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Docs Make a DIFF-erence at Dallas Fest

By Michele Goodson

As I reflect on the exceptional documentaries that screened at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) this year, (i.e. The Pipe, The Interrupters, Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Project Nim, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, Norman Mailer: The American, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, OK Buckaroos, The Greater Good), I realize that the films that truly inspired me share a common theme: people striving against extreme odds to overcome injustice and/or adversity.

In each of the following films, the subjects either work to better themselves, or on behalf of an animal, individual, community, and in one case, entire countries. The following are some of the DIFF docs that to me illustrate the strength, courage and generosity of the human spirit.    

DIFF hosted the world premiere of Tim Skousen's Zero Percent, an affecting film that documents the privately funded Hudson Link prisoner education program at Sing Sing Prison in New York. The title refers to the re-incarceration rate for those who participate in the program. Over the course of the film, the audience is introduced to a variety of prisoners--murderers and drug dealers among them--all working to atone for their crimes through rehabilitation and education. Warren Buffett's sister, Doris, an advocate for the program, calls the process, a chance for redemption. This poignant film illustrates the power of education and its ability to not only open up the imagination to the possibilities of life and redemption, but how it has allowed these men the opportunity to return to society as rehabilitated and productive members of their communities.  


From Tim Skousen's Zero Percent, which won the Silver Heart Award at the Dallas International Film Festival. Courtesy ofDallas International Film Festival



In Elevate, first-time filmmaker Anne Buford chronicles the remarkable personal journeys of four West African teenagers as they leave the SEEDS Academy in Senegal and head to prep schools in the United States on basketball scholarships. Filmed over four years, the film follows the young men as they learn to cope with the daunting challenges of learning a foreign language, American-style basketball, alienation and an unfamiliar American culture rife with African stereotypes. Through courage, laughter and resolve, they relentlessly pursue their dream--to obtain an education and a shot at the NBA.


From Anne Buford's Elevate. Courtesy of Dallas International Film Festival



As North Texas prepared to host its first Super Bowl, filmmaker Mark Birnbaum documented the efforts of more than 44,000 children in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex as they embarked on a year-long journey to determine issues facing their communities and create ways of improving the lives of those around them. In Slant 45, not only did these kids walk away from the experience full of self-respect and pride, but they also learned that heroism and leadership are not only characteristics of all-star athletes.

Based in part on the book The Sun Climbs Slow: The International Criminal Court and the Struggle for Justice by Erna Paris, award-winning Canadian filmmaker Barry Stevens' Prosecutor offers a riveting inside look at the International Criminal Court (ICC) as it holds its historic first trials under the leadership of its charismatic chief prosecutor, Argentine lawyer Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Headquartered at The Hague, Netherlands, the ICC is the first permanent, treaty-based international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Moreno-Ocampo is a hero to genocide survivors, but has bitter enemies on both the right and the left. His critics believe he is responsible for threatening stability and peace.

Cases documented in the film include the prosecution of rebel leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and arrest warrants issued for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and members of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. (The International Criminal Court is currently in the news for its investigation of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.) An intriguing story with fly-on-the-wall access, Prosecutor offers front-row seats to the historic events that will determine whether the ICC is a groundbreaking new weapon for global justice or just an idealistic dream.



From Barry Stevens' Prosecutor. Photo: Heather Dahlstrom. (c) 2010 White Pine Pictures.


In Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus' feature debut, Wild Horse, Wild Ride, the filmmakers document the Mustang Heritage Foundation's annual Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge held in Ft. Worth. Each year the US government has to round up and relocate thousands of untamed mustangs from public lands. As a way of finding good homes for these wild horses, the challenge offers horse trainers around the country 100 days to voluntarily train these horses--which have never before had human contact--and get them ready for competition. As the countdown gets underway, the audience is witness to a kind of love story as the trainers woo these gentle giants into doing what they want and soon realize their hearts could break if they have to sell their new friends at the event auction.

It seems fitting that for the first time in the festival's five-year history, a three-part panel discussion entitled FilmMatters was curated "to specifically engage, educate and inspire an audience to support film as a means to facilitate social action." The films above are a testament to this idea and several films and filmmakers were singled out at DIFF for addressing socially conscious issues in their work.

Zero Percent received the festival's first ever $10,000 Silver Heart Award, presented by the Embrey Family Foundation for the filmmaker's dedication to fighting injustices and creating social change for the improvement of humanity. Dallas favorite (and environmentalist) Larry Hagman was on-hand to present the Environmental Visions Award to If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman. DIFF also honored Scott Z. Burns, the Academy Award-winning producer of An Inconvenient Truth, and The Interrupters director, Steve James, with the Shining Star Award. Wild Horse, Wild Ride received the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Finally, Peter Fonda presented Anne Buford with the Target Filmmaker Award for Best Documentary Feature for Elevate. Upon receiving her $25,000 award, the filmmaker stated that she would donate the money back to the SEEDS Academy.

A generous act, which yet again proves that films and filmmakers can make a difference.   


Michele Goodson Garrison is field marketing specialist at the Dallas-Forth Worth office of 20th Century Fox.