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Festival Focus: SXSW 2007

By Elizabeth Blozan

From Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid, which won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature. Courtesy of Isotope Films

Christopher Dennis stood out among the crush of indie producers and film geeks huddled under the tent at the Austin Chronicle party. Everyone else was bundled in dark coats, warding off a Texas-sized thunderstorm. But Dennis wore only a bright blue, skin-tight unitard with a bright red "S" emblazoned on the chest.

Dennis was in Austin because Matt Ogens' Confessions of a Superhero, about actors who portray movie characters on the sidewalk in front of Hollywood's Mann Chinese Theater, was having its world premiere here. "I've never experienced anything like that in my life!" Superman/Dennis exclaimed. Here was a man who makes his living performing for the public, and he was floored to be the center of attention at a screening in a hippy haven like Austin. But South by Southwest (SXSW) is the kind of film festival where a crowd will show up for Confessions and cheer for Superman.

Being rescued from a storm by Superman pretty much sums up why SXSW is a good investment for a doc geek, and one might even argue-after a couple margaritas--that SXSW is the last unspoiled, significant festival in the country.

Everyone swears that you don't come to SXSW for a million-dollar sale. You come for the priceless audience, one you hope a theatrical distributor will witness.

Credit for SXSW's five-star audiences goes to a couple of factors. First, Austin is an ideal breeding ground for doc fans. Some of indie film's most important figures--John Pierson, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Harry Knowles--call Austin home. Throw in the University of Texas' prestigious Department of Radio/Television/Film, along with an alt rock scene that spawned the world-famous SXSW Music Festival, and you have a town full of above-average, rebellious, DIY-savvy citizens.

Second, the festival programmers keep the choices exciting and assigned half of the film slate to docs--with titles as diverse as the gritty vérité portrait of an Iraqi prisoner, Andrew Berends' When Adnan Comes Home, and the rambunctious roller derby chronicle Hell on Wheels, from Austin native Bob Ray.

Eight of the nearly 60 docs screened were in the Documentary Features competition. The four that came away with awards were all portraits of out-of-the-ordinary souls. Director Jennifer Venditti's fascinating debut, Billy the Kid--a humorous and poignant portrait of rural Maine teenager Billy Price--won the festival's Documentary Feature Award. Two more films picked up Special Jury Awards: Michael Jacobs' Audience of One, about an evangelical minister summoned by God to make the greatest film of all time, and Harris Fishman's Cat Dancers, about the tragic tale of Ron Holiday, a bisexual exotic animal trainer. The SXSW Documentary Feature Audience Award went to Marlo Poitras' Run Granny Run, about a 96-year-old activist's independent run for the US Senate.

SXSW audiences awarded the Audience Award in every category except narrative feature to a documentary. The Price of Sugar (Bill Haney, dir./prod.), about a Dominican priest's battle to protect workers exploited by a corrupt sugar industry, earned the Emerging Visions Award. Dirty Country (Joe Pickett, Nick Prueher, dirs.), about an unlikely dirty song guru, won in the 24 Beats per Second category. Marcy Garriott's Inside the Circle, about Austin break dancers, picked up the Lone Star Stories Award. All the winning docs screened at SXSW were world premieres.

New projects from notable doc directors also saw world premieres at SXSW, including Deadline director Katy Chevigny's Election Day, capturing the challenge that voters faced in precincts across the US on Election Day in 2004; Hype! director Doug Pray's Big Rig, offering a ride-along with America's truck drivers; and the Morgan Spurlock-produced What Would Jesus Buy? by director Rob VanAlkemade, about a church determined to combat American consumerism.

Cablers weighed in with quality docs. In addition to Cat Dancers from HBO Documentary Films and Discovery Films' Doubletime (Stephanie Johnes, dir./prod.), an inspiring vision of the world of competitive jump roping, came VH1's Last Days of Left Eye by director Lauren Lazin (Tupac: Resurrection). This portrait of the late hip-hop superstar Lisa Lopes, constructed mainly of footage shot by her at a soul-searching retreat in Honduras, as well as archival scenes from her meteoric career, revealed a young star searching for spiritual footing on the unsteady ground of fame.

Other cable-sponsored titles included IFC's Does Your Soul Have a Cold? by Thumbsucker director Mike Mills, about how the Japanese are handling America's attempt to export its definition of depression, and the first film slated for TLC's new Life Lens series, Crazy Sexy Cancer, about director Kris Carr's journey to fight cancer with alternative medicine.

But one of the most anticipated films of the festival was unsponsored--the takedown of Michael Moore, Manufacturing Dissent. "From my point of view it was a courageous programming maneuver," says Dissent co-director Rick Caine who, along with his wife and co-director Debbie Melnyk, hail from Canada. Melnyk narrates the film, as her attempts to book an interview with the Oscar-winning documentarian were squelched so aggressively by Moore's posse that they ended up becoming part of the story.

It's a bit ironic that Canadians, famous for their good manners, became the first leftists with the guts to tar Moore in public. According to Caine, Dissent began innocently as a project to celebrate Moore. But when the couple stumbled onto evidence of Moore's questionable tactics, the film transformed into an exposé. "We were on our journey to make the movie," says Caine. "At some point there was a fork in the road: The celebratory doc is this way and the truth starts to feel more and more that way. It was a tough choice to make. 

"On a certain kind of grandiose level, we feel like we're fighting for the heart and soul of the documentary industry, insofar as there's a covenant between the viewer and the filmmaker," Caine continues. "And when the filmmaker abuses that trust, I don't see how that's gonna help you--not only in that particular film, but the industry at large."

Matt Dentler, SXSW's film conference and festival producer, downplays programming Dissent as courageous; he argues that the film simply asked "a lot of important questions." He admits there was vigorous debate over programming the film among SXSW staffers, but adds, "We realized that if we're debating the film like this, we have to play it." Dentler says Moore was never notified of the film's booking. "We don't want to set a precedent that every documentary subject should be contacted. Moore was just another subject."

Ray, director of Hell on Wheels, says he started shooting his documentary on Austin's all-female roller derby league because "It was something I could afford to do with the equipment I already had." But before long he found the league unraveling in front of his cameras. A struggle for power and self-esteem left the league split in two.

Ray finished his cut of Hell on Wheels a week before its world premiere at SXSW. He was exhausted, excited and scared. The premiere would be the first time in a year that the two warring roller derby teams would be in the same room at the same time. Says Ray, "I didn't know if it would end in a brawl, or if they would beat the crap out of me!" But, as the film ends on a high note that depicts how the Austin leagues liberated the inner skater in women across the nation, the screening ended in tears and hugs.

At the SXSW wrap party, Naomi Greenfield and Sara Taksler were giddy and tipsy after the world premiere of their doc, Twisted: A Balloonamentary. Asked if a man spotted making balloon animals on the corner of Sixth Street and Lamar was part of their cast, Taksler said, "No! He just lives here! Isn't that wild?"


After the last SXSW after- party, Elizabeth Blozan had an underground screening of her indie rock doc Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly at a seedy bar in Austin. Read her blog, "Adventures in Self Distribution," at