The Lighthouse International Film Festival Ends After Bringing the New to LBI

Jun 13, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson A mentally ill, homeless man in China scrounges on a dump for the first ten minutes of the 156 minute-long ‘A Yangtze Landscape’ by filmmaker Xin Xu.

The Lighthouse International Film Festival wrapped up its 10th year on Sunday after providing a slew of fascinating, provocative and entertaining dramas and documentaries. If only we had more time to have viewed them all. By all accounts, this was as successful a year as ever.

Here are two documentaries, each as different from the next as they could be.

One generous filmgoer to “A Yangtze Landscape” said she felt experiencing the 2½-hour, black and white film was very Zen-like and peaceful. But she was in the minority; by the time the film progressed up the Yangtze River from Shanghai through the lock of the Three Gorges Dam, the already sparse audience on Sunday morning had thinned to a trickle. By Tibet, the source of the Yangtze, only a handful remained to see the prayer wheels and the “Sky Burial” mountain peaks circled by vultures.

Filmmaker Xin Xu was unflinching in his depiction of the wasteland that industrial riverbanks often embody, whether located in China or New Jersey. He lingered a long time on the unfortunates who are cast on their shores like so much flotsam. We're introduced to six of the mentally ill, mentally handicapped and alcoholics who scrounge the riverbanks for a bare subsistence. The moans and rambling sentences from the pitiable unfortunates formed the soundtrack during these sequences.

A brief interlude in a Catholic church in a river town showed parishioners singing hymns to a statue of the holy family with halos fashioned from LED race lights.

Then back to the river banks with the clangs, bangs and booms of the ships and barges jostling to be loaded and unloaded plus the noise of construction equipment constantly on the move. We spent some time with a fisherman who had lost his fingers in a net mishap and saw a sailor suddenly jump into the river, then return to his barge to curse and throw a metal pole. The river moved silently on.

At the dam, the dissonant screeching of metal against metal as the lock opened, then closed and filled with water to 175 meters, which took quite awhile, drove more of the audience fleeing for the door.

Luckily, Ila Biegel, a volunteer at Sunday’s film showings at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences venue, said the previous two days of the festival had been well-attended with the room filled to capacity.

And the next film, another documentary, had greater appeal and drew a crowd. “Daughters Of The Sexual Revolution: the Unauthorized Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and produced by Carra Greenberg, was a fast-paced history of the Cowboys Cheerleaders phenomenon as told by former DCC “girls” and their first director/den mother, Suzanne Mitchell.

Amir Bogen, deputy director of the Lighthouse International Film Festival, said the film had premiered to great reviews at the South by Southwest Festival in March, and he had invited producer Carra Greenberg but didn’t know if she would come. He was surprised and delighted when she told him, “I grew up on LBI! My family spent every summer there!” So she flew in from Oklahoma City the night before to be at the Foundation for the showing. Her aunt, uncle and cousins were in the audience, and she was ready to reconnect with them and LBI.

Greenberg said the film began when she was contacted by director Dana Adam Shapiro after the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2015. “He’s a writer and a journalist, so he knows a good story. He was in Boston at the time and he saw the Patriots cheerleaders perform – he thought it was so bizarre. So he wondered about the origins of professional cheerleading. We knew it had started in Dallas with the Dallas Cowboys, so we started contacting former cheerleaders. They all said to contact Suzanne Mitchell and then we could talk to them, but only if it was all right with Suzanne. So we were curious about who Suzanne was, and we went to Texas not knowing what we would find. Once we met her, it was all settled. You need a character like that to carry a film.”

Mitchell was the right-hand assistant of Tex Schramm, Cowboys president and general manager for 29 years. Schramm was the first to refashion and market the team for television audiences by introducing the instant replay and different-colored yard lines.

Prior to 1970, the cheerleaders for the Cowboys were both males and females recruited from local high schools.

“Then in 1967, four years after President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a woman walks down the aisle during the Cotton Bowl and is captured on TV. She is Bubbles Cash, a Dallas stripper, and she is carrying two cones of cotton candy that look like pompoms,” according to sportscaster Dale Hansen. “She was known as the woman who upset the Cotton Bowl.”

Schramm decided he would change the look of the cheerleaders to more closely match the sensational Bubbles. “Schramm understood that football was now an entertainment business, and it needed sparkle, glitter and glamour.”

Mitchell explained that in 1970, Schramm gave the job of creating the new cheerleading squad to her to manage. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleader had to be sexy but she had to be a good girl, explained Mitchell. Mitchell had 30 rules the girls had to follow; Rule Number 1 was they could not date a Dallas Cowboy or even talk to them or they would be expelled.

The costume was changed to hot pants and white disco boots. The cheers were changed to dance routines. It was also revealed that Cowboys coach Tom Landry’s wife was against the new style of cheerleader. “We got pushback – she didn’t like the boobs,” said Mitchell. “So she made them wear a ‘modesty shield’ to cover their cleavage. It only lasted half a season and it was gone.”

Because Texas is the heart of the Bible Belt, Mitchell said the girls had to walk a fine line between the sacred and the profane. Some of the cheerleaders lied to their parents to go to an audition, and if they won, they had to choose between the career and their families.

The cheerleaders had to work six or more hours every day in the gym learning their routines and had to keep their weight down. Plus they had to either work at a job or be married or at school.

“Some of us were mothers, some had day jobs, but we danced because we loved it,” said a former DCC. “Some days it was 110 degrees on the field, and we earned a mere $14.50 after taxes and that was only home games. We were broke. But we were famous. I was somebody.”

By 1976, they were a national phenomenon. During Super Bowl X between the Steelers and the Cowboys, one of the cheerleaders winked at the camera. “It was known as ‘The Wink,’ and all hell broke loose,” said Hansen.

When Mitchell held tryouts the next year, there were 4,000 applicants. How was she able to pick 36 girls from all those hopefuls? “Diversity was important. We wanted someone for everyone to relate to, and she had to be an all-American Sexy Girl from a good background.

“It’s said there are two religions in Texas, Christianity and football.”

But forces were at work in the country that few were prepared for. The birth control pill was available, and the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 legalized abortion in the first three months. The sexual revolution was in full swing while at the same time, the Woman’s Movement was gaining steam.

The cheerleaders were often the target of “women’s libbers.” During one protest a sign read, “Hearts and Minds, Not Bumps and Grinds.”

Mitchell said she was the only female executive in the Dallas Cowboys franchise, but she didn’t consider herself a “libber.” And she defended and protected her charges from all criticism.

Her proudest moments were when she took a contingent of the cheerleaders on USO tours of the troops in Korea. “I didn’t choose the prettiest or the sexiest; I chose the ones that were most likely to give a hug or a pep talk,” said Mitchell.

When oilman Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989, things changed, she said. “He brought the coaches into our dance studio; he had no respect for women. He started firing everyone. He fired Landry and he humiliated Tex Schramm. So I walked out. On May 8, 1989, I walked out with Tex.

“I was devoted to them. It was like family, and the image was going to change. Fourteen cheerleaders quit at the same time.”

Greenberg said making the film was made easier once they had Mitchell on board. “She sent out an email and told them, ‘All of you will be available,’ and they were. This is 40 years after!! Thirty people drove hundreds of miles for the interviews because that’s what she told them to do. We had a chorus of women who cheered us on and a lot of stories to choose from.”

“Daughters Of The Sexual Revolution: the Unauthorized Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” won the Lighthouse Film Festival Spotlight Audience Award in the Documentary category. Hopefully, those who haven’t yet seen it will be able to catch it at some venue in the near future.

That’s one of the joys of attending the LIFF, being the first in the know and seeing a diverse palette of interesting and entertaining films.

— Pat Johnson

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