South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), held every March in Austin, Texas, has become a must-attend event for documentarians, for several reasons. There is the thoughtful curating of documentaries, under the aegis of Janet Pierson, who has a long history of nurturing independent filmmakers. There's none of that "well, but it's an important issue" selection that is the death of documentary curating, and there's very little of the shiny-edge, no-surprises commercial fare. (Oh, there was the IMAX film Hubble 3D, but it's excused for offering breathtaking views of the universe.) There's not much overlap with Sundance titles, but you can catch up on some Sundance viewing if you missed that fest.
Then there are the overlapping conferences, since it's held simultaneously with the interactive SXSW. (You can tell who's who--the geeks tend to be sole operators, and listen intently to one or two others; the filmmakers swirl in cheerful, noisy flocks.) Some of the hottest issues in film are also the hottest issues in geekland, and the top three topics are always about money.
Finally, there are the parties, a nice quotient of which are open to badgeholders of all kinds and many others of which aren't terribly selective. They show off the high number of industry representatives you attend. I had a fascinating talk with Ira Deutchman on the success of his digital cinemas in nonprofit venues, and with reporter Anne Thompson, whose tweets and blogs are state of the art. At the PBS/ITVS party, I got to see Lois Vossen, who manages Independent Lens, and hear about ITVS' astonishing success with social media promotion of its series.
Oh, and then there's logistics. Almost the whole thing takes place in and around the Austin Convention Center, a gigantic barn of a building that spans several square blocks and whose cement floors can do serious damage to feet and backs, but which seriously limits the time you'll spend on busses, in cabs and on foot, hiking from venue to venue.
I was impressed with several films that combine expert storytelling and social resonance. Steve James' No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Full disclosure: I'm on the board of directors of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based nonprofit that produced the film; James is a longtime associate with the company.) explores how and why a high-school arrest of this preternaturally skilled basketball star happened, and how it affected his life and work. Like James' other work, the film is an essay on race and class, so it's even more impressive that it was bankrolled by ESPN, which premiered it on April 13 as part its acclaimed and ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series.
Canal Street Madam, by Cameron Yates, was another example of a crowd-pleaser with a social punch. It follows Jeannette Maier, the middle member of a three-generation family of brothel owners. A veteran of felony convictions, she campaigns for decriminalization of prostitution and drugs. Maier, a captivating and persuasive presence, almost makes it look like fun to resist authority. But Yates also unsentimentally reveals the harsh terms of a life that features abuse, poverty and insecurity.
I felt privileged to see two films dealing with US geopolitics. Carol Dysinger's Camp Victory, Afghanistan follows, over three years, the struggles of National Guard units to shape an Afghan Army force. The film gives rich cultural context to otherwise baffling failures. It does not provide an ounce of encouragement to the view that more investment in frontline warfare in Afghanistan will help anyone or anybody. I hope to see it on public TV, but I am not holding my breath, even though ITVS provided some funds. This one could be politically sensitive. I also caught up with Laura Poitras' The Oath, another ITVS-funded film and an award-winner at Sundance, where it had its world premiere. It takes us inside the life of a Yemeni jihadist and taxi driver, whose hapless brother-in-law--Osama Bin Laden's driver--is stuck in Guantanamo. The film is coming to theaters May 7 through Zeitgeist Films, then airs September 21 on PBS' POV.
Other docs also engaged both sides of my brain. War Don Don, Rebecca Richman Cohen's look inside the trial of Sierra Leone's Issa Sesay, confronts questions such as: How much credit do you think a war criminal should get for disarming the rebel army? And does the fact that he himself was recruited as a child make a difference to you? Cohen, a lawyer who worked on a parallel trial in the same UN court that tried Sesay, finds the conflicts in a field of law still in its infancy. The film will circulate in the Human Rights Watch traveling festival this year.
Watch for Marwencol, which Jeff Malmberg finished minutes before its first screening. It follows an ex-alcoholic, Mark Hogencamp, who, after being beaten and left for dead outside a bar, begins to build make-believe worlds with dolls and dollhouses, as therapy. (He doesn't have enough health insurance to attend professional therapy.) The Barbies and GI Joes are transformed into an extended fantasy narrative set in World War II; they re-enact conflicts that translate Hogencamp's anger and loss. A chance encounter leads to the New York art world's discovery of Hogencamp as an artist--an identity he's still trying on. Marwencol won the Documentary Feature Jury Award, while War Don Don won a Special Jury Prize.
I stood in the mother of all lines, along with storm troopers and Wookies, for Alexandre Philippe's The People vs. George Lucas, a fascinating look inside the 30-something demographic whose childhood was shaped by Star Wars. Having shaped a participatory subculture around the series, they didn't take it kindly when the ever-more-remote Lucas remastered the originals and handed the world three more episodes. I loved being able to glimpse the range of fan work displayed in the film.
I expect to see American: Bill Hicks somewhere soon. The Texas comic, who died of pancreatic cancer at 32, was famous for his biting social criticism (he called himself "Chomsky with dick jokes"). The film rescues some of the flavor of this rich character, but also unsparingly charts his self-destructive tendencies. And if you think you can't find a compelling character to tell the story of net neutrality, you haven't seen Barbershop Punk, which features Robb Topolski, the geek who discovered just how cable companies mess with Internet traffic to benefit themselves. I wish I had enjoyed Life 2.0 more than I did; Jason Spingarn-Koff tells the story of a couple of Second Life addicts who leave their families to get together (and give up Second Life). I wish I had seen His & Hers, because Ken Wardrop is a filmmaker to watch.
At the conferences, I was scouting, along with a hefty proportion of attendees, for information on shifts in distribution. What I learned: Digital distribution remains nearly experimental, and old-fashioned mass media still pay the bills. Old-fashioned distribution lives: RedBox is about as old-fashioned a business model as you can get (vending machines renting DVDs), but has done well. People are paying movie-ticket prices for video-on-demand. Windowing is destabilized but not gone. Some makers are producing directly to the Web, and occasionally someone makes money. Felicia Day's The Guild is wildly successful, but she was already a celebrity. Paramount is commissioning direct-to-Web work, and YouTube is also investing in Web originals--and sharing profits with producers. For most film people, though, the interactive side of things is currently being used for promotion, marketing and the endless process of building one's own network. Meanwhile, brokers and tools for emerging digital marketplace are developing; they need to get to what Topspin offers for music. For social media entrepreneurs, there's opportunity in the specialty film audience, which is passionate for films but has difficulty connecting with them.
A panel in which I participated showcased how important fair use has become in film budgets. Attorney Michael Donaldson noted that his firm now works on hundreds of fair use cases each week, and that recent festival favorites such as Bhutto and GasLand heavily depended on fair use. The visuals in Moral Kombat, a critical film about video games, were almost entirely video game scenes, all fairly used. Thomas Allen Harris described how fair use fuels his current project, Through a Lens Darkly, compiling stories and making history from African-American scrapbooks. Jonathan McIntosh, maker of the remix hit Buffy v. Edward, employs fair use to make his non-commercial, political work. Still, he's making money. The attention to his work brings him jobs, though, and even got him his San Francisco apartment. Finally, the British Film Institute's Paula LeDieu described the vast resources of the BFI's archives-most of it unuseable without employing some limitation or exception to copyright, such as the United Kingdom's fair dealing.
Pat Aufderheide is the director of the Center for Social Media at American University.