Marfa Film Festival

Marfa, Texas, is at least 200 miles from a public airport, and a seven-hour drive west from Austin. It's a small town near Big Bend National Park that seems to have become popular in recent years with artists looking for a quiet, low-key retreat. All I knew about it before last weekend was that it was the home of the Marfa Mystery Lights, and that my grandfather was stationed there during WWII. That's not altogether true. For the past couple of years, I'd heard that they throw one hell of a great film festival, and I was determined to see for myself.

The rumors were absolutely correct -- Marfa hosts a charming film festival -- not large, but very satisfying. Some of its selections have been making the festival rounds, but a few were world premieres. A surprising number were shot or set in Marfa or the surrounding regions.

The Marfa Film Festival takes up a lot of room in a small town -- many attendees camp out in tents since hotel rooms near the festival are scarce. A number of Austin people attend, so I kept running into people I knew whom I didn't realize would be there. Many residents worked in some capacity or other on There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, both of which were shot in the area a few years ago, and souvenirs from those productions are often displayed in shops and restaurants.

I wasn't able to attend the entire festival, which ran from Wednesday, May 5 through Sunday, May 9, but arrived on Thursday afternoon. I was just in time for a short film featuring a Marfa artist called Art Elimination Project. Adam Bork filmed himself destroying artwork he'd done a decade or two ago. If this sounds arty to you, I haven't mentioned yet that most of the destruction involved very showy explosions, almost Muppet-like. It was playful rather than pretentious, which was the tone for most of the art and film I experienced during Marfa Film Festival.

Other films I enjoyed that played the fest this year:

Features
  • The Sun Ship Game, a 1969 documentary from Robert Drew about men who pilot glider planes, with a focus on a national tournament that takes place around Marfa. Some parts date badly, but the shots of the gliders mid-air are lovely. The film has not been available except in bootlegs for decades.
  • The Dry Land, which premiered at Sundance, a feature about an Iraqi war veteran returning to his West Texas home and fighting post-traumatic stress disorder. We were surprised by a special guest during the Q&A -- the film's actress/producer America Ferrera.
  • Echotone, which had its world premiere at the fest. The documentary is about the problems that musicians face with day jobs, residential developments springing up near music venues, and other issues. The focus is on Austin music, with special attention to the downtown condo developments and the SXSW Music Festival. But it's not all politics and social issues; the film included performances from Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Belaire, Bill Baird and other bands.
  • GasLand, another Sundance film that made its way to Marfa. This film about the effects of natural gas extraction on surrounding people and their water supply manages to make descriptions of chemicals interesting. Josh Fox gives the movie a personal angle without getting in your face too much about it.
Shorts
  • Quadrangle, an excellent short documentary that premiered at Sundance but has been picking up awards at other film festivals. Amy Grappell interviewed her parents about a time in the 1970s when they engaged in partner swapping with a neighboring couple. Absolutely riveting. Grappell allegedly wants to expand this into a feature-length documentary but the short film stands up quite well on its own.
  • Breaking Borders, a look at a group of cross-dressers and transvestites in El Paso who perform regularly at a Taco Cabana. This film by Diana Cordova is currently available online.
  • The Big Bends, which won a jury prize at SXSW before playing in Marfa. The short feature is set in West Texas and is about a man isolated in the desert area who has to come to terms with death sooner than he expected. Beautifully shot.
  • A Young Couple, a short film from Barry Jenkins, shot around the same time (and place) where he shot his excellent feature Medicine for Melancholy (my review). Jenkins spent an afternoon in the San Francisco apartment of John and Jenny, interviewing them about their experiences living together. Again, this film is available online.
The festival also hosted a number of special events. My favorite was an audience participation screening of a silent film, in which Mexico City musician Lazaro Valiente led the audience in supplying sound effects for the film clips using a number of noisemakers and musical toys. Live music was present throughout the festival, from mariachis to Austin band The Monahans and Tom Chasteen from Dub Club.

The festival closed with a short documentary directed by musician Lou Reed, Red Shirley, in which he interviews his 100-year-old cousin. However, I had to leave earlier that day -- my closing-night film was on Saturday night, and was a festive outdoor screening of the 1972 Jamaican reggae film, The Harder They Come. It was chilly outside, a great contrast to the tropical atmosphere onscreen, but audience members wrapped themselves in blankets and huddled together in great enjoyment. A nearby food trailer served "Jimmy Cliff Bangers," lamb sausages in a bun with Jamaican chutney, which were also quite warming and appropriate.

It was difficult to tear myself away from the festivities on Sunday afternoon for the trek back to Austin. Marfa Film Festival has a mellow yet contagious vibe, with some excellent programming, and I hope I'll be able to make time to drive out there again next year.
Marfa Film Festival

[Photo credits: "Tree-lined theater" and "Barely a line" by Flickr user juliettek. Used under Creative Commons license.]