Is South by Southwest a good film festival for documentary lovers? Coming directly behind True/False and a short ways after Sundance, the Austin-based event does not seem a necessity to many in the doc community, including both industry people and fans, and I’m not surprised by this at all. Another doc-specific fest, Full Frame, is just around the corner, with Toronto’s Hot Docs coming quickly on its heels. After that is Tribeca with its increasingly great doc selection, and so on.
There are certainly great nonfiction films playing at SXSW (and a lot more titles than I remember being selected in the past), but the doc programming there lacks the reputation of churning out really popular titles and Oscar contenders (though this year’s winner, Undefeated, quietly had its world premiere there). It says something that my true favorites of last year’s fest were technically works I’d seen beforehand. SXSW does get some great hand-me-downs out of Sundance, and that’s fine since I for one would certainly rather spend my time in the warmth and Alamo Drafthouse-populated Austin than Park City.
To the festival-goer, though, does it actually matter what’s later honored, released or deemed a classic? Or are we meant to just see some great films, hopefully followed by great conversations and appreciate SXSW docs for what they are, typically lower-radar, eclectic, geeky and fun works aimed at specific and niche audiences?
Well, maybe it’s not good to treat the program like a bubble, especially considering all the films coming into SXSW that are already hot with buzz from previous festival engagements. For instance, I’m excited to catch up with the supposed final word on global warming, Chasing Ice. And there’s Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, a lengthy biography of the title reggae icon, Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies, which looks back at Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the popular LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits and Indie Game: The Movie, which presents the world of independent video game makers.
Also I’m very happy to encourage people, especially those not always into docs, to see the spectacularly cinematic ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (see my review from True/False) the unbelievable, disturbing discussion starter Girl Model (one of my docs to watch for in 2012), the phenomenally riveting and provocative The Imposter (see my praise from True/False), the positive-minded and surprisingly entertaining water crisis film Last Call at the Oasis (see my review from Toronto), the frustrating yet endearing music stalk-umentary Paul Williams Still Alive (see my interview with Williams and director Stephen Kessler from Toronto) and the tension-filled but enjoyable movie on music mash-ups, Re:Generation Music Project (see my review from a previous column).
I am stunned and disappointed that the fest -- for whatever reasons -- is missing such perfectly suited docs as Rodney Ascher’s The Shining-contemplating Room 237, the activist-artist profile Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and the teenage skater romance Only the Young, which would potentially remind people too much of last year’s prize winner, Dragonslayer, even though they share very little in common (neither is really better than the other, either). And I would have liked to catch up with other missed Sundance docs like The Invisible War, West of Memphis and Detropia (which I also sadly just missed at T/F).
But I guess there can’t be too many carry overs, and besides there’s definitely some documentary debuts (mostly world premieres and some North American premieres) on my radar which I’m looking forward to seeing during my week in Austin. Here are ten picks that have great potential:
Beauty is Embarrassing (Spotlight) - A profile on artist Wayne White, who designed the puppet characters on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and parts of the Melies-inspired music video for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” among many other contributions to pop culture. Director Neil Berkeley promises a lot of humor here, and fans can look forward to interviews with Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), Simpsons creator Matt Groening and former Devo frontman turned film scorer Mark Mothersbaugh.
Code of the West (Spotlight) - What looks like a generic issue doc on medical marijuana in Montana has my attention because it’s directed by Emmy nominee Rebecca Richman Cohen, the former Michael Moore disciple who went on to law school and then made her debuted at the helm with the remarkably thought-provoking and frustratingly under-seen War Don Don. I expect more great things from her sophomore effort.
Crulic - The Path to Beyond (SX Global) - This may not be a premiere of any kind, but I’d never heard of it before and after watching the trailer I’m very, very intrigued. We still don’t see a lot of animated documentaries, in spite of how this is a genre with so much capability and opportunity for nonfiction cinema. For instance, director Anca Damian uses animation to recreate the visually undocumented story of a young Romanian man who died while on hunger strike in a Polish prison.
Her Master’s Voice (SX Global) - Now I know what the recent ventriloquism doc Dumbstruck was missing: a filmmaker interviewing herself via a hand puppet. This nutty looking film by Nina Conti is an elegy to her late partner and the dummies he once gave voice to, as she takes us on a trip to Venthaven, “the resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists.” Because The Beaver wasn’t crazy enough for me.
Jeff (Competition) - This film about Jeffrey Dahmer takes an interesting approach, looking into the serial killer’s crimes, arrest and aftermath through the eyes of his neighbors and the investigators on the case. I’m mostly intrigued by the civilian angle as it relates to the cliche perspective of the people around a mass murderer who are usually just quoted with simple reactions like, “he was a quiet man,” and such. Directed by Chris James Thompson, who comes from a background working for documentarian Chris Smith (Collapse). See a tiny bit of footage within this interview with Thompson.
Scarlet Road (Spotlight) - One of the hits at Sundance this year was The Surrogate, a drama starring Helen Hunt as a sex worker who specializes in “treating” disabled patients. That’s not at SXSW, but here’s what appears to be the doc option, a look into the real world of an Australian woman who similarly caters to handicapped clientele. Directed by Catherine Scott and presented by Women Make Movies.
The Sheik and I (Competition) - Somewhat resembling an Arabic incarnation of Mads Brugger’s The Red Chapel, this film about the making of a film follows director Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict) as he’s invited to the Middle East to make a film for the Sharjah Biennial. Since he’s commissioned to do something on “art as a subversive act,” he turns the project on the Bienniel itself, but he goes too far.
The Source (Competition) - Filling the slot held last year by the underrated Kumare, this is about a controversial cult leader from the 1970s named “Father Yod,” who had many wives, was a Hollywood stuntman, had a psychedelic rock band and owned an L.A. restaurant that helped popularize vegetarian cuisine. I take it that co-director Maria Demopoulos was so excited by Isis and Electricity Aquarian’s book on their own family that a rave customer review on Amazon wasn’t enough for her. Should be a good double feature with another debuting doc, Sunset Strip.
Tchoupitoulas (Emerging Visions) - Thank you to the Ross brothers, Bill and Turner, for giving us a title to struggle terribly with. And don’t expect to avoid trying to pronounce it, either, because this will be one of the most talked about docs of SXSW. The brothers follow up their acclaimed zip code portrait 45365 (another difficult title, for which I can never recall the exact numbers) with the overnight adventures of three young brothers navigating through the streets and music and vices of New Orleans. See it at the festival if only because thanks to a costly soundtrack (see this Kickstarter campaign), there’s a possibility they’ll never afford to release it publicly.
Welcome to the Machine (Competition) - Maybe it’s just that I’m about to have my first child, but I’m anxious to watch Avi Weider’s personal film made in response to his own attempt to conceive and to the birth of his triplets, which raises conversations about technology and science and how they relate to humanity and nature. Weider makes his directorial debut after working as a producer on docs like Scott Walker: 30 Century Man and Cinemania.
Of course there are many more that I’m slightly curious about, such as the photography-focused doc $ellebrity and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, the superheroine study Wonder Women!, a look at garbage truck choreography called Trash Dance, the food doc Eating Alabama and the Tom Waits-narrated short A Brief History of John Baldessari, which is co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, of Catfish fame.
So stay tuned for my doc dispatches from SXSW during the festival and hopefully interviews and other coverage over at the DOC Channel Blog plus immediate reactions on Twitter -- follow me @thefilmcynic.
See you for another Doc Talk in two weeks!