Docs at SXSW: The Best of the Fest

Docs at SXSW: The Best of the Fest

Mar 19, 2012


Even if I were partial to music documentaries, and I'm not, wading through the films representing this genre at SXSW would be daunting. Understandably for a conference more associated with music, the film fest side of SXSW is overflowing with docs of concerts, tours, rocker bios, band histories and the like, and typically I will only check out the ones involving artists I really like (my reason for seeing Marley and Under African Skies) and then eventually those films I hear are the cream of the crop. I used that idiom on purpose because the music doc I'd heard the most buzz on this week is about the drummer of Cream (among other bands), Ginger Baker. Titled Beware of Mr. Baker, this wild, funny and richly textured audio-visual treat of a film also deservedly won the Grand Jury Award in the documentary category.

Appealing to some for the same reasons other foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly subjects make for entertaining docs, Beware is also notable for terrifically tying up all of this year's best nonfiction music films (so far). It helps that there's the increasing trend for directors to be curiously interested in researching obscure, forgotten and thought-dead personalities (SXSW '12 selections Searching for Sugar Man and Paul Williams Still Alive and SXSW '11 vet Last Days Here). And then there's a commonality between Searching for Sugar Man, Under African Skies and this film, all of them predominantly shot and set in South Africa. As far as what I consider the best of its kind, ultimately I think Under African Skies, which won the Audience Award in the 24 Beats Per Second program, is a more pointed and solid film. But Beware is without a doubt the most fun.

Also lots of fun, for all of its 15 minutes, is doc short jury winner CatCam, which is as it sounds, about a cat with a camera strapped to his body. What seems like fodder primarily befitting cute viral videos is actually fairly substantial. Once the cat is on his own the footage becomes a remarkable sort of nature film from the animal's point of view and gives us a fascinating look at the world from low angles. Also, I swear, there's is a bit in which cats are hanging out and talking to each other. It's adorable and horrible at the same time (the cat conversation, not the film).

Not fun at all is how I'd describe the doc audience winner, Bay of All Saints, a familiar film about a familiar cause that's surprisingly not very crowd-pleasing, and yet people apparently love it. Presenting six years worth of updates on the housing problems of people living in the stilt house slums of Bahia, Brazil, who've been waiting all this time for promised relocation and development, the doc is your basic commercial for a cause. But it's commendable for not being another piece of poverty porn, perhaps because it's not the greatest looking doc. I'd have liked some more perspective from the other side of the issue, whether the local or national government or the world bank, the funding from which is presumably tied up in some kind of corruption. Of course the poor people, all of them seemingly with sex on the brain constantly, are rarely a bore. Ok, sometimes they are indeed fun. The film itself though is mostly depressing, which I guess is the point.

Depressing the hell out of you doesn’t necessarily make for a bad documentary, as evidenced by the reenactment-heavy Dreams of a Life, a stunningly perplexing British film about a 38-year-old woman whose dead corpse went undiscovered for three years, despite her body being at home, which was above a busy shopping center. I’m surprised this didn’t garner more buzz at SXSW, as it fits perfectly with the very popular mystery doc The Imposter (a definite best of the fest, though one I saw prior), and while it does leave you terribly bummed out in the end, it also leaves you with a whole lot of questions. Of course, the answer to all of them might be, this was a time before Facebook. Dreams sadly won no awards (the audience winner in its category is Chasing Ice, which I missed, in part because already covered it well at Sundance), but it’s one of my favorites and it's the one most stuck in my mind days after. 

Also kind of a bummer, Brooklyn Castle still shocked nobody by picking up the audience award for the Documentary Spotlight section. It’s a favorite of many critics and clearly of many viewers, and I was delighted that it holds up to the hype. Part kid competition film about junior high chess players, part education system issue doc about budget cuts in New York City schools, Brooklyn Castle is very good at making you care about its characters, cheering for cute young kids you otherwise wouldn’t know triumphing over cute young kids you don’t know at all. I might have preferred less of the focus on winning and losing and more on the cause, which I find strange coming from me, since I rarely am crazy about issue docs. And this is the type that literally had people walking out saying, “that film was like a fundraiser.”

Other winners include Special Jury Recognition honoree Trash Dance (see my earlier thoughts), SXGlobal Audience Award selection Her Master’s Voice (also mentioned in an earlier dispatch) and Emerging Visions Audience Award pick Low & Clear, which I’m excited about for a number of reasons. One is that I didn’t think this fly fisherman buddy film was getting seen enough (I saw it at a relatively empty Alamo Ritz screening). Another is that SXSW decided against continuing a cinematography award this year, and I had figured that honor would be this gorgeous doc’s best chance at recognition. And finally it’s just a terrific work, something I’d recommend if you like Sweetgrass, Old Joy and I guess Be Here to Love Me since one of the characters is the son of Townes Van Zandt (by the way, a J.T. Van Zandt III was born last September, and I hope a great doc is made about him one day too).

Finally, I have to give it up to another non-winner that I haven’t already written about: Indie Game: The Movie. Like Dreams, it lost the audience award for its section, Festival Favorites, to Chasing Ice (as did The Imposter, The Raid and Last Call at the Oasis -- man what a program) but I’d give it a prize if I could for being the doc that pleasantly surprised me the most of all. I know and care very little about video games, and this film tracking the careers of four independent game developers and designers is wonderfully satisfying to us who wouldn’t think we’d give a damn (has Roger Ebert seen it?). It’s informative, entertaining, affecting and, most interestingly, revealing of the maddening sort of approval culture we have in the Internet era. And it just barely had me going out to buy an XBox (are they a paid sponsor?). Indie Game will make a great double feature with Morgan Sporlock’s new Comic-Con doc, if anyone can make that happen.

Unlike last year, I’ve decided not to list and/or rank the best docs of SXSW 2012 according to me. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that it’d be way too difficult. Never mind that I saw a number of great titles in this year’s doc program ahead of time, even excluding those it’s a task to pick from those I did see last week, all of which I got something out of and none of which I hated. Instead, I’d just like to the festival programmers for an amazing doc lineup, far better than I was expecting. In fact, I already stopped SXSW Film head honcho Janet Pierson on the street to thank her. I never do that, but I’m not kidding. It was a strong program, and for including The Sheik and I, a brave one. It will be interesting to see if they top themselves again next year.


Categories: Documentary, Features
Tags: SXSW2012, SXSW
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