American Earnestness at Dubuque

in Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (11th)

by Justine Smith

Cinephiles have a misconception that cinema lives through its most significant events. As the major players often dominate festival coverage, the regional players rarely get their due. Visiting Dubuque, Iowa and The Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF) highlighted the essential voice in smaller filmer communities. Even among the more industry and capital-minded cinema of American independent films, it was difficult to ignore a certain earnestness that was invested in the programming and audiences. A worker’s spirit supported the festival organization in a refreshing and eye-opening way.

As part of a panel on women in film, it was refreshing to hear from the perspective of other women working in the industry. Many were mothers and business owners. Many had suffered hardships that they had overcome. The shared experiences and struggles were very different from those I was familiar with in Quebec. Still, there was a common thread of desire to build community and champion endurance. The open forum discussion panel opened up conversations to the audience, who were curious and willing to share their own experiences. Repeatedly throughout the festival, it was clear that the festival was founded with a strong community backbone that upheld the values of the film programming and supported the work of the volunteers and staff.

While programming films from around the world, the American productions were often the most surprising as many defied the sleek, polished voices coming out of festivals like Sundance. They were often very classical in form but also forward-looking. The film similarly reflected a kind of DIY energy of many of its movies.

Take the short film, A Little Dead. Shot in Oklahoma, the film glows with twilight. Two adult children visit their grandfather after the death of their grandmother, and things aren’t quite right. In many ways, a conventional ghost film, the movie overcomes most expected genre turns by rooting the film in sincere, heartfelt relationships. The rural isolation doesn’t fall into the trap of merely being a horror trope but feels like an embodied space where people live, work and then die. The environment feels rich in nuance and experiences. The root of horror within the film is deeply intertwined in relationships seldom discussed and the familial and communal responsibilities to our elders, too often neglected.

On the other end of the spectrum, a feature film, ‘him & her,’ directed by Íce Mrozek, evoked more romance than horror. Inspired by a real-life experience in 1989 when lines crossed on a phone party line, the movie captures the jouissance and discovery of youth. As the movie opens, we follow a stretched-out telephone chord that joins two partially seen characters living in two different cities. The film’s conceit keeps the character in partial view for most of the first half, as their voices and actions speak louder than their faces. In an era before the Internet and facetime, strangers on the phone remain indistinct and half-formed even as they become friends and lovers.

The movie indulges in the nostalgia for a time that has largely disappeared in the over-connectedness of the Internet. It risks falling for the pitfalls many films about the American past do, yearning for a world that no longer and maybe never existed. Yet, there’s an unexpected transcendence at work as we get to know characters who work to survive and overcome. What does it mean to aspire to live an artistic life in a world that continually lets you down? What role does romance play in liberating us from the rote humdrum of expectation and responsibility?

These questions seemed to be at the forefront of many filmmakers at the festival, as most seemed to work multiple jobs and were making enormous sacrifices to make their artistic dreams come true. How can we enshrine creative opportunities for a broader class when it remains open primarily to those with both the time and the means?

Justine Smith