Don’t be fooled by the marquee names and Oscar buzz. Don’t be dazzled by the presence of famous directors like the Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen, or the glamour of A-list stars like Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep and Justin Timberlake. Don’t even be wowed by the tribute to Susan Sarandon. The Austin Film Festival may have very quickly become one of the biggest and brightest in the world, but like all truly great festivals, its heart still lies with the tiny movies no one’s ever heard of, all struggling for a little attention and the hope of life beyond the festival circuit. Especially the low-profile movies representing the state and the town that’s opening its doors to the hullabaloo: the hometown heroes. That’s where the hope lies.
Of course, to be heard over all that noise, a small, local film has to be able to make some noise of its own, and it’s best if a film has something to say: a philosophy, a point of view that festivalgoers can take with them after they’ve left one theater and moved on to the next. This year, two Austin-based filmmakers are bringing their own particular, and differing, viewpoints to AFF in hopes of making their voices heard.
Take Dear Sidewalk, which has plenty to say about the power of hope in the face of despair—or, rather, in the face of boredom, which is worse. The film’s hero is Gardner, a 24-year-old mailman in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. Addicted to his daily routine and terrified of the chaos of life beyond it, Gardner sees his existence as a series of well-regulated but meaningless gestures. His arms and his legs move, but there’s no blood going to them. He may as well be a robot or a beast of burden, out of touch with his fellow man. And he prefers it that way. He is a mailman, after all—the living symbol of an obsolete form of communication. No one connects through the mail anymore.
Dear Sidewalk is filled with this kind of metaphor. It’s a prime example of the cinema of easy symbology, where every moment and every physical reality is mined for meaning. It’s not enough that Gardner feels detached from the rest of humanity; he has to find literary significance in the sidewalk he tramps every day. He has to live on a boat parked in his friend’s driveway—not on land, but not at sea, unmoored from society but drifting nowhere. And he must collect stamps, petrifying the tools of human communication and locking them away, stripping them of their true value. His physical reality must be a key to understanding his emotional state. Gardner and Dear Sidewalk exist entirely in worlds of their own making.
Compare that to Sombras de Azul, which shares a spot on the AFF Texas Independents program with Dear Sidewalk, but represents an entirely different approach to filmmaking, storytelling, and life itself.
Based on the personal experiences of writer and director Kelly Daniela Norris, Sombras follows a young Mexican girl named Maribel to Cuba, where she travels after the suicide of her older brother. While there, Maribel gives herself over to the unmanageable whims of memory and reflection. Long scenes of natural beauty unfold while Maribel engages in enigmatic voice-overs about the nature of death and love and loneliness. Shots of birds, butterflies, waves crashing on rocks, sunlight streaming through leaves: These are the visual accompaniments to Maribel’s inner, philosophical wonderings. Where Dear Sidewalk is regulated and contained, Sombras de Azul is poetical, meandering and unconfined, more concerned with the essential questions of life and death than with answering them. Like a heroine in a Roberto Rossellini picture, Maribel searches for meaning among the actual citizens of an actual city, residents who don’t realize they’re being filmed. Which means that at any moment, anything can happen—a visual parallel to the sudden and unexpected death of Maribel’s brother and the effect it has on her life.
At heart, both Gardner and Maribel are mourners—Gardner of his childhood and Maribel of her brother—but they deal with loss, that most fundamental of life’s realities, in radically different ways: Gardner by controlling those parts of his life he feels he can control, Maribel by ceding all control to her mental meanderings and the ungovernable beauty of the natural world. Maribel wanders through life aimlessly; Gardner builds maps and routes and never deviates from them. Sombras de Amor and Dear Sidewalk and their protagonists represent two opposing philosophies, two different schools of thought about life: the inquisitive versus the descriptive, questions versus answers, mystery versus definition.
Another regional film making its Texas premiere at the Austin Film festival is Little Hope Was Arson. This one’s a bit more literal, if no less complex. The following review will appear in the Observer‘s November print edition:
The life of the atheist is in some ways easier than the life of a true believer. Particularly, I think, when things go really, really wrong. The religious person, of course, will disagree and argue that faith in God provides a sense of strength and comfort to get you through trying times. People like me, on the other hand—people who believe in nothing—regard disappointment and difficulty as the inevitable inheritance of anyone born into an indifferent universe, so we’re not surprised when hard times arrive. Sure, we may have no rock to lean on, no one to carry us through our trials, but neither do we take it personally when the darkness falls. For those who have a personal relationship with God, disappointment and heartbreak can lead to devastation and despair. And, in extreme cases, arson.
Little Hope Was Arson, which has its Texas premiere at the Austin Film Festival, is director Theo Love’s fascinating new documentary about a series of East Texas church burnings in 2010. The film starts off as a police procedural—with Texas Rangers and ATF agents walking us through the steps they took to arrest Daniel McAllister and Jason Bourque for the burning of 11 churches over the course of a little more than a month—but it finds its stride as an investigation of faith in communities where God is experienced not as metaphor, but as a visceral presence. In the wake of the burnings, nearly everyone Love interviews, from perpetrators to parents to pastors, admits to having experienced a crisis of faith—a remarkable turn of events in communities where faith is foundational.
The tragedy of McAllister and Bourque starts where most tragedies end: with unrequited love and sudden death. While some people might view such things as marks of life as most people live it, to deeply religious kids like McAllister and Bourque they amounted to a breach of trust. When God failed to save McAllister’s mother from a fatal stroke and declined to force the girl of Bourque’s dreams to love him back, the two young men felt betrayed. Their heartbreaks became proof of sinister agency or, worse, divine indifference, which flew in the face of the evangelical philosophy they’d been raised on: that God cares about each of us individually. McAllister and Bourque’s personal God turned his back on them; burning his churches was an act of personal vengeance.
But the 2010 church burnings weren’t just symptoms of two young men unable to tolerate the disappointments of the world. They also sparked a moment of clarity for many in the Christian communities of East Texas. Like tribal medicine men, the pastors and laypeople of cities like Canton looked at the destruction of all that wood and gleaned a message in the ashes. They believed the burnings were both a test of faith and proof of God’s disappointment. They transubstantiated destruction into symbolic significance.
During those terrifying weeks in early 2010, many parishioners, like the good Texans they were, barricaded themselves inside their churches with guns in case the arsonists should come for them next. In the end the irony was on them; many came to believe that the fall of Daniel McAllister and Jason Bourque was the result of the Christian community metaphorically locking itself inside those churches to begin with, of their own false belief that a church is the four walls of a building and not, as one repentant minister says, “God’s people.” In this interpretation, the church burnings were punishment for the congregations’ failures as messengers of Christ. In a world where God is personalized and nothing happens for no reason, the community’s failure to look beyond its own walled garden led to the destruction of those walls. It’s the kind of perfect symbolism that only the truly religious, or a bad novelist, could love.
“The only church that illuminates is the burning church,” famed Italian anarchist Buenaventura Durruti once said. Love concludes his film with that quote, and though Durruti had a different meaning in mind, no other sentiment could capture Little Hope Was Arson half so well. The East Texas church burnings of 2010 became the flashpoint for an entire community’s soul-searching. Those flames shined a light into every dark corner and every abandoned room.
Dear Sidewalk screens at 8:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28, at the Alamo Drafthouse Village; and at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Sombras de Azul screens at 7:10 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts; and at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28. at the IMAX Theatre at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Little Hope Was Arson screens at 9:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25, at Texas Spirit Theater at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; and at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts.