Reel Time: The Texas Documentary

Documentary film-making in Texas.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

People are interesting (sometimes heroic) and government is bad (sometimes evil). As sweeping a generalization as that may be, it is precisely the kind of Big Truth that is at home in Texas, and valid—if you are to believe the picture of our state that emerges from this hodgepodge of documentary films.

Texans don’t trust their superiors much, for one thing: from Abraham Zapruder locking his newly-shot footage in a safe instead of simply handing it over to the Secret Service as many of us might have done, to the calm old folks of Amarillo keeping tally of cancer deaths even though the government and its partner Pantex have assured them they have nothing to fear. Texans aren’t afraid to fight, whether the adversary is a thousand-pound bull or the Dallas police department.

We’ve focused here on the big stories, because that’s what documentaries have traditionally been about. But recent films like Hands on a Hard Body tell us that the documentary medium is changing. The widespread availability of camcorders and the advance of digital technology allow for perfect, infinite reproductions and electronic preservation of footage, thus we can expect to see many more independently produced, personal stories told by individuals about themselves. In the future, we will learn about the state through its anonymous residents as much as through its infamous ones.

Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy

Barbara Kopple and Danny Schechter 1992

A Nuestra Señora

Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy

Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy is a companion piece to Oliver Stone’s fictional film, JFK. Released around the same time, the documentary is in many ways a plug for the film, speaking of it and Oliver Stone in extremely reverential tones.

Although crammed full of compelling news footage and other information, the documentary makes the mistake of tugging too much at the heart strings rather than just presenting its case. Another unfortunate aspect was the choice to include the actors who starred in JFK alongside historians, witnesses, and other people directly connected with the tragedy. It is almost humorous to watch Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman speaking on the assassination with such certainty and acrimony, almost as if they are waiting for Stone to shout “cut”.

The strongest portions of Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy are those dealing with Jim Garrison, in particular the footage of Garrison addressing the nation on NBC. Often labeled a crackpot, Garrison comes across as a man suffering from the Cassandra syndrome: he knows all the lies his leaders tell, and heºs banging at the gates of Eden, not because he wants back in but rather to help the rest of us get out.

Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure

Harry Lynch and Jeff Fraley 1997

The most light-hearted of the documentaries in this group, Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure is Harry Lynch and Jeff Fraley’s foray into the bull riding profession. Filmed primarily in Texas, the documentary provides an in-depth study of the sport, taking us from a class for novice riders all the way to the national championship in Las Vegas.

Featuring a wealth of exciting footage of riders experiencing the hard-won successes and unbelievably painful failures of bull riding, Chasing the Dream discusses what compels them to keep getting up on the back of an angry bull. We are introduced to some of the icons of the sport, including the appropriately named Tuff Hedeman and the ridiculously large bull “Bodacious”, the owner of which hopes to turn him into a cottage industry (cryogenically frozen bull semen anyone?). But the film momentarily turns serious when discussing the untimely death of one of the sports’ young stars.

It is clear that the filmmakers have established a comfort level with the subjects which allows the bull riders to appear genuine. Chasing the Dream: A Bull Riding Adventure is tightly edited, has a quality soundtrack, and is funny without making fun.

Hands on a Hard Body

S.R. Bindler 1998

A Nuestra Señora

Hands on a Hard Body

Still enjoying a successful 8-month run at Austinºs Dobie Theatre, Hands on a Hard Body is a hilarious look at an East Texas town’s annual ritual. Shot exclusively in Longview, Texas, the film focuses on a local car dealership’s contest—a 2-3 day endurance test in which the only rule is that contestants stand with at least one hand resting on a brand new, fully-loaded Toyota truck; the last person standing wins the truck.

Revealing too much about the characters would spoil the suspense, but suffice it to say that many types of Texans are represented: the religious contestant singing hymns aloud as she competes, the seasoned vet who won the contest two years before (who everyone resents for trying again), the rookie who figures his military training has sufficiently prepared him for this challenge, and the nonchalant contender who takes it all in stride while scarfing down Snickers bars. The setting of the contest provides a considerable amount of drama to accompany the down-home hilarity of it all. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hands on a Hard Body is the way people quickly infuse even the simplest of contests with a host of rules (and even a governing body) to ensure fair play. (Next time you play a board game with your friends, take note of who adheres to the rules of the game and who makes it their mission to identify any deviation from those rules.)

S.R. Bindler, a Longview resident, and his crew really hit paydirt with Hands on a Hard Body, which fulfills all the most grandiose dreams of the personal documentary: It takes even the simplest and silliest human endeavor and reveals it to contain all the tragedy and comedy of Greek drama, Shakespearean theatre, or a least a movie of the week. Look for it in video stores soon.

Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film

MPI Productions 1998

In stark contrast to Beyond JFK, this documentary offers unbiased, scientific presentation of the facts. Focusing solely on the Zapruder film itself, it presents a 45-minute chronicle of the history of

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