Mattresses, Musician Buddies, And Personal Triumphs: A Rundown of the 2024 Oak Cliff Film Festival

2023 Shaky Knees Festival
2023 Shaky Knees Festival / Scott Legato/GettyImages

I could feel beads of sweat dripping down every inch of my body. It's the first week of June 2019. I'm standing in front of the famous Texas Theatre in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. Today is one of the first days of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. This annual event started in 2012 and has only increased in prominence and prestige every year. Every other attendee of the festival is darting indoors as fast as they can. Why wouldn't they? It's June in Texas. It's 96 in the shade! Despite all my instincts to zoom inside to cool off, though, I just stand there gazing up at the historical locale in front of me.

“Do I belong here?” I thought to myself. Though I’d been writing movie reviews for years at this juncture, I’d never attended a film festival before. I’d spent my whole life reading about my favorite writers going to the Toronto International Film Festival, Cannes, Telluride, and other big cinematic gatherings. To venture to one of these events seemed like the ultimate sign that you were a “real” film critic. The Oak Cliff Film Festival wasn’t as big as the Venice Film Festival, even its programmers would freely admit that. But in that moment, I still felt like a fraud. On the cusp of attending my first film festival, all I could think was “I’m not worthy of being here.”

Eventually, I went inside. Once there, I absorbed all the interior design joys of the Texas Theatre (it was also my first time going to this iconic location), and grabbed my Press Pass lanyard. So began my first-ever film festival experience and my inaugural Oak Cliff Film Festival voyage. It was a mesmerizing weekend. Finally, I was living out the kinds of experiences I’d only read about on, TheDissolve,, and other websites.

Five years later, I returned to the Oak Cliff Film Festival for its 2024 incarnation (which ran from June 20-23). In history's grand arc, half a decade isn’t really a long passage of time. But for my personal life and the cinematic landscape, the last five years might as well have been an eternity. Back in June 2019, I’d never even talked about being trans out loud. Now I was waltzing into 2024 OCFF showings with nearly two years' worth of estrogen coursing through my veins decked out in vibrant sparkly dresses and elaborate colorful makeup. I’ve also made many strides in my personal life (including moving out on my own!) that have decreased a bit (though far from all) of my self-doubt anxieties. Surely if I can pursue HRT and live independently, I’m worthy of going to the Oak Cliff Film Festival!

As for cinema as an artform, well, COVID-19 had done a number on the medium since my last OCFF expedition. Nine months after I first walked through the doors of the Texas Theatre, movie theaters across the world shut down. Ever since March 2020, it’s been a daily battle against algorithms, uncaring executives, A.I., internet trolls, and many others to reaffirm the value of communal spaces for cinema. If you ever wanted proof of how gloriously alive theatrical exhibition's joys still are, just walk into any OCFF showing. There’s such energy in the room for scrappy low-budget cinema. Complete strangers end up bonding over their shared experiences concerning a new exciting indie movie they just watched. It’s wonderful to see this still going strong five years after my last OCFF screening.

Across my 2024 OCFF exploits, I was amazed to see the variety of moviegoers showing up to different titles. Opening night motion picture Omar and Cedric: If This Ever Gets Weird attracted devotees to the two titular musicians. Attracting a fanbase of artists associated with progressive rock and post-hardcore music ensured that the downstairs Texas theatre auditorium was packed with unique fashion choices and folks nostalgic for early 2000s melodies. Before the screening, a pair of guys behind me excitedly talked about both their favorite Omar and Cedric tunes and memorable highlights from the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory.

Saturday afternoon’s dry comedy Love and Work at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center was a horse of a different color. That title attracted primarily folks over the age of 60. The default attire and buttoned-up behavior in the room starkly contrasted with the atmosphere that Omar and Cedric showed just two days earlier.

Mainstream Hollywood cinema is largely geared exclusively towards white men over the age of 40. That demographic wasn’t absent from these two OCFF screenings or other motion pictures shown at this festival. However, they weren’t the only ones catered to. Across my various OCFF showings, no two screenings had the exact same audience makeup. This isn’t a quality exclusive to the OCFF, of course. All film festivals with a diverse slate of programming will attract an eclectic group of attendees. That didn’t make it any less special remebering that truth in an age of algorithms and constant online eulogies for theatrical cinema. Seeing folks from all age groups and walks of life enjoying independent cinema was a reassuring delight.

Another quality not OCFF exclusive but wonderfully highlighted here was reminders of how you don’t need deep pockets to make a movie. Multiple OCFF 2024 features qualified as endearingly ramshackle enterprises held together through two nickels and a dream. Not a Job, for example, had a cast almost exclusively limited to five people. Shot over one location in Texas through two-ish weeks, it was an intimate low-budget affair. It was also an undertaking the cast and crew found unforgettable to experience. Deeply charming absurdist comedy Fantasy A Gets a Mattress, meanwhile, apparently existed thanks to just $3,800. Those budgetary limitations didn’t stop Fantasy A from existing. They also didn't impede the creation of infinitely crisper visuals than many big studio comedies.

Witnessing wonderful things people craft on limited budgets is a beautiful sight. In some respects, though, it can also make one sad. That's not because of the features themselves. We live in an age of exorbitant CEO paychecks. A handful of corporations control our biggest movie studios. Folks like David Zaslav and Bob Iger get $30 or $50 million every year. Yet they also constantly bemoan how there’s no money to put original movies into theaters. We’re being gaslit by rich people into expecting less.

Indie cinema has always functioned as a haven for artists compared to big studio notes and control. That’s been true since even the 1970s and well before that. However, that phenomenon has worsened in the modern age thanks to corporate consolidation and streaming services. Seeing filmmakers putting so much effort into their works with minimal means is a heartwarming sight. It also reminds one how little positive effort corporations and folks with endless financial means exert. Once again, we're all reminded why we must put our faith in fellow members of the working class and not corporations!

But what about the most important about the OCFF, the films? One of the most impressive standout titles was also the feature that launched the 2024 iteration of this festival. The music documentary Omar and Cedric: If This Ever Gets Weird, chronicles the careers and lives of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Many know them for their work in the bands At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta. Within this feature, though, audiences get to see the intimate lives of the duo. Director Nicholas Jack Davies conveys that closeness by relying almost exclusively on gangly camcorder footage filmed of and by these two years earlier.

These images were never meant for big screen exhibition. They’re just off-the-cuff time capsules of touring struggles, friendship tomfoolery, and other antics. However, accompanied by retrospective narration from the two titular musicians, these relics of the past inhabit unexpected levels of depth. All these nonchalant recordings speak so much to the bonds, torment, creative passion, and everything else forming the connection between Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Davies realizes that the most incidental parts of life can be the most revealing. That's especially true when they're paired up with the impressively raw and deeply vulnerable testimony of Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala! If This Ever Gets Weird proves transfixing even to folks who walk in knowing nothing about these musicians (hey, that’s me).

Also well worth a shout-out is the Seattle indie comedy Fantasy A Gets a Mattress. This feature stars real-life autistic rapper Fantasy A as himself. Autistic movie geeks like myself have been clamoring for years for more varied cinematic depictions of autistic life. No more melodramas about autistic figures being sidekicks helping neurotypical protagonist overcome their prejudices, please. Fantasy A Gets a Mattress certainly delivers that and not just by putting an autistic character front-and-center in its narrative. The feature is a zany concoction home to uber-pronounced characters constantly shouting their motivations with their entire chests.

Such individuals seem to have wandered away from an episode of Nathan For You or perhaps an I Think You Should Leave sketch. Thank God they ended up here, though. The commitment to all this straight-faced lunacy and emphasis on down-to-earth struggles of working-class people (like dealing with intrusive landlords) is well-handled by writers/directors Noah Zoltan Sofian and David Norman Lewis. This pair have scraped together a terrifically charismatic cast, starting with the deeply engaging Fantasy A himself. Playing a heightened variation of himself, Fantasy A’s just got an instantly endearing aura. That quality makes him such an entertaining underdog protagonist. Also standing out is Acacia Porter as the bitter lyricist Asia Rose. Her irony-free delivery of absurd lines about how all the skaters she used to videotape “are now dead” is absolutely hysterical. She displays a gift for comic timing and a deeply charismatic screen presence to boot.

Even the jagged messier loose ends of Fantasy A Gets a Mattress, like a handful of awkward scene transitions, speak to its charmingly homegrown roots. Despite all the budgetary restrictions in the world (never forget that $3,800 pricetag), Sofian and Lewis never dial back their ambition or dedication to bizarro silliness. Only in these dedicated confines would a line as bizarre as “tickle me with felt” exist. It’s just the kind of labor of love you want to see at a film festival projected on the biggest screen possible.

The pleasures were many at the 2024 edition of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. Meeting new people in between screenings, especially on Sunday, was a joy. Seeing the name of my pal Kat Hess in the credits of OCFF screening Janet Planet was so exciting. Venturing into Oak Cliff domiciles like the Kessler Theater for the first time also proved exhilarating. The Kessler, for the record, has quite a swanky interior. Chalkboards behind a bar espousing prices for meals and the bright white walls, marble top counter, and what looked like retro-futuristic diner bar chairs sleek made for a visually pleasing combination of the old and new. The set-up in the main auditorium seems like it’d be perfect for intimate concerts or speaking engagements. For the record, it also worked great for watching a documentary by Lucy Lawless at 1 in the afternoon.

Most excitingly for me, though, was feeling like I’d been on something resembling the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell's structure for typical narratives suggests these stories begin with a "call to adventure" before ending on a "return." Challenging my perception of my abilities with an inaugural Oak Cliff Film Festival voyage certainly qualifies as a “call to adventure.” Returning five years later more in tune with my gender and place as a film critic made for a satisfying “return.” I had gone from thinking “I don’t belong here” to regularly sauntering into the Texas Theatre like a pro. I transformed from a writer who'd once or twice been paid for her writing to someone who makes a living as a writer. My gender and queerness had blossomed from something bottled up inside to an aspect of my personality I reveled in.

Returning to the Oak Cliff Film Festival fit certain standards of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. However, my story is far from done. Ditto for this fixture of the summertime Dallas scene. Who knows what future cinematic exploits will screen in subsequent versions of OCFF. The exceedingly impressive 2024 incarnation of this event, though, means we’ll all be watching with great anticipation what the OCFF, its programming team, and volunteer workers do next.