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SXSW Documentaries: Invisible, Underwater, on Trapezes and Trees

By Patricia Aufderheide

At the annual high-tech attentional food fight that is SXSW, you could see Google Glass-wearers, a Wookie, a flock of foldup bikes, food trucks, an entire portable showroom dedicated to (yes) toilet paper, and...what am I forgetting? Oh, the movies!

The standout documentary film of the festival and winner of the Grand Jury Prize, The Great Invisible, was one of several films focusing on ecological issues. Margaret Brown's cinema vérité look at the consequences of the 2010 BP oil spill on the people most directly affected brought audiences in Austin—at the heart of the oil industry—to their feet cheering and clapping. They stayed to weep with some of the subjects of the film, who joined Brown onstage and told, sometimes with voices shaking, what it meant to them to have their story told.

The Great Invisible focuses on the victims of the Deep Water Horizon explosion and their families, the seafood industry workers and oil industry executives. But this is not a film that points blame. Rather, it takes us inside the story of the consequences of ultimately disastrous decisions made on one pervasive fact: we Americans love our cheap oil. And, as executives explain at the end of the film, so long as we want that more than, say, worker safety, environmental health, community businesses or industrial innovation, we will keep getting cheap oil. 

The cost of cheap oil is the human conscience and quality of life; the film's subjects again and again return to the need for humanistic values to take a place alongside profit. As one of the film's central characters says as he explains why he volunteers at a free food bank for destitute seafood industry workers, "You don't have to get paid for everything you do. Let something be a blessing. If you don't have time to give a blessing, you're a mighty poor man." And as the father of a worker killed in the Deep Water Horizon explosion says, on his way to a public hearing to hear from the company that never apologized to him, "Somebody ought to feel something...besides greed."

The film is distinctive for its superb and intimate cinema vérité, rivaled at the fest only by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman's E-Team, which follows a human rights team on its missions and which debuted at Sundance. Brown's film was originally funded by ITVS, and by the time of its debut, it had Participant Media backing and expectations for theatrical release in the fall. Participant will release material that would have been outtakes as shorter pieces—"the equivalent of a ‘B' side to the film," Brown says—and is also developing a fiction film based on the same material. "The reason I went with Participant was because of what they do with documentaries," Brown maintains. "I think education is a dirty word in documentary, but I hope seeing people's lives and the deep connection we have with this industry, we can get a little curious about how we can change our behavior."


From Margaret Brown's The Great Invisible


Other ecologically-themed films were wildly diverse in style and analysis. Sandy McLeod's Seeds of Time follows sometime bureaucrat and agricultural activist Cary Fowler on his lifelong campaign to support seed banks—the libraries for future agriculture as climate change forces adaptation—both at the grassroots and in international negotiations. The film's style matches Fowler's modest but intrepid approach. Like Brown, McLeod hopes to inspire people to make a connection between their local choices and the larger issue of agricultural diversity. "I want people to say, ‘I can do something, and I need to,'" she maintains.

Yakona, a Qatsi Trilogy-inspired portrayal of the life of a Texas river, creates a visually and aurally dazzling, if slow-moving, story of renewal of a precious natural resource. Co-director Paul Collins noted that cinematography challenges included "stabilizing a camera in fast-moving water currents, hovering in full camera and scuba gear inches above a environmentally delicate spring ecosystem and flying a camera drone 100 feet above inaccessible river areas." The elaborate soundscape was carefully composed and crafted, heavily using library and field recordings. The film responded to the regional community's ecological concern, and used crowdfunding to raise $50,000 of completion funds.

Another regional film showcased was John Fiege's Above All Else, which features a rural East Texas landowner who suddenly discovers that his retreat from the world has become part of Keystone XL's pipeline route. With a close focus on his compelling central character, who tries everything from conversation with corporate officials to tree-sitting, Fiege also tells a story about the betrayal of individual and property rights by regulatory agencies and legislators. Fiege also raised $50,000 in completion funds with Kickstarter in what he calls "the most painful experience of my life—but worth it." The film also benefits from the support of executive producer and celebrity activist Daryl Hannah.

Travis Rummel and Ben Knight's DamNation, which won the Audience Award in the Documentary Spotlight strand, is backed by the outdoor-clothing company Patagonia, whose founder is an avid fly-fisher. The film links the efforts of direct-action activists—they scale dams and paint graffiti on them—with the nationwide movement to decommission dams. The film is oriented at committed nature lovers (as one says in the film, "If I have to choose between electricity and fish, I'll take the fish"), and its strength is the portrayal of vital, flowing rivers full of salmon and trout. Ecological writer and activist Matt Stoecker, producer and photographer on the film, expects the film to be used by local groups nationwide; a tour begins in June, with screenings in nine cities. It will also show in all Patagonia stores, and be available digitally.  


From Travis Rummel and Ben Knight's DamNation


Two of the films in competition featured extreme art: Born to Fly and Impossible Light. Catherine Gund's Born to Fly follows a season with choreographer Elizabeth Streb, whose company produces work that looks like Cirque de Soleil meets the Olympics in SoHo. Magnificently captured sequences make for heart-stopping suspense and sometimes horror as dancers perform acts not only astonishing but also violent. Jeremy Ambers' Impossible Light follows the coordinated effort of many to create artist Leo Villareal's light sculpture, which illuminates the San Francisco Bay Bridge (the Golden Gate's under-appreciated sister).

Two films featured issues in the emergent digital culture. In competition, Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel's Print the Legend follows the race among several firms to develop a prosumer 3-D printer. Focusing on the personalities of their leaders and the relationship between brand identity and workplace culture, the film is a provocative profile of a moment. Although the filmmakers were not local to either workplace, they managed to be in the right place many times, and slick editing does a lot of magic-the film won a Special Jury Recognition for Editing & Storytelling. Like several other films, this one was shopping for distribution at SXSW.


From Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel's Print the Legend


Out of competition, Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy continued its idiosyncratic success story. The film tells the story of the life and death of Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz as a story of government overreach, of concern to all Americans. "The Internet is a machine made of code and laws, and everyone has a say in it because it's the new commons," said Knappenberger during a break from a screening at SXSW. "This is the darker side of that story."

A standout at Sundance, the film had attracted big-money attention, enough to make Knappenberger's eyes widen just thinking about it. But he was committed to a Creative Commons license and to a don't-ask-don't-tell, DRM-free download policy, in the spirit of the subject of his film. Participant Media, not the highest bidder by far, came on board, willing to accept those terms, and the film will be released theatrically in June, through FilmBuff. "We'll be working with a lot of the organizations that Aaron was involved with, so it's a good fit," said Knappenberger.

Other films were in the small-treasure category, with hopes pinned on SXSW exposure. David Marshall's Beginning with the End, which was in competition, tracks high school students as they journey through an internship at a hospice; it's a touching testimonial to hospice, the case for a wider discussion about death and dying, and occasionally funny. Marshall, who also works on branded content in an ad agency, made the film through his Blue Sky Project, which makes low-budget, personal stories that "have a life because they don't have to make great returns." He saw SXSW as a distribution opportunity. "Places like SXSW are still the gatekeepers, as we wait to see what the new distribution models are," he notes. Amy C. Elliott's Wicker Kittens is the latest entry into who'dathunkit competition films; it's about jigsaw contests, featuring a big one during St. Paul's Winter Carnival. It's as low-key charming as its suburban contestants. Elliott, a self-described stubborn DIY indie, self-funded the film, with finishing funds from regional grants.

Two films offered striking windows into working-class and non-white realities that were rarely approached (with the great exception of The Great Invisible) elsewhere on screen this year at SXSW. Darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal is the memoir of a man who went to jail at 17 for bank robbery and is now winding up graduate work at NYU. This is his thesis film, executive-produced by his professor, Spike Lee. While still essentially a work in progress, the film has the potential to open a wider discussion about crime, youth and race, both for targeted and wide audiences. Jon Matthews' Surviving Cliffside, another NYU thesis film backed by Spike Lee, is also a personal story, of the director's cousin and his family. The down-at-heels Appalachian family has it all: opioid addiction, unwanted pregnancy, unemployment, shoplifting for survival, and the seven-year-old leukemia survivor's attempts to win the Little Miss West Virginia competition. The achievement of the film, which is rough around the edges, is that it transcends stereotypes in an often painfully honest portrayal, about an America rarely even acknowledged in mainstream media. "It's the story of an insider, a loved one, saying, ‘This is someone I love and understand, I want you to love and understand them too.'" Matthews, a lawyer, says that he is not concerned about exposing his characters' illegal acts, because of his careful filming choices.


From Jon Matthews' Surviving Cliffside


Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communication at American University, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact there, and author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).