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Big Screens in Small Towns

Film festivals draw serious crowds in unexpected places

Once upon a time, in the last century, an event as exotic as a film festival could only be experienced in an urban capital of culture. Today, however, such concentrated celebrations of the cinematic art seem to spring from the very soil of Texas. From Marfa to Nacogdoches, Rockport to Waxahachie, auteurs travel the Lone Star highways in search of an audience for their flicks. The film festival has come to the small towns of Texas.

Movies shown at the events run the gamut from traditional Westerns to the sometimes inscrutable creations of the avant-garde. Waxahachie’s Crossroads of Texas Film Festival and the Nacogdoches Film Festival focus on films that were made in Texas, set in Texas or have a strong connection to the state.

Several of the movies shown at the Crossroads festival, which began in 2014, were at least partly shot in Waxahachie, including the 1984 picture Places in the Heart. Directed by Waxahachie native Robert Benton, the film stars Sally Field as a widow struggling to hold on to the family cotton farm. Festivalgoers also recognized the landscape in Tender Mercies, Horton Foote’s 1983 redemption story about a fallen country-western singer played letter-perfectly by Robert Duvall.

And although some festival films can be viewed at home, seeing them with a crowd on the big screen provides a more immersive cinematic encounter. The Crossroads website says that the 2015 screening of The Trip to Bountiful, Foote’s 1985 film about an elderly woman who sets out to visit her long-deserted homeplace, was the first time the movie had been seen on the big screen in 30 years.

The Waxahachie festival expands the viewing experience by screening films in historic or uncommon settings, such as the 1902 Chautauqua Auditorium, the 1925 Tudor-style Ellis County Woman’s Building and the 1895 Texas Theatre. “We showed 8 Seconds, the film about the late bull rider Lane Frost, at our local rodeo arena,” says Amy Borders, director of the Crossroads of Texas Film Festival.

Music was the theme of the 2016 Crossroads festival, which included biopics on Tex-Mex powerhouses Selena and Doug Sahm. The 2017 fest in April, with the theme “Trailblazers and Outlaws,” included The Buddy Holly Story, The Newton Boys, Crazy Heart and The Last Picture Show.

Inspired by the film program at Stephen F. Austin State University, the Nacogdoches Film Festival, which launched in 2012, also focuses on Texas films, every February. The 2016 festival included the documentary Found Footage: Nacogdoches 1938. The 16 mm footage of local people and places, shot in 1938, was lost and found at least twice through the years but is now restored and supplemented by recent interviews with some of its subjects. “It was great to see the modern interviews of familiar people now in their 80s and then to see them as teenagers in the original footage,” says Bill King, festival chairman.

Past festivals have included such documentaries as Road to Austin, about the capital city’s music scene; Tomato Republic, a quirky slice of East Texas life chronicling a recent Jacksonville mayoral race; Barbecue: A Texas Love Story, narrated by former Texas Gov. Ann Richards; and For the Love of Books, about the tiara-wearing, book-loving Pulpwood Queens from the East Texas town of Jefferson.

When the Nacogdoches festival screened the 2011 film Bernie, directed by Austin’s Richard Linklater, some eight or nine of the real-life people who were portrayed by actors in the film drove over from Carthage to attend. Several festival films—Bubba Ho-Tep, Cold in July, By the Hair of the Head—were based on stories by East Texas literary star Joe R. Lansdale, who has made it a practice to be on hand to offer tips to aspiring filmmakers.

Because Nacogdoches is the oldest city in Texas, its festival events and screenings often take place in historic settings, such as the century-old post office, which now houses the convention and visitors bureau. Another festival site, the Cole Art Center at the Old Opera House, had an inadvertent influence on a pivotal event in American film history. In 1907, the Marx brothers, touring as a noncomical musical ensemble called the Four Nightingales, played the opera house. In the middle of the performance, audience members heard someone hollering in the street about a runaway mule. The audience streamed out of the theater to witness the rampage. When the audience members returned, an insulted Groucho Marx began berating everyone present. Instead of taking offense, the Nacogdoches crowd roared with laughter. The comedy empire of the Marx Brothers was born, and Groucho was often heard to reprise one line from that memorable performance: “Nacogdoches is full of roaches.”

When Hill Country Film Festival director Amy Miskovsky and her brother, writer-director Chad Matthews, decided to start a film festival in 2010, they felt that their home base of Austin already had enough cinema events. Moreover, says Miskovsky, “We felt that independent film went hand in hand with the independent spirit of a small town.” The pair decided that Fredericksburg, 80 miles west, best embodied the festival’s motto, “Reel Indie, Real Texas.”

“We’re a destination festival and a boutique festival,” Miskovsky explains. “People network here and make connections. The audience has access to the filmmakers through Q&A sessions. A mom and her son volunteered one year, and then, when he was a high school senior, he had the opportunity to go to New York and intern with a filmmaker he met here.” A summer film camp run by the fest offers hands-on opportunities for Fredericksburg students.

When HCFF showed the 2016 documentary Tower, about the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, locals were especially moved to have in attendance in-laws and friends of Ramiro Martinez, one of the officers who stopped the shooter. The 85 films shown at the 2016 fest also included A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story and the border patrol thriller Transpecos.

One of the newest festivals, the South Texas International Film Festival, founded in 2015, unfolds each September in Edinburg. “The Mexican Consulate here wanted us to show some films by Mexican filmmakers,” says festival director Magdiel Alfonso, “and the idea just grew into a festival. The first year, we received 85 entries and showed six shorts and four features. We’ve gotten submissions from Mexico, India, Pakistan, Russia, Europe, Canada—people submit them through the platforms FilmFreeway and Withoutabox. We’re working to have our festival films be eligible for Oscar consideration.”

Festival organizers also hope to establish a filmmaking presence in the Rio Grande Valley and create economic resources for actors, costume designers, cinematographers and other film professionals. This year’s festival is September 7–9.

Movie-loving Valley folks surely will charm the film world with Texas hospitality, as did the late L.T. Felty of Waxahachie. Back in the ’80s, when the town was becoming a Hollywood outpost in Texas, former high school coach Felty was the man to see if a film production needed a certain location or, say, 800 square dancers on one day’s notice. Felty also found himself on the silver screen, appearing in Foote’s film 1918, and playing a duck hunter in David Byrne’s True Stories.

Most of all, Felty mesmerized the occasionally cutthroat world of Tinseltown with his small-town values. “If you don’t lie to them, they’ll believe in you as long as you live,” he told The New York Times in 1985. “Your handshake is your word.”

Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.

Correction: September 26, 2017
This story misstated the surname of the director of the Hill Country Film Festival. Her name is Amy Miskovsky, not Moskovitz.