Have You Ever Heard of Dubuque ?

in Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (11th)

by Klaus Eder

On Dubuque

Have you ever heard of Dubuque? The Internet knows that the small city at the junction of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin was founded in 1833 along the Mississippi River by a merchant from Quebec, Julien Dubuque. Fans of Kevin Costner may know that Field of Dreams (1989) was partially shot here. Not to forget a legend of the American late 1920s: Al Capone. He had dominated organized crime in Chicago, but had his headquarters in Dubuque, on the Iowa side of the bridge which separates Iowa from Illinois, and therefore protected from pursuit by the Illinois police. Al Capone had a huge suite in the Hotel Julien, with a nice view of the bridge (to recognize in time who was chasing him). One room had been converted into a gigantic safe, to store the money from his crimes. It’s a contradictory feeling to be at a place where one of the negative heroes of the American history (Scarface) has left his traces, and where you also feel the effects of Irish and German emigration.

It’s the same hotel, the Hotel Julien, that the festival uses as its headquarters. The Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF) was founded in 2012. Susan Gorrell, the event’s executive director, had then participated as a filmmaker. She returned the following years as volunteer and part-time organizer, and in 2015 took over as fest head. Since then, she has managed to make JDIFF – now in its 11th year – a prestigious address for independent cinema, and managed as well to create a solid structure (with the Five Flags Theater as the central venue). With astonishing energy and engagement, she keeps the festival open for international films, but focuses on US entries. In the Midwest it is one of the best opportunities, if not the best, to get updated on the recent production of American Indies. It focuses on short short films, long short films, documentaries, and fiction films; most were, at least, an Iowa premiere. An international jury presented prizes to films in all four categories. Even if some of the films had already been shown at other festivals, JDIFF works as a festival of discoveries, and also for the local public, which seems to appreciate the offer of films which will scarcely get to the regular cinemas.

On Static Space and We Burn Like This

Take, for example, Kate Black Spence. In Chicago she made a career as actress, on stage and in films. Now she presents her first film, the short Static Space (she wrote it, acted, and co-directed it), which had its premiere last autumn at the Toronto Film Festival. It focuses on Jamie, a young woman in rural Indiana (where Kate Black Spence comes from). Jamie tries to make her life in the furniture business. You don’t know why she decided to live in complete loneliness; you can, however, guess that she needs to catch up on devastating experiences (see the “dedication” to her work, as if she would need to suppress all other thoughts). A customer pays her not in dollars but with an old radio receiver and microphone. It doesn’t work anymore. Suddenly and unexpectedly, however, a female voice comes out of the speaker. A voice from space, obviously from an astronaut who is up there as lonely as our heroine on earth.

What a stupid story, impossible, unbelievable, one might think. To make it a simple, good, convincing story, it needs the art of cinema. Kate Black Spence uses her filmic means thoughtfully and modestly. No excursion into space, no particular camera movements, one sees only a woman left in the middle of nowhere. But the voices. The film focuses on the two female voices. They quickly bond. They don’t talk about what could not be. They talk about what could be: a friendship between two so-different women in two so-different worlds. Kate Black Spence arranges a duet of voices, a ballet almost. She shows how an occasional encounter can lead to friendship, maybe even to love. Static Space is primarily a film about love, and how love can end the loneliness from the film’s beginning. At the end, the two women meet, for a few seconds only, and it is undoubtedly the beginning of a new story.

The other example for JDIFF’s programming diversity is We Burn Like This by Alana Waksman. It’s the filmmaker’s first feature-length film, after a series of shorts and a contribution to the episodic film Don Quixote (2015). We Burn Like This premiered at last year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, made a considerable national tour, and is now available on the international festival circuit. In her biography, Alana Waksman refers to herself as “Ashkenazi writer, director, producer.” What is essential for the understanding of her film, is that she is a “first generation descendant of Holocaust survivors from Poland.” We Burn Like This is a personal film that talks about this history. The film is inspired by her life (as Alana Waksman admits). It is, however, no personal diary. It’s a coming-of-age story of the main character, Rae, a young woman at the beginning of her 20s, living in Billings, Montana. She’s targeted and attacked by neo-Nazis, and it is frightening to see how active and present anti-semitism still is in today’s America. For Rae, a young woman, this anti-semitic experience works as a reason to get clear, or not, with her own history, with the history of her parents and grandparents. The other accent which Alana Waksman puts in “her” character is the experience to be an “ugly duckling,” to lose a quasi-boyfriend to her best friend, to not find a partner, to always stay alone. To link the two stories works because of an intelligent script, because of fast-paced editing, and in particular because of good acting and a wonderful actress, Madeleine Coghlan (who is known from tv series and music videos). She carries the film. It’s a film that does not looks like a low-budget film, even if it is, and which deserves to get to more festivals, including in Europe.

Klaus Eder
Edited by Robert Horton