Two Gems You May Have Overlooked at Houston Film Fest

With 40 films screened this year, here are a couple of documentaries that made the virtual portion of the fest worth it.

By Camilo Hannibal Smith November 29, 2021

The story of late punk rocker Poly Styrene is told in the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché.

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival again brought the world of independent film to the Bayou City. In another year with COVID-19 restrictions in place, a portion of the festival's 40 film screenings were held online, while a slew of screenings took place in-person around the city.

Last week wrapped up the online viewing portion of the movie fest and there was so much to choose from. There were a lot of local stories, such as the Bushwick Bill documentary that struck a chord with audiences. Two outstanding documentary films that were part of the virtual screenings include the documentary Third Coast and a documentary on Black punk rocker Poly Styrene.

The 1979 documentary, Third Coast, screened as part of the 2021 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

Third Coast is a documentary made in the late 1970s that peels back the layers of life in Houston. The film was screened online for free this year; and what's outstanding about the film is how it showcases Houston as the next “it” city, but not by shying away from the city’s problems, including inequality, traffic and policing. One thing you walk away from with the film is that Houston hasn’t done a whole lot to change infrastructure or social issues in the last 42 years.

A few highlights in the film point to the rising profile of Houston in Hollywood and fashion. In once scene women answer a radio announcement looking for actresses to play alongside John Travolta in Urban Cowboy.  

In another scene, designer Karl Lagerfeld gets a king’s escort after his jet lands in Houston. Later he’s holding court during his Chloé fashion show at Nieman Marcus in the Galleria. It’s on one of those moments where Houston was making its name for itself in high fashion.

In a time where people who identify as being of mixed-race and multiethnic heritage are increasing throughout the US and the world, a documentary that looks at the life of UK punk rocker Poly Styrene seems fit for the times.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a deeply nuanced story of a punk rocker and trailblazing woman of color in music who sparked the Riot grrrl movement.  The film is wonderfully narrated by Ruth Negga as the voice of Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Poly Styrene’s government name. Negga also stars in the film Passing, which also deals with identity.

The X-Ray Spex lead singer died in 2011 from breast cancer. The documentary follows her daughter, Celeste Bell, as she pieces together the history of her mother (or, mum as the Brits say). What follows is a really important story for anyone interested in these stories of pioneering woman of color.

These are just a couple of examples of how Houston's  film fest has done a good job of drawing together all the elements that make the city unique, from issues of diversity to the rapidly disappearing past of Space City. If this year's selections, including the two mentioned here, are any indication then next year's cinema arts fest could be even better. 

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