Sundance for Republicans
Welcome to the nation's first conservative film festival.
DALLAS—The opening night of the American Film Renaissance, the nation's "first and only" conservative film festival, featured an African-American pianist sitting in a ballroom of Dallas' InterContinental Hotel and playing "As Time Goes By." On Saturday and Sunday, aspiring right-wing auteurs suggested that if we could just get back to the values of Casablanca—you know, Nazism, adultery, casino gaming—the studios would make movies worth watching again. "We're seeing the rise of conservative film," said AlanLipton, the co-director of a short called Operation Eagle Strike. "We're so pro-Israel that I'm sure we'll have plenty of friends in Hollywood."
"Hollywood" was a subject of thoughtful discussion among the conservatives this weekend—as in, "Who do we know there?" Mel Gibson emerged as a logical first choice, but was deemed too remote to be of practical value to the movement (though one man claimed he knew of Gibson's secret plan to screen The Passion of the Christ in Iraq). The heads of the major film studios were rejected out of hand—too liberal, too inaccessible—along with the heads of most of the smaller studios, who tend to prefer Michael Caine to Michael Medved. With little hope of securing six-figure deals, then, the winger-directors had to settle for screening their movies in front of a benevolent audience. "This will probably be the only time in human history this will ever happen," said Evan Coyne Maloney, director of Brainwashing 101, a film about political correctness on college campuses, who reported an "embarrassing" number of compliments.
Dallas may have hosted the first conservative film festival, but the intellectual roots of the movement lie in, of all places, Little Rock, Ark. A few years back, two local law students, Jamesand Ellen Hubbard, made a trek to the art house only to discover that Hollywood had left them behind. "We looked up and saw there were two choices," Ellen Hubbard said. "Frida, which is about a communist artist"—her voice dropped an octave on the word "communist"—"and Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore's previous film. And we thought, Where are the films for mainstream America?" Hubbard, who is middle-aged, has golden hair that was coiffed in the preferred style of a Dallas socialite—raised high, then dramatically swept back over the head. "What better way to counteract the Michael Moores of America," she said, "than to throw a film festival?"
Conservative filmmakers are a wee bit obsessed with Moore. Many of the more than 20 movies screened mentioned him by name, and if a director made the mistake of leaving him out, he usually added a cutting fat joke to his post-film remarks. Two films bullied Moore directly. In Michael and Me, Larry Elder ambushed the documentarian outside a theater to confront him about his antigun screed, Bowling for Columbine. Slightly more imaginative was Michael Moore Hates America, in which director Mike Wilson takes Moore's docu-stalking tactics to the extreme. Wilson shows up at a Mail Boxes Etc. where Moore takes his mail and leaves him a bouquet of flowers and congratulatory note about Fahrenheit 9/11. Alas, Moore won't bite, and Wilson is left to wax poetic about the state of political discourse in America.
Stranger still was Is It True What They Say About Ann?, a short film about the conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, who said of Muslim terrorists after 9/11 that we should "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." The director, Patrick Wright, never attempts to answer the title question, preferring to let the camera gaze lovingly at Ann as she hawks her books and invades university campuses. After a protester disrupts one of her speeches, she quips, "You really develop your analytical skills here at Johns Hopkins. At Harvard, they had questions." When an olive-skinned girl asks her to sign a book later, Coulter asks, "Are you a Sikh?" No, I'm Hindu, the woman replies. "Oh, I've got a lot of Sikh friends for some reason," Coulter says. "You're my first Hindu."
And that's the way the festival unfolded. The films were pleasantly amateurish and the sermons were, too—until David Balsiger, the producer of George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, arrived at the theater Sunday afternoon. Balsiger had no interest in soapboxing and began a soporific discourse on rentals and syndication deals. The crowd, which had been revved up all weekend, fell silent—Balsiger's speech was far more practical, and thus more tedious, than the agitprop the other directors had spouted
Whereas most directors saw conservative filmmaking as a part of the larger Republican jihad, Balsiger saw it as a way to make a fortune. He said his multimillion-dollar company, Grizzly Adams Productions, submits hundreds of ideas to the Gallup Organization for polling each year and then makes a film about whichever idea comes back with the highest score. "We knew dinosaurs were dead as a topic before anybody else did," Balsiger explained. Bush's religiositytested well as a theme, so Balsiger gave Faith in the Whitehouse the green light, alongside titles like The Evidence for Heaven.
Balsiger wasn't a true believer, but after all the carping about liberal studio chieftains, his ruthless capitalism seemed refreshingly, well, conservative. "I think conservatives are always whining that everybody's against them, and that's not true," he said. He motioned toward a table with stacks of unsold DVDs. "Most of the product over there is at the wrong price point, $20. That's too high. I sold mine out in three hours, and I'm at $14.95." The conservatives may one day seize Hollywood, but first they'll have to figure out how to price their DVDs.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Ann Coulter on the Slate home page by Neville Elder /Corbis.