UT alumna documentary film featured in Black Maria Film Festival

Nataleah Small

On a quiet Saturday evening, filmmaker Isabel Dunn gathered with a handful of friends and family members in the Harry Ransom Center. Over the past year, her short documentary was viewed by hundreds of people in film festivals across the country. Surrounded by the Austin community in the cozy, intimate space, her film had finally come home. 

“Once & Again” was Dunn’s thesis project for her dual degrees in radio-television-film and Plan II. The film premiered on Nov. 16 as part of the 38th Annual Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival. 

“Once & Again” features phonograph collector Jim Cartwright, phonograph disc jockey Amelia “Foxtrot” Raley and UT art history associate professor Louis Alexander Waldman. In only 25 minutes, the audience enters the homes of the featured individuals, learns why they are obsessed with old machines and old music and takes a ride on an emotional roller coaster. 

Ahead of the screening, Dunn spoke with The Daily Texan about her inspiration for the project and the filmmaking process. 

Daily Texan: Where did you get the idea for the film? 

Isabel Dunn: Jim Cartwright, one of the subjects in my film, hosts a party every February to celebrate Thomas Edison's birthday. It’s this really unique event that brings together all of these people in Austin that listen to music on antique phonographs. The party was incredible because I walked in, and he has these cabinet photographs, horn phonographs and wax cylinder players lining his entry way. I thought I'd walked into a museum, but this is this man's home. It felt like stepping into another century, and I was just captivated. 

DT: You had three interesting film subjects. Did you choose to shape their stories into a narrative, or did the narrative present itself during the filmmaking process? 

Dunn: I sort of crafted it durationally around the experience of listening. There are shots where we observe a wax cylinder being recorded as Jim (Cartwright) plays the piano. Then we observe Louis (Alexander Waldman) listening to the full duration of a shellac record. (He set up) this four-minute static shot as being proof that the phonograph requires a very uniquely focused, intense kind of listening. He listens more intensely than anyone I've ever met. So, for me, the story was more so three character studies where people are talking about how they feel about music.

DT: How did you come up with the title “Once & Again?”

Dunn: I would probably have to credit the name to my dad. The title touches on the fact that we've recorded (the music) once and we're hearing it again until we're reminded once again, we've got to find a new way to preserve things. What is sort of one of the great ironies of the film is the fact that the people that love these objects the most are also, if they're engaging and listening that way, are a part of what's making these things degrade over time through their use, so there's no way around it. But that's just what makes it so bittersweet and so beautiful to me.