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Political Cinema

A look at the offerings from this year's DC Independent Film Festival.

11:00 PM, Mar 21, 2004 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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AN ATTENDEE of the DC Independent Film Festival once jokingly suggested that Carol Bidault de l'Isle, founder and director of the week-long film showcase, re-name the event the "What the Hell Is Going on Here? Festival." Bidault laughs, but is the first to admit that such a description is not all that unbefitting of the annual festival, which boasts a wide range of short, feature-length, and animated films that baffle, shock, disturb, and enlighten--sometimes all at once.

Festival-goers who ventured into the Loews Cinema One on Wisconsin Avenue for the Fifth Annual DCIFF earlier this month didn't necessarily know what they were in for--but that's sort of the point, after all. "Everyone knows [what to expect from] a Jewish film festival, a gay and lesbian film festival, and an environmental film festival," Bidault says. "But what does independent mean?"

I asked Bidault to answer her own difficult question, and what she thinks makes an independent film great. "A successful independent film is a film in which [the director] had a vision and was able to carry it through inception to fruition," Bidault says. She cites Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as an example, though the 115 directors she has invited to this year's DCIFF are working on a much tighter budget. "[We're looking for films] where the filmmaker has truly honed his skills and is able to show a concrete idea, challenge the audience--people who are trying something fresh."

"We never take a political position at an [independent] film festival," Bidault adds. But that doesn't mean this year's festival didn't strike a political chord. Washington, D.C., has been called the documentary capital of the world, and so non-fiction has always had a major, and oftentimes controversial, presence in the festival. Consider the documentary Whole, which examines individuals afflicted by Body Integrity Identity Disorder. The film documents healthy people who feel the need to undergo amputations in order to feel spiritually "complete," and how doctors are dealing with the growing number of "amputee wannabes."

Manipulation of the body seemed to be a big theme at this year's festival, as another documentary, American Eunuchs--Designed Identities, focused on the hundreds of men who voluntarily choose to be castrated each year. But nothing seemed to uncover the darker side of human nature more than The Gift, a documentary that looks at a group of gay men who actively seek to be infected with HIV.

It's enough to make some viewers get up and walk out, which, oftentimes, they do. But it doesn't bother Bidault. "People should be walking out," she says of a festival that is supposedly not out to shock nor lean toward any particular political position. "The jaw-dropping [films] deserve a home too," she adds.

Luckily, out of the 115 films selected (1,100 were submitted) for screening at this year's festival, there were a number of thought-provoking films whose ingenuity did not lie in magnifying the male genitalia. In fact, it was the more experimental, avant-garde films that captured the human condition just as well, if not better, than the more straightforward, in-your-face documentaries.

Jordan Allott, director of Defenestration--a 14-minute experimental film about a young man who uses technology to escape reality, unpleasant childhood memories, and ultimately his faith--isn't upset with the overtly political and ideologically-driven films, just the fact that they all seem to be coming from one end of the political spectrum. "Conservatives like to go to the movies too," he says. "People assume I'm extremely liberal because I'm a filmmaker. If a festival wants to call itself independent and also wants to promote controversial films, it should push for films that question the left-wing values most film festival audiences hold dear; for example, films that question the morality of homosexuality and abortion. That would really shock."

Allott is not the only one who has reflected on what the film festival could be if it only opened its doors to more diverse opinions. Mara Wallis of San Francisco wrote a letter to the editor of the film and video monthly magazine the Independent. The letter, which was printed in the September 2003 issue, reads, "It will be interesting to see the reception that the independent film crowd gives to a new batch of conservative student filmmakers who are making documentaries that are critical of their left-wing teachers, as well as other up-and-coming nonleftist filmmakers attempting to have their voices heard. Will these filmmakers be left out in the cold? Will film festivals accept their work?"

In the name of independent-thinking, let's hope the answer to that last question is yes.

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.