Chronicles of a First-Time Film Festival Attendee

Being someone who writes about films online for a living, I’m very much aware of the film festival scene that has critics descending on an assortment of annual film festivals to watch premiere screenings of brand-new films as well as screenings of classic pieces of cinema. It isn’t just critics going to these events though, it’s also major figures in the film industry as well as the general public that regularly attend film festivals both big and small. In an interview for the Criterion Channel, Barry Jenkins once described the Tribeca Film Festival as a place where everyone, from first-time filmmakers to Werner Herzog, get to be put on equal footing, it’s a place that allows film lovers of all stripes to engage in extensive consumptions of the artform. That observation of his feels like an apt summation of what makes these festivals so special.

For years, I’ve seen plenty of film critics head out to cover a variety of film festivals, usually seeing heavily hyped new releases early in the process, and always wondered what it would be like to go to one of these things. I finally decided to act on my curiosity two weeks ago by simply Googling what local Texas film festivals were happening in the near future. To my surprise, there was a nearby film festival transpiring within the next week! It was the Oak Cliff Film Festival and I decided to take a chance and send in an application for a Press Pass, which would allow me, like so many of the film critics I had seen attend film festivals in the past, access to the screenings held at the festival.

This being my first time applying for a Press Pass, I expected my application to be greeted with rejection. So imagine my excitement when an e-mail hit my inbox a few days later informing me I was officially accepted as a member of the press to cover the Oak Cliff Film Festival.

Douglas Laman, of Land of the Nerds, was going to a film festival.

And not just any film festival, one that would be holding a number of its screenings at the iconic Texas Theater. Most famous for being the place Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and shot in, the location, as detailed in an informative short film about the location, on the Criterion Channel, has rebranded itself in the last decade or so as a specialty screening location where one can see an array of films ranging from arthouse titles to classic pieces of schlock cinema. When I watched that short a month prior, I could never have imagined I would be attending it in the near future, let alone attending it as the member of the press covering a film festival. But God works in mysterious ways and here I was, on June 8, 2019, waltzing into the Texas Theater and getting my press pass for the film festival.

Getting my Press Pass badge alone delivered a thrill to me when the person in charge of this task read off my name as “Douglas Laman – Land of the Nerds” A total stranger saying the name of my scrappy little website! What a sensation! Turning my attention from the Press Badge procedure to the theater itself, one could immediately get a sense for the heavy amount of history that comes attached to the building. The walls are adorned with framed photographs of an array of iconic filmmakers from all over the planet while underneath those photographs are a handful of bookshelves lined with iconic books about cinema. Man, I could have looked at those bookshelves all day!

Inside the theater is a single auditorium that has, thankfully, maintained the classic style of seating that the theater has always had rather than upgrading to the luxury recliner seats that are common to most movie theaters in 2019. Nothing against those comfy seats, but the presence of those distinctly modern-day types of seating would stick out like a sore thumb in a location that’s clearly trying to evoke the past like the Texas Theater. This thoughtfully designed location was the perfect backdrop for my film festival experience, one that saw me seeing two movies back-to-back in the Texas theater, the second of which, Light from Light, had a post-movie Q&A with the director and the crew, my first time ever attending one of those Q&A’s! Those people being in attendance at that screening saw me unintentionally sitting directly behind the editor of that very same movie! And here I was wondering why that guy in front of me was cheering extra passionately at the movie once the screening ended!

I didn’t get to partake in every part of the traditional film festival experience in my stay at the Oak Cliff Film Festival, namely traveling to different theaters to see different films (there were over half-a-dozen theaters participating in the Oak Cliff Film Festival) or staying at the same film festival for multiple days. Even this more condensed version of this experience made it clear to me why these film festivals are so popular beyond just the obligations of journalists to cover events where big movies will premiere. The joy of seeing films in a movie theater is managing to unite with a whole bunch of strangers over a singular piece of art. Whether it’s Avengers: Endgame, Citizen Kane or Booksmart, there’s something magical about being in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers and still managing to unite with one another over a movie being exceptionally funny, moving or thoughtful (among other sensations!) to watch.

That kind of experience carries over to the film festival scene given how strangers from all over Texas are descending on this event and there isn’t a ton of time to get to know your fellow moviegoers prior to screenings beginning. However, in the confines of a film festival, something unites you all before you even heard into the theater: a love for movies. Not a love for all the same movies or love for just one movie (that would just result in a bunch of dumb gatekeeping), but people of various cinematic tastes coming together because they just love watching films. To give you an idea of what kind of love for cinema was palpable throughout the Oak Cliff Film Festival, I wore a Janus Films T-Shirt to this festival and got two separate kindly compliments on it, this is clearly a place for cinema aficionados and there’s something so lovely about that.

That kind of love for the artform is what drove me to attend this film festival in the first place and also drives my passion for writing about cinema in general, though it’s not something I expected to find at the film festival. I came to the Oak Cliff Film Festival looking for all the things I saw other film critics talk about seeing at the film festival, press pass badges, cool movie theater decor, post-movie Q&A’s, and those were all super duper awesome in their own right, no doubt about it. But being surprised about the pervasive & detectable presence of love for this specific medium of artistic experience (the very same element of film festivals Barry Jenkins so astutely referenced), that’s what made my first ever film festival experience truly magical.

Oh, another surprise at the Oak Cliff Film Festival? Discovering the unofficial mascot of the Texas Theater, pictured below! It’s a Littlefoot stuffed animal decked out in a doggie-sized Texas Theater T-Shirt! Apparently, Littlefoot loves specialty cinemas as much as he loves The Great Valley!