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Festival Focus: SXSW 2006

By Sarah Jo Marks

Twenty years ago, SXSW was born as a music festival in the self-proclaimed capitol of live music, Austin, Texas. The film component of the festival was launched seven years later, soon followed by an interactive section. Needless to say, there's a lot going on in Austin these days. In addition to being one of the top music festivals in the world, SXSW is considered one of the top places to premiere your documentary film.

The venues at SXSW are spread out all over Austin, from the classic Paramount movie house to Landmark's Dobie Theater in the Dobie Mall, to what Entertainment Weekly named one of the top places to see a movie in America, the Alamo Drafthouse, plus a makeshift theater in the Austin Convention Center and another Alamo on St. Lamar a couple miles away.

The Alamo Drafthouse was the first stop, for Malcolm Ingram's small town gay bar, which profiles a bar in Shannon, Mississippi called Rumors, the only hangout for gay folks in that neck of the woods. The film poses the question, What do you do if you're gay, you can't come out and there's no place to go and just be yourself? 

In addition to films, SXSW offers an entire film conference to its passholders.  The panel entitled "DVDs vs. Theaters" looked at the current state of film exhibition, where it could be headed, and how businesses might work together and still stay healthy. John Sloss, CEO/president of Cinetic Media, professed his dismay with specialized distributors and their driven mentality to look for films that gross more than $10 million. Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, and Ted Mundorff, vice president and head buyer for Landmark Cinemas, had a spirited discussion about the struggle between indie exhibitors and chain theaters over who gets to run certain films. Eric Besner, Netflix's vice president of original programming, discussed his company's love for independent film and how we need to continue to foster that passion and find new and unique ways to get the product out there.

"A Landmark Business," moderated by indieWIRE co-founder and editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez, addressed what's happening with the Wagner/Cuban Company. The panel included representatives from almost all of the company businesses: Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Video, Landmark Theaters, HD Net, HD Net Movies and 2929 Films. Wagner explained what has to happen: Increase the audience, increase the profits, keep costs down, keep consumers happy, look for new revenue streams. These objectives lead to day-and-date, allowing promotional money to work for simultaneous theatrical releases, DVD sales and TV broadcasts. 

The "Shooting Docs" panel was surprisingly inspirational and comprehensive. Filmmaker Kirby Dick talked about setting up a film that seems impossible to make, adding that if you have an idea that you've thought through, you should just start shooting, even without a DP. This can either work well later for extra texture in your film, or be something you never use that just helps you focus your ideas. Shooting on film forces you to think because it's so expensive, although veteran docmaker Chris Hegedus says that the video camera can be used as a sketch pad and can be a good way to get through the process.

Back to the films, Janet Baus, Dan Hunt and Reid Williams' investigative doc Cruel and Unusual tells the story of several transgender women who end up in men's prisons after having lived as women in the outside world. The film states that 30 percent of transgender people meet this fate, and there are no policies in place to deal with gender identification disorder in the prison system. The filmmakers plan to use the film for educational outreach in hopes of helping to change how transgender individuals are treated in prison.

Hegedus was on hand for the world premiere of her film with Nick Doob, Al Franken: God Spoke. The film follows comedian and liberal personality Franken from the release of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, to the inception and launch of Air America radio and its live broadcast at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2004, to his possible run for US Senate in the state of Minnesota. There are some classic moments in this film--Franken's quick remarks at a book panel with Ann Coulter, his phone call from the floor of a coat closet at an exclusive Newsweek party, and his first Air America broadcast.

Sunday morning would seem like a crummy time to watch Jam, a doc about fading San Francisco roller derby icons, but somehow it worked. Director Mark Woollen earned the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Life of Reilly captures the imitable Charles Nelson Reilly's final one-man show. The film has a lot of heart and is similar in tone to another endearing film, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. Director/editor Barry Polterman and director/composer Frank Anderson used grace and honor to show Reilly's story from top to bottom.

Darkon (Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer, dirs./prods.) is sort of Dungeons and Dragons meets Civil War re-enactment. The film, which follows a couple of characters through their daily lives and their alternate lives as Darkonians, is fun, beautifully shot  and infused with great music. Darkon won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

95 Miles to Go, which features actor Ray Romano and writer Tom Caltabiano, is a warm and funny film about the longtime friends and collaborators' eight-day tour through the South. After the film, producers/directors Romano and Caltabiano took center stage for a bit of stand up/Q&A. The film opened theatrically in April and will air on HBO sometime later this year.

Shadow Company, Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque's doc about private military companies and mercenaries, was reminiscent of the MTV True Life series. Filmmakers were granted incredible access to an industry that works within the law, but below the radar.

The catalog description for Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, dir.; Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Anna Barber, prods.) made it sound like the lamest film ever made. But there was laughter from the first frame on. "To err is human; to air guitar is divine," says air guitar enthusiast and tireless competitor Bjorn Toroque. The film follows the 2003 World Championship of Air Guitar--something a CNN reporter called "the dumbest thing I've ever seen." But the film is structured so well, it's a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

James Scurlock's Maxed Out, a doc about the credit card industry and credit card debt in America, injects a little humor into a bleak topic. It is carefully structured and shot well, and it covers the topic pretty comprehensively. The film picked up a Special Jury Award.

The Treasures of Long Gone John (Greg Gibbs, dir./prod.) charts the life and endeavors of Long Gone John, founder of the indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry, co-owner of art toy manufacturer Necessaries Toy Foundation and art collector. Using John as the spark, the film also covers the urban vinyl toy scene and features many low-brow artists, including an incredible time-lapse sequence of Todd Schorr painting a gigantic piece commissioned by John.

While SXSW is clearly a place to make a splash as a premiere, it's not the most accessible festival to an outsider. Variety declared that the festival has a "loose, fuck-it attitude," and with that, there is little to disagree.


Sarah Jo Marks is a Los Angeles-based producer's rep and documentary devotee.