Thin Line makes you think
By Amber Mullins
Denton Live Jan-June 2012
Joshua Butler navigates the red carpet ropes of a local coffeehouse with a swagger, then plops himself down to discuss a “hobby” that’s become his passion: documentary film. Choosing the venue with a movie theater twist seems conscious, or maybe not. With Joshua, nothing is ever as it seems, which is the concept behind his startup – the Thin Line Film Fest. The documentary film festival, now in its fifth year, invites its audience to explore the “thin line” between reality and fiction in film. His question: Can a documentary ever be real?
As a student filmmaker at the University of North Texas and founder of the nonprofit Texas Filmmakers, Joshua started brainstorming about ways to serve local filmmakers and bring new arts programs to Denton. Thin Line, with its thought-provoking angle, is at the top of the list. Its clever approach – keep the audience guessing – is Joshua’s way of inspiring film-goers to think about and dissect the true nature of documentary film, whether it’s the Emmy Award-winning documentary “GasLand,” the Tribeca Film Festival favorite “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” or “Atomic Mom,” last year’s documentary film winner by M.T. Silvia.
Joshua plays maverick-in-chief, orchestrating the 10-day documentary festival in February – the only one in Texas – bringing in an array of films meant to test the audience’s conception of what makes a documentary a documentary. It isn’t bad exposure for the filmmakers either, with awards (and money) for Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short and Denton Docs, a new award category this year. The 2012 festival, set for Feb. 10-19, hopes to attract 50 films – up from 36 last year.
Documentary filmmakers come to Thin Line because the Dallas/Fort Worth area is the fourth largest video market in the U.S., providing maximum exposure for a group of filmmakers that are often overlooked. Unlike other festivals, documentaries and their directors are the stars of Thin Line. “Most of the time, the big premieres are the narrative movies, the big parties are after narrative movies, the big buzz is about narrative movies, the big money is thrown at narrative movies,” says Joshua. “We want to elevate documentary to the same level as narrative film.” The closeness of the venues in Denton – their “walkability” and intimacy – is a bonus, and Thin Line delivers on high-definition projection, state-of-the-art screens and projectors, and all-digital sound.
M.T. Silvia, who was last year’s winner of the “Best Documentary Feature” award for her film about two mothers and their opposing experiences with the atom bomb, remembers the hospitality and professionalism. It was only her third festival (she went on to win 11 awards for “Atomic Mom”), but she was eager to take off time from her day job at Pixar to travel to Denton after hearing about it from other filmmakers who had attended in the past. “The festival scene is all over the map. There’s a lot of ‘garage band’ festivals out there. Thin Line is really professional, top notch, and it’s truly a filmmakers’ festival.” She rates Thin Line in the Top 5 of the 25 plus festivals where she’s shown her film. “I was so grateful for the generous Texas hospitality that came my way. I felt so welcomed and well cared for. Everyone was so friendly, down to earth, and interesting!”
That’s exactly how Joshua wants them to feel. He sits, one leg crossed over the other, and stirs his coffee while talking about the trouble he stirs up with Thin Line’s concept. “No movie is real. I don’t care how cinema verité you are. Even if there’s no interaction with the subject and no setting up anything, that movie is still fake. Because you’re still choosing which scenes to show, you’re still choosing when to cut, you’re still choosing when to fade out, you’re still choosing what music to add,” he says. He knows from his own experience in making a documentary about the effects of Hurricane Katrina – “One-Eyed Girl,” which was shown at Thin Line in 2007. “As a filmmaker, you’re still adding things that aren’t real, cutting life into sections and only showing certain things in a certain sequence over an hour and a half. There’s nothing real about that. That is a story.”
It’s an interesting notion, exploring what’s fake in a documentary. The festival screens all kinds of documentaries ranging from “cinema verité” (the filmmaker supposedly as “fly on the wall”) and “docu-fiction” (completely staged and made to look like a documentary) to “mockumentaries” (docu-fiction in the form of a parody). Thin Line does it without giving the audience a clue as to which is which. Joshua says the idea isn’t to trick or tease the audience, but rather to showcase the complexity and range in documentary films and to make them think: What separates a documentary from a narrative film?
“That is a question we want our audience to have, and engage in, during the festival,” says Joshua. “What is the difference between it being a documentary – or a fictional film that is based on a true story? Because ‘based on a true story,’ it’s still real people. These are just complex concepts, you know. And I’m not sure there is an answer for it. I mean, that’s why there is a thin line between fact and fiction. That’s why there is a thin line between documentary and narrative.”
Joshua spends his falls hunting down the best documentaries, trying to snare Oscar nominees and films invited to Sundance, using Denton’s reputation for the arts to lure them in. “We pursue the best ones. Sundance announces their lineup early November. We pursue every single one of those movies. We pursue films that are on the short list for the Oscars that year,” says Joshua. “We want the best submissions.” It’s his dream to grow Thin Line into a festival with 100-plus films over 10 days around Valentine’s Day each year. One thing won’t change: The documentaries at Thin Line must entertain. “I don’t care if it’s an important film. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not going to be in the festival,” he says. “That’s the number one. It cannot be boring.”
Photo courtesy of Joshua Butler