AUSTIN—A week and a half ago, only blocks from the gargantuan capitol dome, tourists en route to Dubya’s former workplace paused to inspect a curious two-channel video in the window of a coffeehouse. Installed for the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, taking place in the café’s theater, Palestinian American artist Nida Sinnokrot’s Al-Jaz/CNN was a simple but compelling spectacle: side-by-side live satellite feeds of Al-Jazeera and CNN. Alternate Arabic and English soundtracks blared back and forth in the café’s foyer, greeting patrons as they entered the festival’s main venue.
Clever, low-fi, internationalist, and politically sharp, Al-Jaz/CNN served as a fitting welcome to Cinematexas’s six days of avant-radical programming, which closed on September 22. Scrappy, smarter younger cousin to Austin’s better-known and more commercial SXSW, the seven-year-old Cinematexas has speedily earned a reputation as one of the largest and most distinctive experimental media events in the U.S., conceived, nevertheless, on a tiny budget with volunteer staff. Beyond an international competition and student screenings, some of the goings-on included installations by Leslie Thornton, Tom Zummer and furry noise freaks Forcefield; a work in progress by nervy girl performance artist Miranda July; Terrence Malick introducing his favorite silent short films; and a series of screenings and lectures on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In scope, ambition, and down-home hospitality, it’s a film festival with the brain of an art gallery, the soul of a rock show, and the backbone of an activist collective.
Bereft of the calling cards that pad out typical shorts fests, Cinematexas stretches further afield for strange bits of no-budget poetry. The best examples presented a kind of Dada ethnography, like Emil Jumabaev’s unforgettable Ordo, a fuzzy video document of a traditional Kyrgyz pastime, in which winter-clad menfolk play a gruesome game of marbles with tiny animal bones. But the American entries were no less enigmatic. Perhaps the most talked-about was Chicagoan Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not to Be Here, a 16mm symphony of nighttime scenes that lurks through its half-hour like death-metal James Benning.
Retrospectives teased at the connections between political history and image innovation. At the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin’s movie house-cum-beer hall, the Tin Hat Trio performed a countrified score to the films of Wladyslaw Starewitz, a Lithuanian who fled the Russian Revolution to create bizarre, proto-surrealist fables by animating the costumed corpses of bugs, frogs, and bats. Later, Santiago Alvarez’s Cuban agit-docs presented the Marxist flip side of American history, like Vertov set to a ’60s Caribbean beat: jittery critiques of U.S. civil rights struggles and Vietnam.
But even the most DIY events need a moment of unabashed starfucking. Cinematexas delivered—with shoe eater Werner Herzog on hand for a series of his short quasi-documentaries, including the now more relevant than ever Lessons of Darkness, his Wagnerian 1992 helicopter sweep through the Gulf War’s burning oil fields. Though the surprisingly well behaved Herzog insisted that his films were apolitical, he took a stance of solidarity with Cinematexas’s mission to preserve an oppositional cinema. “We have to look that events like this do not fade away completely,” he declared. “We are not going to hand over every single screen to the mainstream movies.”