Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the D.C. Independent Film Festival as the D.C. International Film Festival. It also misspelled the title of the documentary “Who Bombed Judi Bari.” This version has been corrected.
This year’s D.C. Independent Film Festival features two world premieres, including a rare fiction feature from a local director. But the highlight may be a documentary whose title can’t be announced in advance — and an appearance by the man who made it.
The movie, which screens Friday, the third day of the 14th annual DCIFF, is about a leading 1970s rock musician. Completed in 1974, it was directed by Les Blank, a 76-year-old maverick who exemplifies the American independent cinema.
The subject and title of the movie, although fairly easy to search online, cannot be revealed ahead of time without potentially attracting a lawsuit, says the Florida-born Blank by phone from his California home.
DCIFF publicist Maria Datch confirms that if the film’s identity is revealed before the screening — 9 p.m. at the fest’s main venue, the Naval Heritage Center auditorium — it must be canceled.
Here’s how Blank explains the film’s complicated status: The subject had a falling out with the producer. The musician sued and eventually won ownership rights to the film.
“For reasons he never explained to me, he did not want the film shown as it was,” Blank says.
Sensing possible trouble in making a film about a major rock musician, Blank says that he had a paragraph added to his contract giving him the right to show the film in a noncommercial setting if he was personally present. “So that’s what I’m doing,” he says.
On Thursday, the night before the mystery screening, Blank will appear at the Heritage Center to show excerpts from his films and discuss his career. Likely prospects for discussion include “Burden of Dreams,” his 1982 account of Werner Herzog’s battle to film “Fitzcarraldo” in the Brazilian jungle; 1969’s “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” a portrait of the Texas musician; and “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers,” a 1980 paean to “the stinking rose,” which is listed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
Blank’s most recent movie is 2007’s “All in This Tea,” which follows American boutique-tea marketer David Lee Hoffman to China, co-directed by Gina Leibrecht. Blank is known for his friendships and collaborations with other filmmakers, including Herzog, Errol Morris and Jean-Pierre Gorin. One of his most fruitful partnerships was with German-born American-music enthusiast Chris Strachwitz, the soundman and producer for Blank’s 1976 “Chulas Fronteras,” a study of Tex-Mex norteno music.
A longtime friend, filmmaker and former MIT professor Richard Leacock, is the subject of a documentary that Blank is laboring to finish. Leacock, who died last year, formed a company with another documentary pioneer, D.A. Pennebaker, that was supposed to distribute “Lightnin’ Hopkins.” That didn’t quite happen, but Blank and Leacock remained friends. Blank traveled several times to France, where Leacock retired, to film him as he cooked and told stories.
That footage is the basis for a movie tentatively titled “How to Smell a Rose.” “I just need a grant to pay my editor,” Blank says, “and finally finish it off.”
Another in-progress documentary is about Butch Anthony, a taciturn, self-taught artist in backwoods Alabama. Blank treasures eccentrics, which he concedes are becoming harder to find. “People are becoming more like one another,” he says.
“I’m still fascinated if I can go someplace and be around people and cultures that are completely different.”
That quest has taken Blank through various folk-music subcultures, including blues, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka and Hawaiian. His abiding interest in music makes him a natural participant in the DCIFF, which slots local band performances into its screening schedule. “Music is part of film,” says Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, who’s in her first year as DCIFF’s executive director.
In the spirit of such festivals as Slamdance and South by Southwest, DCIFF doesn’t aspire to become an industry event. “We are audience-driven, because we would die if we weren’t,” Evans-Pritchard says. “But our mission is the filmmaker.”
Among the fest’s 47 films are world premieres of “The Bright Side of the Moon,” a psychological thriller by Farhad Alizadeh Ahi, an Iranian director based in Canada; and “Ultrasonic,” a black-and-white film about a possible government mind-control experiment, directed by Silver Spring native Rohit Colin Rao. Evans-Pritchard calls the first film “lyrical” and notes about the second that it “doesn’t often happen that Washington, D.C., produces a fiction feature film that’s worthy of a public audience.”
The DCIFF also will present the East Coast debut of “Who Bombed Judi Bari,” a documentary about the 1990 car bombing that injured the Earth First activist. The film was produced by Darryl Cherney, who survived the explosion.
One of the bigger spectacles may be the crowd for “Patriot Guard Riders,” a documentary about motorcyclists who attempt to shield grieving military families from funeral picketers representing the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. (These protesters blame American service members for the country’s growing acceptance of gays and lesbians.)
Some of the Patriot Guard Riders “will be coming down on their bikes,” Evans-Pritchard says. “How many, we are not clear. However, I have received several e-mails asking, ‘Where do I park my Harley-Davidson?’ ”
Other sorts of questions will be posed at the fest’s seminars and workshops, including Thursday’s “Summit on the Hill” to discuss piracy and financing possibilities, hosted by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and, of course, at Blank’s appearances at the screenings of his work Thursday and Friday, and his “master class” Saturday.
Asked what he tells aspiring filmmakers, Blank’s reply has nothing to do with HD cams, shooting ratios or editing-room strategies. “Basically, just follow your enthusiasms. If you have the desire to do it, go do it. If you don’t know how, go find out how,” he says. “And do it now before it fades away. You don’t have this energy forever.
“As Werner Herzog would say, all you need is guts,” Blank says.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.