The Ybor Festival of the Moving Image has always had a bit of a split personality. On one hand, it's arguably Tampa's most unabashedly experimental film festival, with a penchant for boundary-smashing mixed media that challenges our basic ideas of what constitutes a film. At the same time, this is a festival that's anything but abstract, at least when it comes to communicating the political and moral dimensions of the juicy documentaries that have always seasoned this event.
This year, the seasoning becomes the main course. From April 17 to 20, the Sixth Annual Ybor Festival of the Moving Image comes to Ybor's Hillsborough Community College with a significantly beefed-up selection of those straight-shooting documentaries. The artsy stuff is still there, from numerous experimental shorts to a full complement of cine-installations fusing digital projections with painting, music and sculpture — but in 2008, nearly five years after Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, YFMI is a more grounded, overtly politicized event than ever and full of punchy documentaries to prove it.
Things kick off on Thurs., April 17 with a taste of the "old" YFMI — a typically atypical evening of avant-garde film, dance and performance art, all anchored by a lecture on surrealist cinema by the Salvador Dali Museum's venerable Peter Tush. The party starts at 7 p.m. and continues for at least three hours, with the revelry accompanied by all manner of iconoclastic imagery projected on stages and walls throughout HCC's Performing Arts Building.
The docs start showing up on Fri., April 18,, beginning with a 1 p.m. matinee of Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril, the title of which pretty much says it all, and extending to the 7:30 screening of the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, a brutally convincing look at what went wrong with the War on Terror. Examining the Bush administration's abuses of power through the murder of an innocent Afghan cabbie, Taxi is intensely graphic (be warned) without being gratuitous, but the film's accumulation of facts is thorough to the point of overkill.
YFMI loves its docs, but that's not all it has in store this year. The festival also throws in a couple of fictional features like Why Men Shouldn't Sing (Fri., 8 p.m.), a self-consciously quirky sci-fi musical from New Zealand, and Ivan Kavanagh's Tin Can Man (Sat., 9 p.m.), a darkly hallucinatory, sub-Lynchian horror story that borrows heavily from Paul Bowles' A Distant Episode. This year's final feature-length narrative is Alison Anders' 2001 Things Behind the Sun, an intensely personal tale of rape and repressed memories rooted deep in the Florida landscape (Sun., 11 a.m.).
Saturday, April 19 is a jam-packed day, beginning with a noon workshop on the history of Florida-made films, a 1:30 p.m. panel on documentary production and a free program of vintage 16mm shorts by underground icons like Will Hindle and Scott Bartlett (3 p.m.). The bulk of the schedule, however, is devoted to politically charged documentaries like El Immigrante (1 p.m.), an emotional look at the U.S.-Mexican border crisis; Daughters of Wisdom (4:30), the controversial story of Tibet's only monastery for women; and Nice Bombs (2:30 p.m.), in which an Iraqi filmmaker returns to his homeland for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
Less politically heated but still interesting are Saturday's docs Saint Death (7 p.m.), an account of the growing cult of outsiders who worship a vaguely satanic saint in Mexico, and Ghosts of Ybor: Charlie Wall (6:30 p.m.), a local production about the colorful crime boss who controlled Tampa in the first half of the 20th century.
The big show on Saturday isn't a documentary, but you might mistake it for one. Charles Burnett's legendary Killer of Sheep (8:30 p.m.) trains handheld cameras on an unaffected, all-amateur cast drawn from the African-American community of Watts circa 1977, creating a powerfully verité masterpiece about lives of muted hopes and quiet desperation. Declared an official treasure by the National Film Registry, Killer of Sheep was tangled up in legal disputes for years (over soundtrack rights, absurdly enough) that denied it theatrical distribution until just recently, so jump at this chance to finally see it on the big screen. If you like what you see, make a note that several other early films of Burnett's, including his 1969 short Several Friends and 1983's My Brother's Wedding, will also be screened at this year's YFMI (Sunday beginning at 1:15 p.m.).
Other highlights of Sun., April 20, the festival's final day, include a 1 p.m. workshop on film literacy and another quartet of documentaries. A Little Bit Too Much Truth (11 a.m.) details how disenfranchised community members in Oaxaca, Mexico, successfully manipulated the state-run media to deal with rampant corruption, while the beautifully crafted War/Dance (1:30 p.m.) offers a toe-tapping account of Ugandan orphans participating in a national festival of music and dance.
Then there's The New Samaritans (12:30 p.m.), a look at a 3,600-year-old Middle Eastern cult that's so bizarre I'm not entirely sure it's not a put-on, and Love Lived on Death Row (3 p.m.), a heartrending account of a family making peace with the man condemned to die for murdering their mother.
The festival closes on an upbeat and characteristically off-kilter note, with the premiere of Peter Tush Eats Celluloid (6 p.m.), a "film score for an imaginary film" by Cuban composer Alberto Rivero. Admission is free and, as with everything else in this festival, open to anyone with receptive ears and eyes.