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SXSW 2013: It's All About the Synergy

By Patricia Aufderheide

You come to SXSW for the synergy. The sprawling, raucous festival in Austin, Texas overlaps three creative communities: filmmakers, interactive designers and musicians. SXSW could keep Austin weird all by itself. This year I heard rumors of Austin streets occupied by a tiny house on wheels (demo-ing for the winsome documentary Tiny), a rolling bed filled with people reading poetry (for the documentary Big Joy), and artist-activists reading a legal brief defending the copyright doctrine of fair use. I didn't see any of them, because I was caught in traffic jams created by other spectacles, but none of it was hard to believe.

The biggest single problem at SXSW is usually buyer's remorse. No matter where you are, you could be five other, potentially even more interesting places. Every year, as SXSW becomes more crowded, more sought-after as a promotional showcase by everyone from app designers to energy drinks, and as more and more of downtown Austin is colonized by SXSW, the organizers are getting better at creating SXSW "channels," or tracks, to find your people and interests.

But the synergy is still there, and still accounts for unpredictable pleasures. That goes for the documentaries it showcases as well, which are astoundingly eclectic, and often feature synergies with other art forms themselves.

Entertainment. One of SXSW's strengths is music documentary, the screening of which extends past the film fest into the music fest. Among the many notables this year was the immensely entertaining Twenty Feet from Stardom, by IDA member Morgan Neville. Although the film debuted at Sundance and has distribution, he relished the notion of showcasing at SXSW, for the event's musical focus and the energy of the event. The Finnish documentary The Punk Syndrome, arriving heaped with European awards, features raucous punk music by developmentally-disabled Finnish adults. (It's actually fun to watch. ) Co-director Jan-Petteri Passi was looking forward to a music-filled SXSW vacation.

Other films were world premieres, and for their makers, SXSW was also, effectively, a market. First-time feature director Lily Keber's Bayou Maharajah tells the story of an unsung musical genius, the New Orleans pianist James Booker, who was once described as ""the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." The film convincingly makes a case that Booker belongs in the jazz/rock-piano pantheon, and interestingly uses home-movie footage of New Orleans from the 1960s and 1970s as evocative imagery to his music. Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon's This Ain't No Mouse Music profiles the improbable life of Chris Strachwitz, an Austrian aristocrat exiled at 16 to the US, where the rootless teenager found roots in American folk and ethnic musical traditions. Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records, an inspiration to Ry Cooder among many other musicians, has also become an archive and treasure trove of American regional culture. Without slighting Strachwitz' rough edges, Gosling and Simon's portrait captures the immense value that he has added to the culture with his generous enthusiasm for music he finds authentic—that is, not "mouse [as in Mickey] music." Among the clutch of documentaries on entertainment celebrities, a standout was I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwarz's loving but not uncritical homage to the career of Divine; he met both John Waters and Divine while doing the DVD extras for Hairspray. The film reveals Divine's evolution. Most poignantly, it shows how Divine often felt trapped within his/her persona, and sought a career as a character actor.


From Jeffrey Schwarz's I Am Divine. Photo: Andrew Curtis


Sports. Sports and competitions in general are long-time staples for documentary, no less so at SXSW. A competition is a perfect clothesline for a film's narrative, after all. This year, several films, all world premieres, demonstrated creative ways to use that clothesline to reach far beyond the sports challenge. Veteran cinematographer Timothy Wheeler's The Other Shore chronicles Diana Nyad's attempt to swim between Cuba and Florida. Universally recognized as an impossible feat by sports doctors, the challenge has been a life-long goal of the Olympian swimmer. Coming out of 30 years of retirement, at the age of 62, she decided to try it. Wheeler, who is her nephew, iced other projects to tell the story. The result is a meticulously crafted film, which courageously avoids hagiography, driven by Nyad's powerful and sometimes counter-productive wish to overcome not only the challenge but ageing itself. 

Medora, told by Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn, both of FOUND magazine, tells a story of deindustrialization through the story of a small high school's basketball team—which hasn't won a game in years. Fighting consolidation with beleaguered town pride, the community roots for the kids, who themselves grapple with broken homes, homelessness, alcoholic parents and other challenges. The film is provocative on more general topics-what did happen to the American dream in Medora?—while it also keeps you hoping that nobody gets arrested before the big game and that against all odds, the kids will finally win.

12 O'Clock Boys, by Lotfy Nathan, unsparingly looks at race and class in Baltimore through the lens of Balmer's latest street sport: dirt-bike racing. Young men ride on the back wheels, performing amazing and spectacularly dangerous acrobatics, taunting the police and doing circles around passing cars. Told with what might or might not be deliberately disjointed editing (it grew out of an art-school project), it tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Baltimore, enthralled by this rising culture. Pug, the young boy, is thrilled by the daring, the skil, and the anti-police club culture. Smart and beloved, he also lives in a world where he might not be wrong to believe that he needs to live for the moment. The film, by a first-time director, is a poignant and uncommented look at a wealth of talent being channeled in ways that suggest many share Pug's sad insights into his options. The film also gives a showcase to a competitive phenomenon that stands every chance of being commercialized into reality shows, ESPN profiles, competitions and regularized sport. The energy jumps off the screen.


From Lotfy Nathan's 12 O'Clock Boys. Photo: Lotfy Nathan


Aesthetics.  SXSW also showcased films that interact with other artforms and stretch the medium. Alan Berliner's well-honed editing expertise was on display in his characteristically meditative First Cousin Once Removed, about a relative afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Petra Costa's Elena employed a poetic visual approach, with a water theme, to trace her sister's descent into depression and suicide. In Big Joy, Steven Silha and Eric Slade told the story of Beat-era filmmaker, poet and performance artist James Broughton, creating in the process filmic moments that evoked Broughton's ecstatic style, which prized irrationality and excess. Spark, by Jessie Deeter and Steve Brown, brings viewers behind the scenes of the annual spectacle of performance art in the desert, Burning Man. Dealing with everything from ticket management to fire control, the film also captures the peculiar slice of artistic ambition that Burning Man showcases. Noteworthy for its poetic cinematography—director of photography Scott Duncan earned a Special Jury Recognition—was E. Chai Vasarhelyi ‘s Touba, which profiles a Senegalese pilgrimage town . Lacking sustained characters or a story arc, it was promoted as a visual poem.


From E. Chai Vasarhelyi's Touba. Photo: Scott Duncan


Politics. Some of the more interesting SXSW films sought out the edge between political and filmic drama. Getting Back to Abnormal, by a veteran team of documentary filmmakers (Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler) supported by public TV's ITVS, follows a white politician with an African-American campaign director, as their campaign becomes enmeshed in New Orleans' post-Katrina race politics. The film features the team's heralded vérité intimacy, its savvy about local politics, and its ability to reveal complex truths with compelling narrative. Ben Nabors' William and the Windmill, which won the top jury award for docs, recounts the work of a young Malawi man whose windmill not only changed life in his village but provided a model for others throughout the developing world. An Unreal Dream, by Al Reinert, uses a reserved and static style to tell the story of a man's unjust 25-year imprisonment for the murder of his wife and his life-transforming discovery of inner peace. (This was a local story, and Austinites came out in force and in tears for this film.) Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye's Our Nixon revisions the Watergate years from inside the White House, using long-secret home movies shot by Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. It will be a political junkie's must-see; others might need to check with Wikipedia on Watergate history first. Xmas without China, a public broadcasting-supported film by Alicia Dwyer, explores Americans' dependence on Chinese-made goods ends up asking questions about cultural identity that touch many in this immigrant nation.


From Ben Nabors' Grand Jury Prize-winning William and the Windmill.


Several such films went to the heart of SXSW concerns with media-related issues. The Network, veteran producer Eva Orner's debut as director, pulls back the Afghan media curtain, showing engagingly how intrepid enterpreneurs and journalists are building a radio and TV station and making programming in the middle of a war. It smartly raises big questions about how media and society affect each other, not least with its exploration of women's programming in a place where women can get death threats for letting a scarf slip. Downloaded , a VH1 doc by Alex Winter, fascinatingly follows the rise and fall of Napster, largely using archival interviews from MTV and VH1. Finally, and unevenly, The Pirate Bay: Away from the Keyboard, from Simon Klose, chronicles the lawsuit that convicted the three founders of the international file-sharing website,  two of whom appear to be tech-happy nerds.

Transmedia. In the "digital domain" strand of panel programming, SXSW allowed the chance to catch up on the evolution of interactive documentary. The form, everyone agreed, was still on the bleeding edge, although platforms such as Zeega and StoryPlanet are evolving quickly enough to promise easier tools to make seamlessly multimedia narratives while other platforms, such as ITVS' OVEE, are making it easier for viewers to interact with media. Indie filmmakers showcased works-in-progress that featured multiple iterations and uses on different platforms, such Christine Walley and Chris Boebel's Exit Zero Project , with a book, film and website that support each other (this is a project of MIT's nascent Open Doc Lab); Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar's multimedia site Reinvention Stories; and Liz Nord's Battle for Jerusalem, which along with an extensive social media campaign also has a mobile app, Jerusalem Unfiltered, offering activist tours of possibly the most contested real estate in the world. The New York Times' Op Docs, a precious venue for short documentary, is launching its first interactive work, with Cat Cizek's High Rise project, in four parts.

IDFA's Caspar Sonnen offered some takeaways echoed by others: Story comes first; interactivity is like salt—use it sparingly; participation is great, but don't forget they want you to be the author; and new gatekeepers can also really suck. He also urged people to embrace the "slow Web," where projects can extend beyond the quick click.

Down to business: For all the fun, SXSW is also about getting a read on the state of the business. Various film panels discussed changing distribution. Services continue to evolve to bridge the gap between filmmakers and the confusing mix of old and new distribution outlets. Old gatekeepers like Warner haven't gone away, while new ones like iTunes—as inaccessible in general to the average filmmaker as the old ones—are growing. As Kino Lorber's Richard Lorber put it, the services are evolving "from aggregators to integrators." Filmmakers can continue to depend on themselves to build their own audiences with social media, from the outset of their projects, and then benefit from a service like Tugg, which makes it easier and more financially viable to find targeted theatrical audiences in smaller towns and venues. Windowing continues to be important, but there are many more exceptions to that rule, and the order of the windows can change quickly and by the project; you might, for instance, release on video on demand before theatrical. 

No one was giving away numbers. But speakers agreed that projects are now financially viable across a broader range, particularly if filmmakers have carefully cultivated core audiences in the making and are social media-friendly. And, as Chris Horton from Sundance stressed, "It is all on you. You cannot be shy, even if you're using Tugg or Kickstarter. Every morning you are going into battle, put a shit-eating grin on your face and say, I am going to ask people for money today."

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