Thin Line Film Festival

Reviewed by Jessica Camp

In a small city just north of Dallas, Texas, filmmakers and musicians come together to participate in the Thin Line festival, which  highlights documentary filmmakers throughout the world, from those who live in Denton to those as far away as New Zealand. The festival helps situate Denton as not only a bastion of culture and arts in the state of Texas but also as a leader in highlighting new work from emerging and established artists. This year the festival took place from February 12 – 16. For the first three years, the festival was held in September, but in 2010 festival organizers realized that scheduling it for the winter kept it from competing with other major festivals throughout Texas.

The idea for the festival began in 2004 when locals decided to create a non-profit organization to support a burgeoning film community.  Over the next several years, it evolved: the University of North Texas offers a MFA in documentary production and the supporters of Thin Line liked the idea of being the only documentary film festival in the state of Texas. According to the festival history, the organizers chose the moniker “thin line” because “Thin Line” refers to that space between two seemingly conflicting ideas: educational and entertaining, fact and fiction, punk and country, beauty and sadness, knowledge and apathy. It can be seen in nearly every film we screen. For instance, what is real in a documentary film? Some could argue nothing. Now with the addition of the music festival we are able to create even more interesting combinations of film and musical experiences that will either compliment. . . or agitate.1

The festival’s lineup reflects this eclectic framework, including films that explore a wide range of topics, such as the modern train riding culture in the United States (Freeload, Daniel Skaggs, 2014), a nascent female roller derby league in New Zealand (Pretty Brutal, Monica De Alwis, 2013), three Yemeni girls who participate in an entrepreneurship competition (Yemeniettes, Shawn Thompson, 2013), photojournalist Elizabeth L. Gilbert’s experience traveling across the Great Rift Valley where she presents slide shows of her work to the people featured in her work (The Last Safari, Matt Goldman, 2013), and the journey of an orphaned boy from Mexico to Denton, Texas (Micha, Eugene Martin, 2013).

While documentary film screenings constitute the heart of the festival, Thin Line also offers different ways for the community to be involved and a range of different events to attend. Because of the cancellation of another local festival—35 Denton, which features musical acts—Thin Line collaborated with local establishments to offer multiple free music performances. The festival encourages local families to participate and works to pique young audiences’ interest in the arts, so it also held a free screening of the family-friendly Wings of Life (Louie Schwartzberg, 2013). And Docu Denton 7K creates space for the public to be more than just attendees by inviting local talent to create a short documentary. Those who register for this event have the week of February 10 - 18 (or, 7,000 minutes) to create their film, and all entries are screened during the festival.

But the main feature of the Thin Line is, of course, the documentaries. One of the most widely attended films was When We Were All Broncos directed by David Barrow (2013), which highlights one facet of desegregation in Denton. Barrow interviews Dentonites, as well as fellow students and teammates from his 1972 high school football team, the Broncos, to understand how Denton “emerged from the dark days of Jim Crow and segregation to become the diverse and dynamic center for education, the arts, and Texas culture it is today.”  

Also popular was The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013), a biographical chronicle of Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and pioneer in the riot grrrl movement. The film tracks Hanna’s growing popularity and influence as she and other female artists created the soundtrack for a generation coming of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s that fueled an underground, feminist punk movement. Throughout the documentary, we learn of Hanna’s politics and personal relationships, and the difficulties she faced as she tried to negotiate an illness with a booming career. The Punk Singer is a film that would be useful to feminist teachers across disciplinary boundaries.

Another film that might be useful to feminist classrooms is Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart (2012) directed by Bill Yahraus. This 90-minute documentary tells the story of Escaramuza Charra Las Azaleas, “a team of first-generation Mexican American horsewomen on a two-year journey to represent California and the United States at the National Charro Championships in Mexico.”1 The team holds the national champion title in the United States, but they want to compete and place in the competition in Mexico as well. This film follows these women as they train rigorously and devote themselves to their sport, also demonstrating the struggles they face as they navigate the familial and cultural traditions of their Charreria culture. We see them face difficult decisions about violence across the border, as well as struggle with the changing landscapes of their families. Few films highlight Latina athletes and their unique experiences in such a thought-provoking manner.

In addition to the array of films one can see, Thin Line brings a diverse group of people to Denton, and by using different venues throughout the small city, international guests learn of the city’s rich history. Those who attended the film I Found My Tribe (2013) were able to enjoy it in one of Denton’s historic landmarks, the Women’s Club of Denton building designed by a north Texas architect and completed in 1928. This documentary focuses on female cowboy poet Doris Daley. Daley, a Canadian rancher’s daughter, had a talent for writing poetry at a young age despite having no known roots in or ties to poetry, spoken word, or writing.  Director Denise Calderwood follows Daley’s story as she describes breaking into cowboy poetry, a male-dominated arts field and interviews historians, contemporary poets, and other western performers to situate Daley in a predominately male field.  Calderwood follows Daley to Ireland and audiences witness a life-changing trip for this talented, poet. After the film’s viewing, the director took questions from the audience, including one that prompted a brief discussion about the way indigenous peoples near North Texas sent money to the Irish during the potato famine.

Film festivals offer a great opportunity to introduce the public to new films, to support growing arts communities, and to share the works of new, emerging filmmakers. This year, Denton’s Thin Line Festival included fifty-seven different films and over one hundred music shows, exposing the world to talented directors commemorating moments in history and individual’s lived experiences, and celebrating the diverse, eclectic community of this growing North Texas city.  

1 Thin Line Music Film Fest, “Thin Line 2014.” Accessed April 28, 2014.

2 Pony Highway Productions. “Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart,” Accessed April 29, 2014.

Jessica Camp is a doctoral candidate at Texas Woman’s University in Women’s Studies where she teaches courses in Women’s Studies and Composition. She holds a MA in Women’s Studies and English and is the editorial assistant for Films for the Feminist Classroom. Jessica also serves as a committee member on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the BolderLife Film Festival, and is an active volunteer in North Texas.