Screens Indie indecision

As the South Texas film scene develops beyond Austin, the phrase “independent” becomes more elastic

A battle for the soul of independent film is being waged right here in San Antonio. Well, San Antonio and surrounding areas, including, possibly, Austin. And really the soul isn’t involved ... nor is there violence of any kind going on. But there are two fronts at work, the big and the small to over-simplify, in the Texas film storm system, both of which have been in evidence the past two weekends.

A promotional image from The Separated, a locally produced film based on Clinton Smith’s Boy Captives that premiered in Fredericksburg October 15.

The Separated premiered at the Stagecoach Theater in Fredericksburg on October 15 with cast, crew, and sponsors in attendance. This first feature by recent Fulsale Film School graduate Thomas Uncles, produced in part by his mother Lisa Franks, was filmed entirely on ranches in Boerne, Comfort, and Bandera with a cast of local, mostly first-time talent. The Separated culminates Uncles’ film studies, but unlike the standard student short, stretches into feature length. The film, inspired by Clinton Smith’s Boy Captives, details the lives of two brothers living on the Texas frontier who are separated when one is kidnapped by a band of Comanche. An unabashed Western, the film makes no attempt to modernize its trappings, remaining at ease within the conventions of the genre, complete with crusty sheriff, wide-eyed young hero, and the ever helpful dash of racism (though in this case it’s an essential plot point rather than the stamp of personal prejudices.)

The Separated is also emblematic of the large productions the San Antonio Film Commission wants to bring to the area, both independent and studio-based. Though Uncles’ and his crew tout their minimal budget as a badge of honor, the film aspires to the wide-screen epics that marked the pinnacle and final excess of the studio system; a “big-little” picture.

And in this corner, the 2nd Annual Texas Independent Filmmakers International Film Festival, held October 22 at the Santikos Northeast 14 Theatre. The 22 films, culled from entries from across the country, ranged from short to feature-length and included comedies, documentaries, dramas, even a video-diary of behind-the-counter antics at a local wine and spirits shop. Those selections representing the south Texas area, including Clerks II: Emporium Gang, the aforementioned video-diary, Maikafer, Fantastic Escape, and Perils In Nude Modeling, generally work on a smaller scale, with minimal plots driven by character and, in most cases, quirky humor. False River, a film made in Georgia whose producer, Robert Nowotny, now resides in Comal Springs, is the best example of the quiet, left-of-center fare that even the major studio’s “art” branches are reluctant to touch without David Lynch in the credits. Asked if he would bring similar projects with him to San Antonio, Nowotny offered, “I have a few things in mind that would work in San Antonio. Then again, there are a few things that absolutely wouldn’t work in San Antonio.”

Though all are technically “independent” because they don’t have major studio involvement and funding gathered from a variety of sponsors, The Separated and the films on display at the TIF have different goals in mind: The Film Commission seeks to build an industry that ultimately would be more Sundance than Manhattan International Short Film Festival; the TIF folks are product- and artist-oriented. It would be foolish to argue over which is the more legitimate path to quality filmmaking, as both have their positive and negative sides, but it will be interesting to see how the Film Commission’s plan unfolds and, if a larger film community develops, which filmmakers will reap the benefits.

By Aaron Block

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