Five Days In the Dark

Houston Cinema Arts Festival Focuses on The Arts

IMAGE ABOVE: Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer opens the 2013 HCAF at the MFAH on Nov. 6.

In its fifth year, Houston Cinema Arts Festival takes over movie theaters and various other venues throughout the heart of the city for five days in November. Committed to celebrating the artistic process, the festival has presented films that range in topic from the art collective Ant Farm, to this year’s documentary about Houston Ballet.

Houston is a city filled with art lovers. Home to the Alley Theatre, one of America’s first regional theaters, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Menil Collection and the prestigious Houston Ballet, the city attracts visitors from all over the country. But one of the lesser-known cultural offerings might be the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

“The festival’s theme is very appropriate to the city,” artistic director Richard Herskowitz says. “Houston is a treasure trove of arts organizations and artists. The festival’s partners throughout the city are always bringing ideas to us.”

Director Richard Linklater will receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award.
Director Richard Linklater will receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award.

Red Carpet Wonder

Dazed and Confused? True, the 60 programs can be mind boggling for new festival goers, but you will get a chance to see Dazed and Confused on Nov. 8, because Houston native Richard Linklater is receiving the 2013 Levantine Cinema Arts Award, which is bestowed on “a leading actor, director or other creative artist who has stretched the boundaries of cinematic expression throughout an illustrious film career.” Previous recipients include Robert Redford, Ethan Hawke and Isabella Rossellini.

The festival celebrates the work of Ron Yerxa of Bona Fide Productions  with a screening of Nebraska on Nov. 9.  Thomas Haden Church will present a sneak peek of a new film on Nov. 8 and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts will be on hand for the Houston premiere of August: Osage County on Nov. 8, which anchored the Alley Theatre’s 2011 season.

The First Five Years

Although the festival may be new to some Houstonians, its history has strong, grassroots beginnings. In 2007, after Houston’s mayor, Bill White, tapped local philanthropist Franci Crane to head a task force that would build a local film culture, the idea for the festival bubbled forth. Soon thereafter, Houston Cinema Arts Society was formed to oversee the festival and programs that promote a local film culture throughout the year.

Other Texas cities were years ahead of Houston in this regard. In 1994, Austin’s South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival added a film component, and the Austin Film Festival turned 20 this year. Dallas was just a few years ahead of Houston, founding the Dallas Film Society in 2006, which now hosts the annual Dallas International Film Festival.

Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.

Since day one, Houston’s festival differed from other film festivals, both regionally and nationally. The non-competitive format doesn’t require an entry fee or offer filmmakers an award to tack onto promotional materials. This curated festival provides an event that fosters an appreciation of the process, with panel discussions and talkbacks from the artists involved in the films. “The emphasis of the festival is creating a unique live event that people can’t experience on their computers or their televisions,” Herskowitz says. “We’ve begun to program the festival with things that draw people to the theaters.”

In the past five years, the growth has been exponential.  Since 2008, the two-location, weekend-long festival evolved into five days of more than 50 narrative and documentary films, an interactive video installation gallery, 16mm screening room, live multimedia performances, panel discussions, Meet the Makers workshops and free outdoor and student field trip screenings. Although the festival is not fully walkable, it’s split up between a few primary locations —the Museum of Fine Arts, Cinema 16 and Sundance — with lounge areas throughout the city as well. This year’s festival headquarters will be in the GreenStreet complex at 1201 Main Street, just one block from Main St Square MetroRail stop.

As the festival’s calendar has grown more robust, it added elements like the Cinema on the Verge series, which offers a perspective on the state of experimental film. This year, the series includes North of South, West of East, a four-screen, multi-linear film by Meredith Danluck. The daily screenings will be for a limited audience, who will sit in swivel chairs and choose to engage with the stories on different screens.

“The festival has been an incredible addition to the city, in its promotion of film,” Alfred Cervantes, deputy director of the Commission, says. “I travel all over the country seeing films, and am always astounded by what [Herskowitz] is able to round up.”

 Becoming Traviata delves into the creative process. Photo Credit: Distrib Films.
Becoming Traviata delves into the creative process.
Photo Credit: Distrib Films.

The Art in Cinema Arts

Films by and about artists form the heart of the festival. Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata, screening on Nov. 8, is a perfect example. Béziat takes us inside the intense collaboration between celebrated stage director Jean-François Sivadier. and soprano Natalie Dessay as she becomes Violetta.

The artists who travel to perform or present their films are considered celebrities as well. “One of the joys of this festival is that we bring in both the artists featured in the films and the filmmakers,” Rigdon says. “You end up with this eclectic group of people who really care about the arts.”

It’s a very distinct memory for Rigdon. As the executive director of the Houston Cinema Arts Society, she meets a lot of filmmakers and artists, but in 2011, the sound sculptor Trimpin was in town along with the documentary Trimpin: The Sound of Invention. She struck up a conversation with him at a party about his time in Houston. “He looked at me and said it was the first time he felt like a real person at a film festival,” Rigdon remembers. “When I asked him why, he said everybody in Houston actually wanted to talk about art.”

Ballet, Bands & More

Over the years, Herskowitz and Rigdon have turned attentive eyes to dance films, with presentations including Fred Wiseman’s La Danse: Le Ballet De L’Opera De Paris and Wim Wenders’ stunning tribute to Pina Bausch, Pina 3d. This year, the festival focuses on the city’s resident ballet company with the premiere of a new documentary about Houston Ballet. Screening on Nov. 10,  the final day of the festival at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries chronicles the journey of the company to become the fourth largest ballet company in America. There’s an additional showing on Nov. 11 as part of Spotlight on Houston.

To capture the Ballet’s storied history, John Carrithers compiled footage dating back to the 1970s, and conducted countless interviews with company members and prominent Houstonians. It traces the careers of the Ballet’s five artistic directors, featuring interviews from all four who are still living.

“The Houston Ballet is so important to the cultivation of the arts community here,” Rigdon says. “I’m thrilled that the festival is able to collaborate in this way.”

From this local story, the festival jetsets to Israel, with Benny Toraty’s The Ballad of the Weeping Spring on Nov. 10, which was nominated for nine Israeli Academy Awards. This film tells a story of friendship and tragedy, as a legendary band reunites to play one final concert.

In addition to more traditional films, this year the festival brings back the popular Live Music and Film series. Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals re-scored The Yellow Ticket, a 1931 silent film that explored topics of anti-semitism, gender bias and human trafficking in Imperialist Russia. Pianist Marilyn Lerner joins Svigals to play her new soundtrack during the film’s screening on Nov. 7 at the MFAH.

For All the Labor, the musical performance takes place after the screening on Nov. 8. A performance by two members of Austin’s label-defying The Gourds follows the screening of the documentary about the band.

In association with Aurora Picture Show, HCAF will honor experimental and queer cinema pioneer Barbara Hammer. On Nov. 3, prior to the festival, Herskowitz will conduct a tour through four decades of Hammer’s career, with several of her films interspersed throughout the discussion. During the festival, Hammer will present several of her films, including Witness: Palestine (A Tribute to Pasolini), at Aurora on Nov. 8.

Texas Films

The Texas Filmmaker Showcase screens on Nov. 10, 12.15 at Sundance 2.
The Texas Filmmaker Showcase screens on Nov. 10, 12.15 at Sundance 2.

The festival is also a great chance to find out what’s happening for Texas artists through the Texas Filmmakers Showcase, which presents the best Texas short films and videos. The six-film showcase, organized by the Houston Film Commission, screens Nov. 9, and includes a roster of established Texas artists. The films range in length from the six-minute film Hellion by Kat Candler, a short story about misbehaving brothers, to Craig Whitney’s re-imagining of the Western genre, The Garden and the Wilderness, which clocks in at nearly half an hour.

Local filmmakers get a little love this year with a two-day post festival Spotlight on Houston on Nov. 11-12.  Houston filmmaker Vicky Wight will present her first feature film, A Volunteer, about a forty something woman’s romantic adventures volunteering in a soup kitchen. “It’s such a thrill to be screening in Houston as part of the HCAS Film Festival,” says Wight. “Anyone who has attended the festival in the past knows how well it is curated, so being part of such a brilliant program is a true privilege.” Being part of the home team carries great meaning for Wight. People still don’t quite understand that filmmakers live among us. “I’m usually met with a sense of bewilderment when I tell people I’m a filmmaker living in Houston. It’s an unexpected city for this line of work, but, like other local filmmakers, I recognize how Houston’s unexpected beauty, space, and diversity really inform my work.”

Mark your Calendar

This appreciation for the art form is what promises to keep the Houston Cinema Arts Festival alive and expand its reach beyond just its hometown. The non-competitive atmosphere allows filmmakers to prepare for the larger festivals, and gives the more established artists a place to relax and relish in the spirit of camaraderie.

“If you’re asking me, I think the right way to do the festival is to just take the five days off from work and go to as much as you can,” Cervantes says. “It’s one of most relaxed, engaging festivals I attend every year.”


Houston Cinema Arts Festival
Nov. 6-10
Spotlight on Houston
Nov. 11-12