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Reeling in a Lone Star State: SXSW Rocks the Docs

By Tom White

Deep in the heart of Texas, and before anyone ever made the trek to the sky-blue dot in the blood-red state, all of the talk of Austin was the premiere of Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine's Manufacturing Dissent, the supposed "anti-Michael Moore film." I didn't get a chance to see the film, but docu-bloggers A J Schnack and Agnes Varnum (
) did, so check out their comments.

This was my first venture to SXSW, which has garnered a prime spot on the festival circuit calendar as the next major stop after Sundance. Long heralded as a music and theater town--in my days as a culture carnivore in NYC in the 1980s, I met dozens of grads of the University of Texas (UT) theater program who had ventured north to commandeer the performance art scene--Austin has carved out a niche in the indie film community over the past 20 years, with Terrence Malick and the late Eagle Pennell paving the way for Richard Linklater, Richard Rodriguez and a host of others, and a UT film faculty boasting of such leading lights as Paul Stekler and indie impresario John Pierson.

Another longtime stalwart on the UT faculty is Andy Garrison, whose latest film Third Ward TX screened as part of the Lone Star Stories strand. The film is about the evolution of an arts community in the hard-bitten, hard-scrabble Third Ward of Houston. Artist Rick Lowe spearheaded an effort in the early 1990s to transform a group of abandoned shotgun shacks into Project Row Houses--a veritable village for artists to create and showcase their work. By the end of the film, Project Row Houses has served as national model for organic transformation and revitalization through culture.

What Would Jesus Buy? also looks at art as a transformative tool, through the antics of post-modern conceptual performance art troupe Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, drew multitudes of cineastes who stood in line in the pouring rain on a Sunday night to pack the stately Paramount Theater--literally to the rafters. The film has that Spurlock imprimatur of utilizing comedy as a point of entry to examine and consider a serious issue--this time around, a consumer culture that encourages compulsive shopping and spending. Rev. Billy, resplendent in platinum blond helmet hair that lends him an air of a benign Klaus Kinski, leads his troupe on a cross-country bus tour through shopping malls, stores, corporate headquarters, and yes, even a church or two, to preach and sing the anti-shopping gospel. Now, a road trip and an amusing cast of characters are natural ingredients to a compelling narrative, but here the film strays off the road a few times, most notably, to flog the Wal-Mart villain, the favorite whipping boy of docmakers across the nation.

Documentary mag's associate editor Tamara Krinsky was in Austin sporting her iKlipz hat. Here's a link to a Klip about What Would Jesus Buy? and an interview with Spurlock--barely recognizable here in a bushy beard and receding hair (perhaps auditioning for Jeff Daniels' role in a remake of The Squid and the Whale ?)

A political campaign, like a road trip, provides great drama, with all the twists and turns and hope and despair. Run Granny Run, Marlo Poras' documentary about a 94-year-old candidate for US Senate, earned the Audience Award for Feature Documentary for its winning profile of a spry, spirited underdog who, despite the clear odds of being a novelty candidate, garners 36 percent of the vote against her better capitalized, more telegenic opponent.

Running with Arnold tackles an equally improbable, but improbably successful campaign--that of Arnold Schwarzenegger for Governor of California. The film, by longtime journalist Dan Cox in his first effort as a filmmaker, focuses on the celebrity and the larger-than-lifeness of the candidate and governor, utilizing clips and quotes from politically oriented comics, as well as scenes from the governator's action-adventure films. What's given short shrift is the substance behind the candidate-turned-governor, who has since proven that his run for Sacramento was not just a whim, nor was his victory a fluke. Given his re-election--as a Republican, in a landslide, in a blue state, when the Republican Party had taken a "thumpin'" across the nation--an examination of his acumen for politics and governance was surely needed in the film, no matter what one's political stripe.

Arnold--or at least the action-hero characters he plays--might find a fan in Billy Price, the endearing protagonist of Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid, which earned the Jury Prize for Best Documentary. I was initially skeptical of seeing a documentary about a 15-year-old, but there was something so engaging about Billy--his honesty, his self-deprecating humor, his intelligence, his pain--that my misgivings subsided from the very first shot: a close-up of his open mouth. This was no James at 15 meets The Wonder Years. The high school paradigm has been examined in many notable documentaries Senior Year, American High, High School, Sixteen at Webster Groves and Seventeen. Billy the Kid joins that stately pantheon with this apotheosis of the anxiety, angst, awkwardness and loneliness of adolescence. But more so, the film celebrates that time-honored high school archetype: The Loser--the one who couldn't get a prom date, who sat alone in the cafeteria, who embraced a rhythm and rhyme that was off-kilter from the rest of the school. Kurt Cobain remarked in AJ Schnack's About A Son that the jocks who beat him up in high school were now buying his records. Beck wrote a song about being a loser, and that made him rich and famous. At the closing night party for SXSW, I remarked to the producer of Billy the Kid that everyone in the room could probably relate to Billy, that we should all embrace our Inner Loser.

As the film portion of the festival gave way to the music side, I packed my bags and checked out of my hotel, but not before checking out The Last Days of Left Eye, Lauren Lazin's follow-up to her Academy Award-nominated Tupac: Resurrection. Like that film, The Last Days of Left Eye examines the short life and fast times of a hip-hop artist, in this case Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, from the bestselling group TLC, who died tragically in a car accident in Honduras in 2002. And, like the previous film, the protagonist is the narrator, seemingly speaking from the beyond. But here, Lopes had intended to make a documentary about her life, and she persuaded her family and some friends to join her for a month in Honduras for a spiritual retreat of sorts. As she tells her story on camera from day one, Lazin and editor David Beinstein deftly weave in footage literally from cradle to grave, and all the stardom and struggles in between. According to Lazin, Lopes knew Tupac, and recognized how similar they were. In a conversation Lazin had with Lopes just before her fateful trip to Honduras, the artist told her, "I wouldn't be surprised if I died early."

Unfortunately, The Last Days of Left Eye won't be distributed theatrically because of the prohibitive cost of all the clearances. But it will air on VH1 new Rock Docs slot on May 19.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.