Talking Movies: Reel talk on film festivals

Walnut Grove
IC Docs will take place April 10-11 at the Adler Journalism Building. Among the documentaries selected for the festival is The Simple Gift of Walnut Grove by John Richard.

Iowa City International Documentary Film Festival

Univeresity of Iowa, Adler Journalism Building (Room 105) — April 10-11

I’ve begun to have mixed emotions about film festivals. I used to love them without reservation. I still love them, but with a few reservations. Take the Iowa City International Documentary Film Festival, known as IC Docs, which is exclusively focused on short documentaries, at the Adler Journalism Building (Room 105) on April 10 and 11 (see schedule).

A truly lovable part of the festival is that you never know what you’re going to see. As a moviegoer, you’re still in thrall to the unpredictability of cinematic art. If you check out IC Docs, in the same viewing you might see a mockumentary about a b-actor (Rob What), a low-key depiction with symbolic overtones of wood-tick racing in northern Minnesota (Of the Iron Range) and a frame-for-frame re-shooting of a Cuban experimental film using stills from what went down in Ferguson (Now! Again!).

Best of all, you’ll discover gems you never would have found otherwise. If not for IC Docs I might have never come across the local director John Richard’s The Simple Gift of Walnut Grove, a lovely example of short documentary filmmaking, in which a 96-year-old tells the story of his father, an early 20th century Danish immigrant who settled near West Branch. It’s the kind of beautifully shot, sensitive film we all wish we had of our ancestors. I don’t have a drop of Danish in me, but I found myself tearing up at the stoicism and inventiveness of my own immigrant forebears.

So what possible reservations could I have about such a surprising gathering of independent art? My reservations arise out of the transformed ways we go about watching movies.

It used to be that a film festival was the only place to see great independent movies. Now adventurous movie watchers are as likely to peruse the internet (and not just Netflix, Hulu, and Vimeo, but a host of sites with names like IndiePix or Top Documentary Films) as they are to upset their schedules to attend a film festival. Thus, many independent filmmakers ditch the festival circuit to find novel ways of getting the word out about their movies. Even Sundance doesn’t have the influence and splashiness it once did.

For the most part, organizers understand that for their festivals to flourish they need to become events. They need to offer something Netflix doesn’t: exclusive premieres, opportunities to rub shoulders with directors and actors, buzz. A festival like True/False, with its pay-the-artist initiative, is an example of how a festival can still be intense and exciting.

But little festivals have an uphill battle. Not only do they lack the money and leverage to bring in big-name movies or directors, they’re no longer the exclusive focus of filmmakers and adventurous viewers, both of whom have found other ways of rendezvousing. The outcome is that their lineups are not as exciting as they once were.

The beauty of IC Docs is that its found a great little niche: short documentaries. All their films are under 30 minutes. Since few of us seek out short docs outside of film festivals, IC Docs gives us an opportunity to sample a tapas-style meal of movies. Moreover, it’s a student-run festival. When you attend, you’ll not only be in for some surprising shorts, but you’ll also support the kind of art that enlivens a university community.

But I just don’t feel the kind of intensity in the lineup of festivals as I once did. Even some of the shorts for IC Docs feel like assignments for a college filmmaking class, where we’re supposed to stammer criticisms after seeing them. I highly recommend the ironic kitschiness of Rob What to knowing undergrads, but I don’t know that anyone over the age of 30 should bother. I give high marks to Now! Again! for cleverness (particularly if you’re up on experimental Cuban cinema), but I’m not sure that it’ll do anything for your conception of Ferguson beyond flattering any left-wing ideas you already possess. Shwebontha, a slow-moving short about Burma, could make for some good discussion about which kinds of cinematographic compositions work and which don’t. The director’s description says, “Past and future swirl in the peeling bells of global imperative. Production: a lilting arrow incites scalar confusion: Like hydro power.” OK then.

The organizers of IC Docs have put together a strong festival under our current conditions. You should attend to find your own moments of interest and illumination, for there’s still nothing quite like a film festival to make you feel the wonder and surprise of filmmaking. But I regret to say that the excitement of film festivals, even a well put-together festival like IC Docs, is somewhat diminished.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 174

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