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Festival Focus: SXSW 2008

By Agnes Varnum

From Margaret Brown's 'The Order of Myths'

I recently moved to Austin, Texas, and though I had been to the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) twice before, getting to watch my town transform, and then being here for all nine days this year, really blew my socks off. Austin is known for its hip indie film and music scenes, and being the home of Dell, it is also a tech-heavy town, but it is at "South by" (as it is affectionately known to regulars) where all of these elements combine, like the town's signature margaritas, to form the most perfect and utterly exhausting festival experience. Between panels like "Is Fair Use Fair?" with Pat Aufderheide, Celia Maysles, Udy Epstein and Steven Beer, and keynote addresses from the likes of Stanley Nelson and free music evangelist Moby--along with scores of films screening all over town--it's tough to know where to begin. And don't even ask about the parties. It's non-stop.

They Killed Sister Dorothy by Daniel Junge, fresh off a successful festival run with Iron Ladies of Liberia, took home both the jury and audience awards for best doc, so that's a good place to start. The film depicts the complicated legal showdown in rural Brazil over the murder of Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old Catholic nun from Ohio who was active in establishing sustainable communities in the Amazon. There is money to be made plundering natural resources, and Sister Dorothy angered the wrong cattle ranchers. The trail to bring her killers to justice is incredibly frustrating, as the wheels of justice turn very slowly and often stall. With incredible insider footage, Junge brought back a compelling film that reminds us of the human costs of rainforest destruction that continues nearly unabated.

Justice doesn't come easy in Texas either, as illustrated by Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen's Tulia, Texas, which received its world premiere in the "Lone Star States" line-up. Thomas Coleman is a narcotics officer-for-hire, who had been brought into a small Texas town with federal money for the war on drugs. The white townspeople don't think anything is amiss when Coleman starts arresting black residents, and then securing convictions and long prison sentences. But all of the pieces don't add up and after outsiders begin investigating, it turns out that perhaps Coleman is less of a professional police officer and more of a con man.

Margaret Brown's superb The Order of Myths reminds us that race is still a major issue facing America. Brown goes back to her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, where the black and white communities to this day hold completely separate but parallel Mardi Gras celebrations. With excellent cinematography by Lee Daniel, who also shot Brown's Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, Myths is a profoundly sad story that shows how far we have yet to go to heal racial divides.

Other films that tackled tough subjects included Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's newest Bulletproof Salesman, which follows one of the many war profiteers in Iraq as he sells armored vehicles in Baghdad. Daryl Wein's Sex Positive is an exploration of the life of Richard Berskowitz, one of the earliest heralds of the AIDS tragedy. Full Battle Rattle by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, which took home a Special Jury Award, follows soldiers training in a mock Iraq village in the Mojave as they prepare for the real deal.

But SXSW also served up a healthy dose of docs about music, funny stories and some exceptional films about creativity and the artistic process. In one of the great crossover films (that is, appealing to Film, Interactive and Music festival participants alike), Negin Farsad's Nerdcore Rising introduces viewers to MC Frontalot, a hip-hop artist who raps about light sabers and other trappings of nerd-dom, as he and his friends make their first-ever tour. Since filming ended, Frontalot hit stardom and their after-party had lines around the block. Nerd hip-hop had a great night in Austin.

As a big bluegrass fan, I took great pleasure in watching Bèla Fleck in Sascha Paladino's Throw Down Your Heart, which took home the festival's 24 Beats Per Second Award. It is surprising that Fleck's beloved banjo actually originated in Africa, not the Appalachian Mountains, as we tend to think. He travels to four African countries to learn African music and re-introduce the instrument to African musicians. Says Paladino, "During our premiere...after some of the musical performances within the film, the audience burst into applause. It was really exciting, like everyone was at a live concert." Beautifully recorded by Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko, the music will actually lift your heart.

First-time doc director Jody Lambert did what so many do their first time around-put family in front of the camera. Only it turns out that Jody's father is Dennis Lambert, a songwriter from the '70s and '80s of such hits as the Commodores' "Nightshift," the best worst song "We Built This City" and "Of All the Things," which, it turns out, is a big hit in The Philippines, where we follow Lambert as he does a small tour for adoring fans. Of All the Things is ultimately about new beginnings and also one of the freshest father/son stories since Doug Block's 51 Birch Street.

Other stand-outs from the festival include FrontRunners by Caroline Suh, a humorous look inside New York City's Stuyvesent High School student body presidential elections. Beautiful Losers by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard is a captivating meander through the lives of artists who started out in do-it-yourself fashion and have achieved great success while maintaining their commitment to their own artistic visions so many years down the road of life. Jeremiah Zagar's In a Dream took home the Emerging Visions Audience Award. It is a heart-wrenching portrait of his father Isaiah Zagar, a renowned mosaic artist, and his mother Julia as their 40-year marriage hits the rocks.

Says festival programmer and producer Matt Dentler on the diversity of the line-up, "This year, we saw more and more social issue docs coming to our attention and even winning awards. I like that balance, and I like that we can provide a platform for the oddest pop culture stories as well as the issue-oriented documentaries."

For us documentary fans, there was a new addition to this year's program called Global Doc Days, which brought programmers from around the world-Australia, Canada, China, France, Ireland, Norway, Singapore and the United Kingdon-to Austin to showcase highlights of international documentary. Whatever your pleasure, SXSW has something for you.


Agnes Varnum is a freelance writer and programmer, and serves as communications manager for the Austin Film Society.