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The Docs at SXSW

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber's 'Peace Officer', which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award . Photo: Brad Barber

At SXSW, documentaries are a big feature of the film component, as SXSW itself metastasizes from a one-time tripartite festival (films, tech, music) into a host of mini-fests that focus on everything from journalism to sports to health to education to fashion to retail. But don’t look for a theme, unless it’s “eclectic.”

In the feature competition, Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officer won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Audience Award. Competitors were highly diverse in style and subject, including Ron Nyswaner’s She’s the Best Thing in It, an engaging and compelling portrait of a remarkable stage actress, Mary Louis Wilson, as she teaches her craft; Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti’s A Woman like Me, an earnest personal memoir of living with terminal cancer by creating a fictional film alter ego (the film won a Special Jury Recognition for Directing); Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto’s Twinsters, a stranger-than-fiction story, which earned a Special Jury Recognition for Editing, about identical twins adopted on different continents and reunited as adults; and Andrew Berends’ Madina’s Dream, which riskily takes you into a forgotten civil war in a forgotten area—Sudan and South Sudan.

Two competition films left me wanting to talk about them, and the people I met in them. Peace Officer brings violence home, to Utah, where, as in many states, inappropriately trained SWAT teams are responsible for unnecessary deaths. If your takeaway from Ferguson was that it’s dangerous to be African-American in a cop encounter, here’s a film from a very white state showing that race and class privilege is no bar to experiencing lethal injustice. With a central character who’s an ex-cop, an ex-mayor and a crusader for better training, Peace Officer is a great way to open a conversation about how to demilitarize the police and re-introduce them to the people they serve.

Of particular interest to journalists and photographers will be Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli’s Frame by Frame, an indelible portrait of Afghan photographers whose work defies tradition, reframes the news and in some cases tells stories for the first time. The film unflinchingly looks at harsh questions about wartime photography, violence and the obligations of the photographer. It provokes much-needed conversations about the power and implications of representation.

From Ben Powell's 'Barge'

Shiny, celebrity-focused films—for instance, on Russell Brand, Brian Wilson, Steve Jobs—drew huge crowds; Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine locked deals as the festival started. Others used the SXSW showcase to win attention. Among them were documentaries that show you the improbable, the unimagined, the unknown and the overlooked. One of my favorites was Ben Powell’s Barge, which unapologetically partakes of the slow-cinema movement; it takes the viewer on a business trip down the Mississippi River with the hard-working, life-battered men who schlepp America’s consumer goods along the waterway, often narrowly missing death. I loved it for its empathetic portrayal of tough jobs done with integrity. (More slow-cinema, which made me fidget but might be just the thing for those who like meditating: Phie Ambo’s Good Things Await, which spends a year with an organic farmer-philosopher whose tranquility can be maddening or entrancing; Betzabé García’s Kings of Nowhere, a visit to the denizens of a nearly abandoned town partly flooded by a dam; and Nicolas Macario Alonso’s Monte Adentro, which brings you along on an uncommented, bumpy, arduous mule trip down mountain tracks to town and then back up again to home.)

Another personal fave was Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley’s Landfill Harmonic, which miraculously manages to avoid treacle in recounting how Paraguayan garbage-pickers created instruments from refuse, formed an orchestra, and got to hang out with Megadeth and tour with Metallica. (Fair disclosure: Long ago, Allgood was a student of mine. A good one, too.) The filmmakers impressively keep it real, grounding the story in the harsh realities of living in poverty on a floodplain and then giving you a chance to help out at the end. And if you, like me, are fascinated with memory as history: Panamanian Abner Benaim’s Invasion is not only an oral history of the 1989 US invasion of Panama to take out dictator Manuel Noriega—an invasion that killed an uncounted number of civilians—but also a thoughtful reflection on memory and the political cost of suppressing it. Invasion will be news to Panamanians and North Americans alike.

 From Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley's 'Landfill Harmonic'

And T-Rex completely took my heart. Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari follow Claressa “T-Rex” Shields as she aspires to be the first woman to win a gold medal in boxing, at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Claressa is an African-American high-schooler saved from homelessness and domestic abuse by a sympathetic coach and his patient wife—and she’s also a phenom and a character. I dare you not to love the film, and you will take its sobering portrayal of amateur sports home with you. Say this with me: It’s not just a boxing film. Look for it on public TV’s Independent Lens next year—and tell your local station to carry it at a decent time. As two white men following African-American subjects, the filmmakers say they faced much more trouble with funders than they did with Shields or her community, who welcomed the attention.

Among the current crop of borderland films (including Cartel Land and Western, both of which debuted at Sundance), Bernardo Ruiz’ Kingdom of Shadows, produced through Participant, stands out for its measured look at deep structure. It explores, through an immigrant DEA agent and an ex-con Texas cowboy, two parallel sorrows of the booming borderland drug business—the escalating violence of daily life in Mexico, and extended incarceration of nonviolent offenders in the US. The film portrays their sometimes heart-stopping stories as fallout from dysfunctional US drug policy. (Another SXSW film that shows the devastating effects of a bad drug policy is Deep Web, Alex Winter’s heartfelt but sloppily executed argument that Ross Ulbricht, founder of the Internet market Silk Road, did not get justice at his recent trial. The government’s hunt for illegal drug markets on the Internet’s darknet is indeed putting civil liberties and privacy at risk, as it justifies illegal government hacking.)

From Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari's 'T-Rex'. Photo: Zackary Canepari

A history-of-the-business film like Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass (a loving tribute to the guys—and one gal—from Tower Records) and a consumer-goods film like David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s Sneakerheadz are reminders of the enormous wealth of cultural material in news archives, including music cable TV news like MTV and VH-1. That material is awaiting a more thoughtful and critical approach to the subject matter.

The wealth of musical docs at SXSW showed as wide a range as elsewhere in the programming. Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will reward fans as much when it appears on HBO in May as it did at SXSW; it’s a deft combination of interviews, home movie footage and concert footage. The late Les Blank’s long unreleased 1974 film about Leon Russell, A Poem Is a Naked Person, is in his inimitable uncommented but slyly observational style. Brazilian Joaquim Castro and Eduardo Nazarian’s Dominguinhos is a precious contribution to the history of Brazilian pop music—it features a beloved singer-songwriter who came out of the sticks to become a huge star at the height of Musica Popular Brasileira—but lacks context for international audiences. Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity is just as quirky as its subject, the art-performance-musical group The Residents, who resolutely protect their anonymity. David Reeve and Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every’s (Y)our Music tells one improbable story after another of crazy creativity with music (of all kinds) in Bangkok. And Julien Temple’s The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is not really about music at all, but about facing death by experiencing the joy of the moment, with a central character who jumps off the screen and into your lap.


Patricia Aufderheide is director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.

Read on: Bleeding-Edge News at SXSW, also by Pat Aufderheide