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SXSW 2012: Where Platforms Converge

By Patricia Aufderheide

South by Southwest (you write it SXSW, you say it "South-by") makes a credible claim to showcase innovation in the overlap between geekery/gaming, filmmaking and music. It has become the most exciting festival for edgy, overlap creative experience in those fields in the country. And it reached, unbelievably, a new intensity this year. Crowds routinely overwhelmed services. On opening day, people stood in three-hour lines for badges; rush hour within the Austin Convention Center was every hour on the changeover between panels; there were more food options than before, but even longer lines for it; and the most common bitter conversation was about being housed five to 15 miles away, with inadequate shuttle busses.

Mini-SXSW tracks have emerged at neighboring hotels and in less-traveled byways of the convention center, for interests including education, journalism and nonprofits. Followers of those tracks typically are de facto segregated from the main madness--not always a bad thing.

But the main action is still in the heart of the convention center. Filmmakers will be torn between films, many of which are premiering at SXSW, and the panel programming. The most exciting panel programming, for people interested in cutting-edge practices, is in the "convergence" track, which features panels that overlap between filmmaking and gaming.

This year at the panels the two magic words were "multiplatform" and "transmedia," with "html5" a close third. A theme quickly emerged (probably no surprise to filmmakers): story is key.

I participated in one of two panels on using html5 for film. (That "html5" stuff is actually shorthand for open, Web-native video.) Our panel, HTML5 for Film: Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge?, decided it was bleeding, but in a good way. Open video is not for every filmmaker or story, but it creates new creative opportunities. You can address your financial problems with open video, including incorporation of product placement and advertising. It's not about the tools, but about the purpose. Although sometimes it is about the tools, because some parts of this are still a "dark art" for lack of standards.

Another panel on open video, Does HTML5 Offer a Montage Moment for Web Cinema?  also made a good argument for bleeding-edge status. There, developer Brian Chirls and producer Jigar Mehta of the 18 Days in Egypt project discussed the formal and aesthetic challenges of this emergent art form. Chirls and Mehta showed how they solved some storytelling problems in combining five minutes of personal testimony about a moment in the Egyptian Spring with 15 seconds of video from that moment--foregrounding the testimony and using a looped version of the video as background.  The panelists argued that open video today is in a similar position to film before D.W. Griffith worked out the basics of narrative editing; we're still working out the basic formal strategies.

Two panels featured big-ticket, even extravagant projects, all of which structured their process around narratives. At Multiplatform Storytelling: Frontline War Stories,  Dinas Benadon explained the development of a multi-million-dollar Singapore museum project that immersed viewers in a digital typhoon. Film director Jon Chu talked about the critical importance of social media to his film project with Justin Bieber, who needed to "anoint" him via Twitter so Bieber's followers would accept his work (then he faced the challenge of converting his newly acquired 350,000 Bieberite Twitter followers when he took the job of directing GI Joe). Lance Weiler explained an interactive narrative, Pandemic, which featured a treasure hunt at the Sundance Film Festival. USC game designer and teacher Tracy Fullerton displayed a game imbedded in orientation materials for incoming freshmen, which generated an enormous amount of media in the process.

Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary, featured a BBC production about mathematics that was simultaneously a long-form program, online videos and a game. All of them had embedded clues that would help viewers solve puzzles. The show attracted world-wide attention, and attracted more younger and female viewers than BBC is used to for its science programming. The film appealed to viewers who otherwise might be scared by the topic, but who loved hunting up clues in the stories.


From The Code, the BBC documenatry series by Stephen Cooter and Michael Lachmann


At Everything Is a Remix, so Steal like an Artist, authors Kirby Ferguson and Austin Kleon showed how to liberate creativity through recombination. Ferguson, whose "Everything Is a Remix" video series has become an Internet sensation, gave a shout out to codes of best practices in fair use, saying they were the best way to ground yourself in what was appropriate re-use of others' material. The International Documentary Association was one of the creators of the Documentary Filmmakers' Code of Best Practices in Fair Use.

The films were also richly interesting; most will likely get US distribution. In Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies, filmmaker Patrick Forbes got extended access not only to the infamous Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, and his estranged sidekick, Domscheit-Berg, but also to the head editors at the London Guardian and The New York Times. The four of them separately and fascinatingly recount the process of releasing the data and the analysis; the story is remarkably different from each perspective.

Forbes, who usually produces high-end documentaries for top-of-the-line British and European television (this film was made for Britain's Channel 4 and is distributed internationally by the BBC), was thrilled to be showing his film in a sold-out theater to hundreds of enthusiastic SXSW attendees. "I usually watch my films on a couch, and watch the e-mails come in by time zone from my friends," he said. "Tonight, I'll be watching the film with 599 more viewers than I usually watch with!" Forbes believes that SXSW is part of the emerging viewing environment that connects viewers to topics they care about.


Julian Assange, featured in Patrick Forbes' Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies.


Brian Knappenberger's We Are Legion is a chronicle of how community and culture are created. It tells the story of the rise of Anonymous, from a bunch of cranky nihilists (aka pre-social geeks) to a political movement about challenging unaccountable power. The film is a fascinating insiders' story of the rise of a meme, a movement and a culture.

Knappenberger, a veteran journalistic documentarian for outlets such as PBS Frontline, National Geographic, Discovery and Bloomberg, said, following a screening, "It's liberating to do something that's independent. I believe we're on the verge of a golden age of doc filmmaking, if we're able to innovate and be ahead of it.

"The Internet is a tsunami that bowled over music," Knappenberger continued. "The film business is also resisting change. We're at that moment, and Anonymous points that out. The tangling that's going on about copyright is also pointing it out. The Internet is here, and indies have the opportunity they've been waiting for so long. When do we make the transition--after or before the tsunami hits you? We're in a time when we're close to having the ability for independent journalists and documentarians can build a new business model." Knappenberger believes that anti-piracy legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was counter-productive and could jeopardize the core tools that indies need to build those business models.


From Brian Knappenberger's We Are Legion.


Other films also plunged into cultural realities we don't always get access to. Brooklyn Castle, by Katie and Nelson Dellamaggiore, explores the meaning of a culture shaped around achievement in chess, in PS 318. The school, which is full of kids eligible for free lunch, has a nationally rated chess team, and chess has become the identity of the school.  Chess has sent kids to colleges, and won them scholarships. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat stops being a cliché when you watch them go through tournaments. And then here's what changes everything: PS 318 has its funding yanked to send the kids to the tournaments.

The filmmakers are working with the After School Alliance to do screenings for educators. They're passionate about getting public schools more resources, but Katie Dellamaggiore said their mantra was, "Lead with the story."


From Katie and Nelson Dellamaggiore's Brooklyn Castle.


The audience-award winning Bay of All Saints, by Annie Eastman, chronicles the rise and collapse of a poor people's movement to channel redevelopment in a way that would both win them housing and also keep them together. Eastman prized SXSW for its ability to provide legitimacy and prestige for the film. "The film world pays attention to SXSW," she said. "It still feels very authentic and alternative."

Several other docs portrayed artistic processes in captivating ways. Kristy Guevera-Flanagan's Wonder Women!, at a crisp 62 minutes, was a delicious journey through decades of popular culture. Just Like Being There, from Scout Shannon, is the story of the early days of a creative movement, in DYI culture. Makers of gig-posters--rock fans with great drawing/design skills who, unbidden, make posters to celebrate a local event--talk about how they got into it, who and what they admire, what they aspire to. Her Master's Voice, by Nina Conti, tracks her struggle to figure out what to do with the puppets she inherited from her ventriloquist mentor. It's about the art, about the people who do this art and why they do, and about a private journey through grief, with love. Amir Bar-Lev's latest, Re:Generation, sponsored by Hyundai and the Grammy Awards, matches five electronic DJs/producers, including Skrillex and DJ Premier, with supremely talented artists in five traditional music genres.

Two social-issue documentaries showed solid narrative skills and took up topics you won't find on cable or the headlines. Debbie Lum's Seeing Asian Female peers into the subculture of men obsessed with Asian women-an affliction dubbed "yellow fever."  She follows 60s-ish Steven, who finds 30-year-old Sandy online and convinces her to marry him. What could be a standard narrative of victimhood takes surprising turns, and leaves us still wondering: Will they make it? Mark Kendall's La Camioneta uses the journey of a school bus, from Spotsylvania, Virginia, to a Guatemalan town to shed light on cross-border relationships, Central American turmoil and the aspirations of families. Incredibly, this is a thesis film.

Caveh Zehedi's The Sheik and I generated some controversy at the festival. About his experience trying to make "subversive" art for the Bienniale in the United Arab Emirates state of Sharjah, the documentary features Sharjah citizens whose lives or careers might be put at risk. Zehedi  himself called the film "ethically on the edge," and said that he found himself torn between his freedom-of-expression principles and his concern for his subjects. At his first screening at SXSW, he said he encountered an openly hostile audience.


Pat Aufderheide is director of the Center for Social Media at American University.