Weird Is Good: SXSW 2011
South by Southwest's March film festival in Austin, Texas (town motto: "Keep Austin Weird") provides, for documentary lovers, an exciting mix of the provocative, the innovative and the downright quirky. And it does so in venues you can actually get to and get into. For documentarians, it also provides a sidebar conference with panels on cutting-edge issues.
The festival, curated by Janet Pierson and her team, covers a wide range of styles and subjects, steering clear of the obligatory and earnest. Of course, as one of the more earnest attendees, I was drawn to the social documentaries.
Supported by and Supporting Public Broadcasting
Doc veterans Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega debuted Better This World, which was funded by public TV's ITVS and will air on POV. It's a story about FBI entrapment of two foolhardy young Austin men during the 2008 Republican National Convention. With archival footage, home movies, re-enactments and interviews, the makers take us inside a process by which young and naïve protesters were tempted to commit domestic terrorism. In the process, the filmmakers remind us of the terrifying and poorly-recalled police strategies to contain protest during the convention.
It was sobering to realize that what lends this film part of its shock value is that it is all happening to two white men. Behind their story, the film lightly suggests, are untold stories of just such entrapment strategies--made far more likely by the loosening of requirements under the Patriot Act--committed against people of color, Muslims and dissidents of all kinds within US boundaries.
The film got a standing ovation at SXSW. The filmmakers plan to reach out to policymakers and law schools. "It was a choice to tell the story so close to the bone," said Galloway. "It invests you in the boys and what happens to them. We didn't really get a chance to put front and center that this is a widespread problem."
Another excellent film slotted for P.O.V. , after being groomed (like Better This World) by Sundance Documentary programs and funded by ITVS, was Where Soldiers Come From. Heather Courtney, a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and an award-winning doc filmmaker, went back to her home, where several young men have decided to join the National Guard together, knowing they will go to war. They don't really have much to do otherwise, besides practicing graffiti skills on rusted building hulks and hanging out. Their parents, who live modestly and work hard, clearly had more opportunities than they do. (One Guardsman's sister waitresses with her mom.)
Courtney embedded with the Guard unit in Afghanistan for five of its nine months of deployment, and also depended on helmet cams and mounted cams to get footage of IED explosions from inside the tank. (One of the men said after a screening, "Heather got to be one of the guys. We obviously held nothing back. We liked it that she went back and forth because she could bring us lots of goodies when she came back.")
Finally, she followed them home, where their options haven't improved any, especially for brain injury victims now afflicted with attention and mood disorders. Not just a film about war, Where Soldiers Come From is about the American dream and what's happening to it in small town America.
Public broadcasting's federal funding peril was in center spotlight at SXSW. In screenings for both of these films, as well as in the ITVS omnibus film Future States (an intriguing but not captivating experiment in short fiction programming), filmmakers and programmers spoke passionately about the role of public television in shaping the media environment and giving underheard viewpoints an airing. They asked audience members to reach out to legislators, to vote for endangered public broadcasting funding. Audience members regularly clapped and whistled.
Fighting and Dying
Fightville is the latest doc by the filmmaking duo Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. This husband-and-wife team has produced a series of films focusing on the lived experience of the Iraq War--Gunner Palace (a year among soldiers in one of Saddam's palaces), The Prisoner (the story of the torture and release of an innocent Iraqi arrested in Gunner Palace), Bulletproof Salesman (a profile of an international arms salesman) and How to Fold a Flag (the men from Gunner Palace go home). If you want to see the whole series, attend the June 17-19 retrospective at Yale University.
One of the men featured in the latest film has become a full-time cage fighter, or practitioner of "mixed martial arts." Fightville is a profile of the founder of an association for mixed martial arts and two aspiring fighters. Like any competition film worth its festival entrance fee, it's a story of aspiration, struggle and redemption. The film also provides a window into the working world of working-class sports, into the lives of young men without a lot of opportunities trying to build their lives with their bodies, and into popular culture. Like Courtney, the filmmakers clearly enjoy being with their subjects, and follow their struggles and achievements with respect.
"South by Southwest gives us a real audience, normal moviegoers," said Tucker. "It's the perfect audience for this film, because it's a Southern one, and fighting is a huge sport in the South. Fighting is the physical manifestation of the American dream, and people respond to that. They like seeing people rise above."
"People are surprised that it's not about violence," Epperlein added. "It's about determination and hard work."
Fightville is pretty much guaranteed a good commercial slot somewhere, and there was plenty of bidding for it at SXSW (which officially has no market). Indeed, the interest in Fightville spilled over to How to Fold a Flag, which has been languishing since it debuted at SXSW without a distributor and finally was picked up there this year.
Peter Richardson's profoundly moving and thoughtful How to Die in Oregon, which premiered at Sundance and is destined for HBO (May 26), should become a touchstone film for discussion nationwide. It's about the right to die with dignity, which is legal in Oregon (as well as Washington and Montana). It follows two main stories: In Oregon, 54-year old Cody, a vibrant mother of two young adults, is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. In Washington, the widow of a man who died without dignity carries out his last wishes to fight for a change in the law (which is won). It's a three-hanky documentary, and a powerful argument for a chosen death.
Richardson, whose earlier work Clearcut followed a controversy over land use in his own area of Oregon, has a low-key style marked, like the other filmmakers whose work I so admired at SXSW, by a manifest respect for both subject and audience. "Cody's husband and kids were against the filming," Richardson told me. "They thought, We have very little time with this precious person; why invite into our lives the stranger with a camera? But Cody was very insistent, and they agreed to please her.
"The process became very constructive--Stan [the husband] called it ‘free therapy,'" Richardson continued. "Sometimes I was expectably shut out, and I was only ever included by Cody's invitation. It became collaborative. They're now grieving and growing into the new configuration of the family, and they have said to me, Now we see why Mom wanted to do this; we see the gift she left us."
After the film's debut on HBO, Richardson looks forward to working with a variety of organizations focused on the issue. "The film says, It's OK to talk about this, and it provides a starting point."
Another Sundance-premiere film at SXSW was The Interruptors, a Kartemquin Films production by Steve James. (Full disclosure: I'm on the Kartemquin board of directors.) In the Kartemquin tradition of extended exploration of lives lived below the radar of mainstream media, the film follows a group of street-hardened men committed to interrupting cycles of violence in Chicago. The star of the film is Ameena Matthews, daughter of a gang leader and one-time gang girl. Now an observant Muslim, she fearlessly wades into furious street scenes, shaming and hectoring people into backing down. The film captures fights brewing, fights erupting and sometimes fights calmed down. The "Interruptors" follow the street word to the houses of people looking for revenge, and follow the noise to the action.
James is a filmmaker who refuses to look away from very hard news, as anyone who saw Stevie can attest. The film holds out no false optimism, at the same time that it puts names and faces on people rarely seen on television except in crime reporting. It portrays a world that is broken in too many ways. Even the language used is often broken. People speak in staccato or peremptory ways, as if yelling and denouncing had supplanted ordinary speech as the norm. (The film often resorts to subtitles.)
The hard news of The Interruptors is valuable, and so is the profound concern and commitment of those who live in the broken places and hold themselves and others to the commitment to work with hope.
Quirky and Different
The festival also showcased films with very different approaches. The First Movie is Mark Cousins' offbeat adventure bringing movies to Kurdish village kids--and in the process introducing viewers to a different view of Iraq. A quirky artistic and curatorial exercise from one of Britain's major film critics, The First Movie is on its way to finding its home in arts centers. Proceeds from the film will go back to the Kurdish villages, to provide the kids with computers and flipcams, according to producer Gill Parry. Gillian Wearing's Self Made documented the work of a Method-acting director with working-class Britons who learned to release their emotions; it looked more like therapy than art to me.
I was more nonplussed than impressed with Something Ventured, an unabashed paean to the vision, insight and brilliance of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. (Finally-a pro-capitalist documentary film! Take that, Michael Moore!) The film provides biographical and historical background to entrepreneurship, but it suffers from tunnel vision.
SXSW also gives conference goers a chance to peer over the bleeding edge of documentary practice. Journalist Jigar Mehta, currently a Knight Fellow, teamed up with an Egyptian friend to create #18DaysInEgypt. The website will eventually be both an archive and a crowd-sourced documentary chronicling the grassroots movement that led to Hosni Mubarak's downfall. Angela Tucker, late of Arts Engine, besides finishing her film Asexual , is making six five-minute webisodes for National Black Programming Consortium. Black Folks Don't will feature both funny (they don't tip) and serious (they don't get medical checkups).
On the transmedia front, the National Film Board of Canada's Rob McLaughlin showcased a rich set of experiments online, including the disturbing "The Test Tube." Tommy Pallotta (collapsus.com) is putting the finishing touches on a new site, UNSPEAK, to showcase critiques of persuasive speech, including advertising and propaganda. He tantalized the audience with a glimpse of one of his own remix critiques, focusing on job "loss" (where did they go? Not behind the sofa). With new software and a deep archive of material, he hopes to empower people to make their own critical remixes.
Copyright and Business
Copyright was, of course, a hot topic both for geeks and filmmakers. I was on a crossover panel, Neither Pirates nor Moguls: Grey Areas in Music Distribution, that challenged media and music industry piracy claims. Speakers reminded the audience that all cultural creators make their work out of existing culture; I ran into Participatory Culture Foundation's Dean Jansen in the hall, and he introduced me to Kirby Ferguson's video series, Everything is a Remix, making the same point with pictures.
On another panel, Jamie King (Steal This Movie I and II) talked about distributing films using Vodo, powered by BitTorrent, which makes it easy to download material for free. The Yes Men got $37,000 in donations, without much effort, from a million BitTorrent downloads. (But it was HBO, King pointed out, that paid for the making of the film.) King believes thoughtful marketing, with the right incentives, can boost that number dramatically. Ray Privette is releasing a horror film, Zenith, on Vodo in stages, with crowd-sourced funding paying for the next stage; the verdict is out on the success of that strategy.
Throughout the festival, I ran into people--copyright holders all--who told me that they are using the codes of best practices in fair use facilitated by the Center, that they are teaching from it, and that they tell their friends about it. "It's a lifesaver," said Michael Chaney of the Savannah College of Art and Design. However, Gerry Peary, whose For the Love of Movies is loaded with fairly-used clips from popular film, told me that Turner turned him down, even with errors and omissions insurance, because of the amount of fair use. His ultimate purchaser, the Sundance Channel, bought it for less than he had hoped to get from Turner. In this transition moment, sharing such stories more could help documentarians understand--and even educate--the distributors.
Meanwhile, Julie Samuels of Electronic Frontier Foundation discussed on another panel the copyright troll behavior of Righthaven, a law firm that is buying up newspapers' copyrights and pre-emptively suing bloggers. EFF is representing two defendants, who have clear-cut fair use claims, and Righthaven has already lost big in court. These cases could provide some case law useful to documentarians.
Pat Aufderheide is director of the Center for Social Media at American University.