’s rights. The directors simultaneously tracked the presidential election, January 6 insurrection, and the Dobbs Decision that effectively made abortion illegal in Texas and other states — all of which got the ball rolling for the young news outlet.

“A local family garnered a lot of interest locally and regionally,” said Thin Line Fest Director Joshua Butler. The Q&A sessions throughout the festival galvanized audience conversation, including the documentary feature Love to the Max, which depicted the everyday life of Max Briggle, a transgender teen from Denton.

The film follows Max’s difficulties as a transgender person in recent years, and the activism that his family is involved in, both in Texas and across the country. Briggle’s family famously invited Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for dinner in their Dallas home in 2016, years before he issued a legal opinion that some forms of gender-affirming care for trans kids was child abuse.

The 2023 documentary Into the Spotlight stars the Dallas-based Spotlight Musical Theatre troupe composed of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Following a lottery for a place on the roster, Director Thaddeus D. Matula’s shadows their stories leading up to opening night. He shows the actors pitching ideas for the production, which were eventually written into the final script they perform on stage.

Short film Barbette + Fontaine investigates the evolution of drag through two icons who have lived decades apart, Cynthia Lee Fontaine from the popular television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Round Rock’s Vander Clyde “Barbette” Broadway, who performed in the 1920s and ‘30s.

This year, the festival segmented the films into several sections, including music, art, political & social, and experimental, in addition to many of the hundreds of films submitted for the music video portion of the festival.

Several musical groups performed after their newly-released videos were screened, Butler said. “For the first time in years, I’ve seen musicians in the theater.”

Weiss hosted a workshop for learning to film with tour phone, attended by many aspiring filmmakers, and the University of North Texas students in the media arts programs are is instrumental in the fest.

Butler stressed that Thin Line is meant to create crossover between film, music, photography and art to spark creativity. “I saw that happen for the first time in a substantial way.”