By Jacob Mertens.
Nestled in the heart of the Austin Convention Center, I stand in a line that stretches around the perimeter, coiling in on itself like a writhing boa constrictor. Herein lies the hub of SXSW, hosting event registration, the Vimeo Theater, and several floors of conference rooms and private lounges. Cheap food venders litter the carpet floors; the faint pulse of music whispers from a white tent across the street, overflowing with patrons who drink liquor in broad daylight and attempt to network amidst the DJ’s auditory barrage; and those in line around me fill my head with a babbling brook of conversations dedicated to film and music, video games and the internet: the venerated escapist joys of life. The line to reach my badge may be a solid two hours deep, but the energy of the environment obliterates any sense of boredom. I have returned to my tribe, prepared for a week and a half of debauchery and sensory overload, of entertainment and art. I have arrived at South by Southwest.
All at once, SXWS’s greatest strength reflects its greatest weakness: there is simply too much to do. Ignoring the distractions of the overlapping SXSW interactive and musical events, both giants in their own respective industries, the film festival itself still offers over one hundred unique film blocks in a week and half time span. Consequently, the experience of SXSW remains entirely unique to the individual, a choose your own adventure structure that assures no one singular impression of the event. However, while the chaos of the event denies a systematic overview, with diligence participants can cut their own swath from the abundance of choice. This festival report represents just one such tattered swath, cut from a tapestry too great to sum up in any one experience.
Cinema and Violence: The Darker Side of SXSW
SXSW opened its event with the pulp entertainment of The Cabin in the Woods, a heady horror film with pretentions of genre-defying originality. The theater filled quickly, thanks to the rabid fandom of writer Joss Whedon and, to a lesser extent, his former Buffy the Vampire Slayer collaborator writer-director Drew Goddard, who recently penned several episodes of the enigmatic television show Lost and the well-crafted viral film Cloverfield (2008). While the film’s transplant of The Truman Show’s basic premise may not be as ground breaking as the creators would have you believe, the acerbic wit of the characters and the gleeful orgy of violence at the film’s end endows Cabin in the Woods with a base revelry that most contemporary horror films remain devoid of.
While Cabin did garner strong word of mouth from its sole screening, the festival’s stand out magnum opus of violence was undoubtedly the Indonesian kung-fu gunplay masterpiece The Raid: Redemption. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, Raid makes the calculated CG gore of Cabin in the Woods look downright kid friendly. The plot revolves around a SWAT team that infiltrates a dilapidated tenement controlled by a crime lord, an operation which soon devolves into a madcap battle royal in which knives, machetes, machine guns, shattered light bulbs, and even an exploding refrigerator beget a steady barrage of gore and death. As each blood drenched sequence struggles to top the last, Raid employs a staggering creativity and originality in its innumerous depictions of death, which provoked exclamations and shameless applause from the audience.
The festival’s midnight showcase also vied for an audience predisposed to darker themes, from the morbid to the comically absurd. The more sought after selections included the most recent installment of the Spanish cult horror series [REC] with [REC] 3: Genesis; a mishmash of up and coming directors in the found footage segmented horror film V/H/S; and the campy science fiction film Iron Sky, in which Nazis invade earth from a secret moon base, a sequence of events told with all the subtlety of a Mega Shark movie. Amidst these satisfying but superficial crowd pleasers, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo gives his audience a reasonably understated and surprisingly taut suspense thriller with Intruders. Fresnadillo, last seen directing the brilliant 28 Weeks Later (2007), carefully details the story of a faceless creature who haunts children and steals away their identity. Unlike most horror films, Intruders manages to instill genuine suspense because each character is given enough attention to make the audience care for them. Additionally, the vulnerability of the children and the specificity of the creature’s attacks, most notably the loss of a young girl’s ability to speak, truly unnerves the viewer as the film goes on. Unfortunately, the ending forces a twist of events, reorienting Intruders from a fantasy horror film to an underdeveloped if not ambitious psychological thriller. Still, forgiving this misstep, Intruders coerced many in the audience to literally lean in on the edge of their seats, a feat that should go as high praise for any filmmaker.
SXSW Documentaries: Give me Controversy or Give me Character
There are two surefire ways to get your documentary screened at a film festival:
- Get a hold of a great story or a great character.
- Make a film that will stir up controversy or conversation.
For the latter brand of filmmaking, many supposed controversial films can feel exploitative because the impetus for their creation has to do with a potential audience reaction, rather than a film made to express the artistic will of an individual. However, with Caveh Zahedi’s film The Sheik and I, the director turns this moral issue on its head by justifying his film by audience reactions that occur during the actual filmmaking process. In the film, Zahedi is commissioned to direct a project in the United Arab Emirates as part of a series of artworks embodying acts of subversion. Zahedi takes to his task with relish, narrating a documentary that follows his production’s exploits, creating a film within a film that crudely satirizes the country’s Sheik, the religion of Islam, and a barely concealed atmosphere of racism. While this meta-narrative lacks any real direction or artistic insight, Zahedi struggles to get his project off the ground, facing heavy opposition both from the organization that commissioned him and the country’s government itself.
Consequently, Zahedi’s ensuing struggle to make the film validates the process, touching on issues of free speech and censorship, and depicting oppression in a way that the film’s meta-narrative could not achieve on its own. With that said, the real controversy lies in whether the film should have been made at all, since Zahedi recklessly involves the country’s citizens in his meta-narrative, potentially placing them in harm’s way. As The Sheik and I draws to a close, it manages to generate a palpable concern for the countrymen’s lives, and while Zahedi does not come across as a likeable person, his film remains thoroughly engrossing.
Another trending topic covered in the SXSW documentary line-up involved the encroaching digital age and the increased political agency of hackers. The fascinating if not paint-by-numbers Wikileaks: Secrets & Lies, directed by Patrick Forbes, featured unprecedented access to key figures of the well known scandal, with interviews both from the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and the journalists responsible for releasing his hacked government secrets to the public. Unfortunately, the film squanders its key interviews, content with a droll, History channel reenactment of one of the most seismic moments in the modern digital age. It fails to ask its subjects complicated moral questions or to significantly examine how Assange’s actions might alter the path of journalism and politics, or even how the impact of Wikileaks might have changed how we view ourselves as a moral country in the face of the atrocities of war. As a result, Forbes’ film remains informative and occasionally illuminating, but lacks artistic depth.
On the other hand, the kindred documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists sustains a strong balance between historical depiction and entertainment. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, We Are Legion explores the ramifications of the colorful, Guy Fawkes influenced hacktivist movement, spawned in part from one of the most puerile and offensive message boards in the history of the internet. Unlike Forbes’ film, Knappenberger conveys a keen insight of his material, provoking its audience with a simple paradoxical consideration: how we do we define a political movement concomitantly comprised of those who use their inherent power to challenge the status quo and those who abuse their power for the thrill of it?
While these films sparked a frenetic burst of conversation after their screenings, SXSW chose instead to award its Documentary Grand Jury Prize to the rousing portrait of the legendary drummer Ginger Baker in the film Beware of Mr. Baker. Prior to the film, director Jay Bulger had faked Rolling Stone journalist credentials to spend a few months with the aging, irascible, mad genius drummer from bands Cream and Blind Faith, traveling out to his sequestered home in South Africa. After actually publishing an article with Rolling Stone for his efforts, Bulger returned to Africa and began filming a documentary about Baker’s life, a story involving rampant drug use, womanizing, alienation, and an unadulterated love for music that transcends all else. Though only Bulger’s first film, Beware of Mr. Baker reflects the steady hand of seasoned filmmaker. His film is both tender and unabashedly honest, and Baker emerges from the ruins of his life an unsullied god of jazz and rock and roll.
Another fantastic portraiture doc came from United Kingdom, a film called Dreams of a Life in which the director Carol Morley reconstructs the life of Joyce Vincent, a woman who died in her flat sitting in front of the television, only to be found three years later with the television still on. Morley approaches the task of discovering the woman’s identity as if she were a detective, and her intimate pursuit lends agency and intrigue. The most impressive aspect of the film though, lies in its ability to look beyond the morbid curiosity of the news headline and ask its audience significant questions. How can it be that a person can simply vanish from this world without notice, until a filmmaker goes poking around three or four years later? What does it say of the potential meaning and impact of a single life if this can happen? Morley treats her documentary as if it were the eulogy Joyce had been denied in life, the personal connection between filmmaker and material readily apparent, and the director’s passion becomes utterly infectious.
Keep Austin and SXSW Weird
As you walk through the city of Austin, Texas, you notice bumper stickers and signs posted across the city, calling for its denizens to “Keep Austin Weird”. This call represents an ongoing battle to maintain the perceived uniqueness of the city amidst the conformity that goes along with a massive influx of new money. Interestingly, the same urgent message could be applied to Austin’s flagship film festival. While still technically a haven for the more mainstream avant-garde festival entries (past SXSW alums include features of Trash Humpers (2009) and Dogtooth (2009) ilk), the only prominent “fringe” feature film shown at SXSW this year was Guy Maddin’s Keyhole. Maddin’s film demonstrated one of the more bold selections at SXSW, as the director playfully gutted the gangster noir genre to contrive a lurid dreamscape within what can only be called a haunted mansion. Beyond this inspired choice though, the only full-length films to exhibit significant experimental ties were the documentaries Trash Dance and Tchoupitoulas, respectively exploring a choreographic montage of garbage trucks and a meandering visual ode to New Orleans. Thankfully, a more anomalous brand of filmmaking was on full display with the festival’s short film blocks.
Most notably, cult animator Don Hertzfeldt’s final chapter in his “everything will be OK” trilogy, the twenty-three minute animation epic It’s Such a Beautiful Day, signaled the highlight of the SXSW short film showcase. Spanning over five years, Hertzfeldt’s trilogy has matured significantly from its first titular installment Everything will be OK (2006), a fascinating but uneven barrage of angst and quirky humor, in which he captures the rambling thoughts of a man slowly losing his mind as he considers the meaning of his life. With It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt continues to explore the filmic techniques established in his first two chapters: iris mattes on crude stick figure animations, short bursts of experimental film footage to accentuate different emotions and environments, classical music that dictates pace and contrasts with the coarse visual style, and a voice over detailing the protagonist’s thoughts and struggles with a practiced rhythmic cadence. However, as Beautiful Day progresses, the viewer sees a more flexible range between the anxious alacrity that overwhelmed Hertzfeldt’s first installment, and more tempered moments of brooding, better exemplified in Hertzfeldt’s nostalgic second act I am so proud of you (2008).
It’s Such a Beautiful Day follows its protagonist Bill, who suffers from an unstated but increasingly severe illness effecting memory and cognitive function, as he is hospitalized and eventually released, only to wait for his time to die. By eluding to the imminent moment of Bill’s death, Hertzfeldt’s quirky and dark humor feels strangely poignant, while offering the viewer a reprieve from Bill’s fragmented existential concerns. More importantly, as Beautiful Day approaches its conclusion, the film’s final moments achieve outright transcendence as the narrator himself takes a personal stake in Bill’s life, urging him to live. Indeed, Bill does not die, but lives on as the world around him descends into a somber lull of extinction. By the end, Bill is left only with the stars and his thoughts, no less alone than when the viewer found him but at peace in his simple meditation of the night sky. Without going into further analysis or explanation, it should be said that It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an odd work of genius and demands its own audience, as evidenced by its current tour across the nation
Other short films of interest include the animated selections Caldera and Paint Showers, as well as the diaristic film The Fuse: or How I Burned Simon Boliver. In Caldera, filmmaker Evan Viera creates a staggering feat of animation, visualizing a fantastical backdrop that follows a young girl who goes off her medication and watches the world transform and distort around her. Miguel Jiron’s Paint Showers, on the other hand, pays homage to the cameraless painted films of experimental legends like Stan Brakhage and Oskar Fischinger. In Jiron’s film, swirling paint fills the screen, leading to a vivid recreation of a storm’s downpour. While Paint Showers might lack the complexity of its filmic forebears, the striking nature of the visuals alone engenders a unique emotional resonance. Finally, The Fuse: or How I Burned Simon Boliver, directed and narrated by Igor Drlijaca, tells the personal story of Igor as a child asking God to keep him going from going to school. The following day, civil war breaks out in his home country of Bosnia, and Igor feels a pang of illogical guilt as though he caused the war himself. This opening premise leads Igor to reflect on the tragedy of the war, his contemplation underscored by home video footage of his family and the haunting loneliness of a war that once raged outside his apartment building.
To be honest, the overall quality of films at SXSW makes my report a difficult one to file. There was not a single film that I watched that did not inspire great thought, respect, or even awe. I found myself thoroughly entertained during my time there, and unfortunately, I can only extol the virtues and intrigues of so many films in one sitting. In the end, it is perhaps best to say that, for me, SXSW remains a mecca of film art, inspiring pilgrimage once each year. It goes without saying that next year I will find myself in that same serpentine line, feeding on the energy of the crowd and waiting for that sublime moment in the theater when the lights dim and the projector flickers to life.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.