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The South by Southewest Film Festival, 1998

By Melinda Levin

A sepia-style photo of a man riding horseback from 'The Hunt for Pancho Villa', directed by Hector Galan, a long-time Austin resident.

There's just no getting around it... Austin, Texas, is a hip place to be. And when South By Southwest takes the stage as the cultural event of choice in a city that prides itself on diverse and alternative offerings, many filmmakers can't think of a better place to spend a few days in March. This time of year, the famous Texas bluebonnets are beginning to sprout up along the highways, the warm southern wind is beginning to blow, the Tex-Mex food is once again being served on outdoor patios overlooking the hills along the Colorado River. SXSW was first established as a music festival and this remains its primary emphasis. Several years ago, the festival staff and the Austin artistic community decided to expand to include both Film and Interactive festivals. In 1998, the SXSW Film Festival ran for nine days, preceding and overlapping the Music Festival.

Along with the mini-meetings and mentoring sessions based at the downtown Austin Convention Center, the films were screened at four theatre venues within a five-mile area of Austin. This year SXSW included several panels concentrating on areas of interest to documentary filmmakers as well as thirty-four documentary films and videos screened in one of three categories: the Documentary Feature competition, Documentary Short, or Special Screening sections. In the eyes of many participants at the 1998 festival, SXSW has successfully positioned itself as the Spring alternative to Sundance in the Winter. Ranging from extremely low budget short videos to HBO—and ITVS­ funded documentary features, SXSW drew not only an exclusively industry­ oriented audience but a large number of area residents eager to experience a smorgasbord of films and discussions. In the first four days of the festival, there were at least four panels of particular interest to documentarians. The first of these was "Funding for Documentaries." Andy Garrison, Lisa Heller, Judith Helfand, Betsy A. McLane and Lois Vossen provided information on various funding options for independents. Helfand, an independent documentary filmmaker whose award­ winning film A Healthy Baby Girl was funded by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and aired on P.O.V., offered her take on the funding maze: "First of all, know something about your funders so that you don't waste time, both yours and theirs, applying to the wrong agencies. Then, once you begin getting answers back, remember that 'no' doesn't mean 'no', it means 'later."' She suggested developing an ongoing and mutually supportive dialogue with funders and emphasized that part of a powerful (and potentially fundable) proposal includes sections on both audience and community development. (From the audience, Ruby Lerner-Executive Director, Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers ­ said that there are various types of funding agencies/emphases, including community­ specific funding, subject-specific funding and medium-specific funding. These can be researched in the National Foundation Directory, now on the Internet. With smaller funding commitments secured, the larger agencies can be invited to join a diverse coalition of funders for a project.)

Betsy McLane, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, gave an overview of IDA's role as a fiscal sponsor for individual documentary makers. In what Mike Jones of IndieWire termed "a fiery aside,"McLane said that ITVS should demand that doc-makers at least transfer their finished work to film: ''Video goes away," she said, "film lasts for 100 years. Film­makers have a moral obligation to preserve their work on film. Otherwise, you' re failing in your mission as documentarians!"

ITVS Communications Director Lois Vossen discussed her organization's role not as a granting agency, but as a partnering entity with filmmakers. With an emphasis on working with programs meant for tele­vision broadcast and a quest for diversity on public television, ITVS works with the filmmaker to establish licensing agreements and to formulate an aggressive marketing and promotion plan. ITVS defines such partnerships as a "cradle to grave" plan; there is a 3-year commitment of support, with the filmmaker retaining complete artistic control. Lisa Heller, Executive Producer for PBS's P.O.V., described the acquisition series that provides no funding other than occasional minimal completion funds, but instead procures completed programs .

P.O.V. pays the filmmaker $450 (U.S.) per minute and commits to three releases over four years. She suggested that filmmakers consider international co-financing and also to seek international venues for distribution; the explosion of cable channels worldwide requires thousands for hours of non-fiction programming each year.

Hector Galan, Richard Lewis, Ellen Spiro and Paul Stekler sat on an "Interviewing for Documentaries" panel and discussed their views on appropriate interviewing techniques for various docu­mentary styles. Galan, a long-time Austin resident and director of The Hunt for Pancho Villa, mentioned that because the process of filmmaking is a draining and occasionally confusing one for subjects, he prefers to take subjects away from the filming process, sitting elsewhere and keeping the mood casual, unthreatening. Lewis cautioned that if you get answers that don't meet your film's goals or are not as powerful as you wanted, don't repeat the question immediately: move on to another topic and ask the original question later, when the subject's memory is refreshed.

With perhaps the highest attendance at a panel, information on "Navigating Film Festivals" was provided by Thomas Palotta (Festival Liaison, AIVF), Peter Baxter (Executive Director, Slamdance), Jonathan Burkhart (founder and director, Nantucket Film Festival), Rana Joy Glickman (producer) and Sarah Jacobson (director). Panel members suggested a strategy in selecting festivals where your film will get decent exposure, without duplicating other offerings or competing with higher profile entries. Baxter said that festivals should be used to make contact with distributors, instead of relying simply on submitting tapes to them blindly.

In a seemingly never-ending topic for independent filmmakers, a panel on "Creating a Buzz" for your film was provided by Margot Gerber (American Cinematheque), Harry Knowles (author of the website "Ain't It Cool News"), Dan Mirvish (Slamdance founder), David Sikich (partner, ISA Releasing Ltd.), Joanna Vicente and Thomas Pallotta (AIVF). Panel members encouraged having prepared press kits available, even mailing these in advance to distributors planning to attend the festival. Other suggestions included business cards, color slides and B&W prints, T-shirts, postcards, one-sheets, mass e-mailings and website postings.

Film screenings were spread out over the festival's nine days, with multiple screenings allowing audiences the chance to digest a wide body of work. Given the number of films shown and the variety of offerings, commentary here can include only a few of these.

Letters Not About Love, directed by New York filmmaker Jacki Ochs, is a skillfully and beautifully produced montage reminiscent of works by Trinh T. Minh-Ha and Stan Brakhage. A poetic film based on linguistic experi­mentation, it was the winner of the festival's Documentary Competition. Ochs docu­ments the five-year letter correspondence between U.S. poet Lyn Hejinian and Ukranian writer Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. Working within an agreed-upon series of words provided by the filmmaker, the two writers begin a voyeuristically confessional relationship portrayed by readings of their letters. Visual images shot in both the United States and the former Soviet Union build upon one another to provide a type of improvi­sational counterpoint to an unfolding of gender and cultural references for the two writers. Ochs describes these random and pointed images as "postcards" that not only comment upon the words but also expand upon them in a way, to validate the unique meanings that words have in various cultural contexts. In the tradition of Dziga Vertov, Letters Not About Love is a cerebral and adept exploration of language, culture and the arts.

A world premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition, American Cowboy uniquely examines the American mythology of the Western hero and today's rodeos. Directed by Kyle Henry, a student at the University of Texas-Austin, the film's subject is professional gay rodeo star Gene Mikulenka struggling with coming out to his family, while he mends a leg fractured by a 2,000 pound Brahma bull and proposes to his boyfriend in the months leading up to the world gay rodeo finals. An effective, intimate, ultimately humorous exploration of a man who bends the rules of two different cultures, American Cowboy was extremely popular with SXSW audiences.

Selected for the Documentary Special Screenings category, Steve Yeager's Divine Trash is a tribute to filmmaker John Waters on the 25th anniversary of the release of Pink Flamingos. Funded in part by the Independent Film Channel and selected for this year's Sundance, Divine Trash was described by Yeager as "a film I simply had to make... an obsession." The core of the film is previously unreleased footage shot by Yeager himself on the set of Pink Flamingos with his friend John Waters. The material is also surrounded by present-day interviews with not only Waters himself, but amazing representatives from the community of Underground Cinema, including Jim Jarmusch, Jonas Mekas, George and Mike Kuchar and Steve Buscemi.

Goreville, U.S A. is an alarmingly topical film that examines and occasionally challenges stereotypes of the American gun culture as represented by this Illinois town where a local ordinance required the head of each household to own a firearm and ammunition. In the Documentary Features competition, the film also explores the gun control and grassroots militia movements. While Goreville, U.SA. might at first appear to be a one-sided view of backwater and pedestrian stereo­ types, what evolves is an engaging look at a segment of society who can provide articulate, even considered opinions about the rights and respon­sibilities under the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. Described as "ambiguously inconclusive," Goreville, USA. became one of the most controversial and popular films at the festival.

Scheduled as part of the Documentary Competition category at the Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema, Austin's newest independent theatre, Phillip Glau's Circus Redickuless won SXSW audiences with an over-the-edge portrayal of a man named Chicken John and his punk rock circus. John promises a glamorous road trip across the country to his troupe of 17 friends and acquaintances with nothing better to do. The promise begins to erode as the first of several shows is canceled, the two vans break down continually and when working, one can travel no faster than 35 miles per hour. Meals are gathered out of dumpsters, money is counted in single bills and tensions about dishwashing duties prompt resigned and contemplative monologues. As the tour makes its way across the country, filmmaker Glau Lived the Circus's lifestyle twenty-four hours a day and kept right on filming as several people left before the tour's end with one of the vans. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film comes in the last few seconds: when asked to provide any final thoughts, Chicken John looks directly at the camera and states, "You're the circus. We're your freaks. I'm the fuckin 'Rube!"

SXSW seems destined to be one of a growing number of festivals that embrace the documentary form. Festival curators and directors are intent on providing not only screening venues for new and important works but also a forum for discussing and sharing information within the community of makers. To contact SXSW, call 512-467-7979; e-mail:; web:

MELINDA LEVIN is an independent documentary filmmaker. Her film Standing on the Edge Watching is currently on the festival circuit. A professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the University of North Texas, she is presently working on two docu­mentaries—one shot in a Mayan village in Mexico, and one with Native women weavers of the American Southwest.