SXSW: Performance, Experience, Immersion
SXSW, the annual mega-event in Austin, TX, has become not just a festival, not just a destination, but a spectacle in four dimensions. As cosplay characters, bizarrely groomed dogs, illuminated scooters and rickshaws wove through my 2019 journey, I could visit a battery of corporate “houses” programmed to attract attention, attend “parties” promoting the latest app or device, or visit massive installations celebrating digital artistry that brings echoes of 1970s lightshows.
It takes focus to pay attention at SXSW, where your time is the most relevant currency. I was focused on documentary, technology and their intersection.
Wider Truths through an Intimate Lens
In the film lineup, you can expect to find music docs, quirky docs and regional Southern themes. That makes for a volatile and often surprising mix. When I asked SXSW film festival head Janet Pierson about the curatorial objectives, though, she explained, “We’re interested in films with a strong authorial point of view that, ideally, display cinematic talent, and from filmmakers earlier in their feature filmmaking careers…Overall, I believe we’re known for films with really strong characters that demonstrate wider truths through an intimate lens.”
If there is one film in the festival that does that best, for my money it was the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner, For Sama. This profoundly affecting, deeply unnerving, urgently relevant film tells one young woman’s story of living through the briefly optimistic Syrian Spring, the brutal siege of Aleppo and the retreat from that tragic city. Waad Al-Kateab, who co-directed with Edward Watts from the UK’s Channel 4, was an idealistic 19-year-old college student when she joined the student demonstrations, then she fell in love with a medical student, became committed to the dream of freedom, dignity and justice, and joined her husband in anchoring what eventually became Aleppo’s only hospital. Their baby girl, Sama, is the title character. Over the years, Al-Kateab became familiar to UK viewers as a Channel 4 reporter from Aleppo.
Telling the inside story of a war zone faces extraordinary challenges, and often those stories focus on the fighting. For Sama, by contrast, is a civilian’s and a woman’s story, of someone building a loving life with family and friends, sharing the common goals of dignity and autonomy. We come to care about the community, not just the couple.
Too often we get images in the news that reduce people to victims. This is a story of vulnerability, but not of victimhood. For Sama brims with agency, character and creativity. Because the human reality is so richly explored, this film also allows us to understand what is at stake in Syria in ways hard to grasp from news bursts. This included, for me, the central importance of Russian forces in the fighting, and the unrelenting assault on ordinary human rights by the Syrian government.
Such stories are sometimes rushed to screen. Al-Kateab and Watts, by contrast, spent two years, with support from the PBS series FRONTLINE and Channel 4. To salvage the material that Al-Kateab had smuggled out of the country, the filmmakers worked with digital experts to recover damaged segments. The team found a story, not just a chronology; they use flashbacks and a strong narrative by Al-Kateab to foreshadow, guide and shape the narrative. Only weeks before the premiere, they scrapped the original narration. Waad rewrote it, with poetic insight that Watts was able to shape to the pace of the film. “By the end, we could read each others’ thoughts,” said Watts.
After festivals and theatrical distribution, For Sama will air on FRONTLINE. Among other things, the film is an example of what public television investment can mean both in terms of art and public knowledge.
At this point, SXSW itself is a meta-performance, but performance is at the core of the place’s original identity, too. The docs, though, often go beyond, into culture, history and class. Casey Pinkston and Luke Dick’s Red Dog, for instance, features not the country songwriting star himself, but Dick’s mother. It’s a moving profile of an abused working-class woman who has bumped through a difficult life and still manages to hold her head defiantly high. It shows the violence that accompanies the lives of too many working women, and obliquely points to the injustice of blaming women with few options for asserting themselves. Alfred George Bailey’s Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall poignantly charts the career of a photographer who followed the most iconic bands at the height of the early rock era. But sadly, cocaine addiction destroyed him long before he died.
Jesse James Miller’s I Am Richard Pryor chooses as its key to Pryor’s character the damage of his difficult childhood. But it goes light on the endemic racism that structured that early misery, informed Pryor’s work, dogged his career, and explains why his legacy matters. Finally, one of the music docs at SXSW is also a crime story: Aaron Kunkel’s The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story. Pearlman was a hustler-manager who stole from, among others, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.
Politics as Performance
This year, SXSW became a showcase for bright new faces in politics, with visits (in conjunction with the Texas Tribune) from Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (AOC was the clear favorite, filling two overflow rooms as well as a convention ballroom and still disappointing fans who lined up throughout the gargantuan convention center.) Films such as Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House and David Modigliani’s Running with Beto, the Documentary Spotlight Audience Award winner, fed the appetite of those addicted to the horse race, while also providing insights into character and motivation.
Other films featured hot issues in different ways. Several films focused on immigration. A standout for me was Ben Masters’ The River and the Wall, which won the SXSW Louis Black “Lone Star” Award. Ostensibly a millennial outdoor-adventure film, it evolves into a passionate polemic against Trump’s border wall. Five friends travel the Texas border on bikes, horses and kayaks, from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. Spectacular cinematography (the director and one of the cinematographers spent time at National Geographic) captures awe-inspiring landscapes and sunrises, and drone footage shows regions that need no wall to stop anyone. The team struggles to wade through swamps, clamber over cliffs and find a way around the impassible. They meet a farmer who’ll be separated from the farm’s water source, and National Parks employees who try to remain calm and professional while contemplating destruction of national heritage. A Border Patrol agent bemoans resources allocated for a wall, rather than toward enforcement personnel. Two members of the team, who are undocumented immigrants and grew up in Texas, tell their stories. The film is both politically relevant and an engrossing adventure story. It makes its theatrical premiere May 3 through Gravitas Ventures.
Then there’s the kind of SXSW film that manages to combine the weird and the wonderful, and even do it in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. Two films in competition, Erin Derham’s Stuffed and Rachel Stern’s Well Groomed, do that well. And they’re both films about competitive events, as well—a format that never fails to entertain, especially when you have strong characters, as these films do.
Stuffed looks at contemporary taxidermy. Taxidermists who work for natural history museums value their role in conservation ecology, while also recognizing that most people will never understand how much art goes into the work. A new generation, though, is growing up practicing “rogue taxidermy,” in which they construct fabulous animals and fantastic environments for them—and showcase this work in galleries and art museums. Stuffed joins my shelf of films that explore weird ways that people living in late capitalism interact with the natural world.
Well Groomed profiles the world of extreme dog grooming. These are dogs that are dyed bubble-gum colors, whose coats are cut into landscapes and cartoon characters. (You could not miss them at SXSW.) The women who are headed for the grooming competition are mostly working dog-groomers themselves. They see themselves as extending their craft, and sometimes keeping themselves from the boredom of cutting their clients’ pets’ toenails and trimming their fur.
Working women and small-scale entrepreneurs, they practice the peppy aspirationalism of self-help books. And they feel hurt when people see them as abusing the dogs, as the dogs clearly love them. I wanted more and better for these women than what they have in a normal work day. They also deserve more than the hope of an occasional trophy for all that goodwill and energy, and for their quite reasonable desire to be somebody.
Platforms, Distribution, Immersion
The panels offered an unstable mix of flagrant self-promotion, corporate hype and industry insight. Makers of shorts were happy to hear that airlines and hospitals are purchasing short films, and that some airlines are offering first-class passengers the opportunity to watch VR. As well, the shorts on news sites continue to flourish. Indeed, a video from The Atlantic, The Separated, showed at SXSW.
Synergies for shorts are showing up. The Atlantic’s video editor, Kasia Cieplak-Meyr von Baldegg, whose team is now 16 people strong and growing, noted that extended audio for The Separated also became a segment of This American Life. SXSW also featured a panel on the increasing synergies between podcasting and Hollywood, following Gimlet Media’s placement of Homecoming (and its recent sale to Spotify, based in part on its hit-making capacity).
Big data have come to the movies, making many filmmakers nervous. Several panels featured machine learning and artificial intelligence for story design in filmmaking. Yves Bergquist, from AI startup Corto, extolled the opportunities for filmmakers to execute work more effectively. But others, such as the reps from Storyfit.com, emphasized how big data can streamline decision-making for studio executives and publishers, and reassure their shareholders.
SXSW featured plenty of immersive work to sample, whether interactive or VR or installation. But the exciting work is neither nonfiction nor storytelling. I watched non-interactive VR that created a satisfying experience, like a Maui Ocean Center’s opportunity to swim with humpback whales, and Re-Animated, a meditation based in a Hawai’ian rainforest on a now-extinct bird. They both made me feel that the awkward headset experience was worth it.
Two works demonstrated intriguing play with music, interactivity and XR. In Tonandi, a Magic Leap project with the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, you co-create a musical experience by touching fantastical AR plants that trigger different musical moments. “We would like you to think that of the experience as if you had an aquarium of your favorite musician,” said co-director Michael Tucker. In -22.7 C, you travel along with French musician Molecule to northern Greenland and inside his own imagination, while also co-designing the auditory experience. I found Molecule’s imagination to be less interesting than the Greenland landscape, but the experience was fascinating.
Jessica Brillhart, the doyenne of VR filmmaking, was back at SXSW with latest examples of her immersive work, including spatial audio (on a platform that’s available in the app store, Traverse). She had some core observations: In this very young and emergent form, it’s not storytelling, she said—it’s stories telling. After all, the camera is now in the head of the person experiencing your work. The more stories the better, in fact. There is no one truth to tell. Success is when “they get the truth of that experience,” whatever the person’s experience is. Game design, she said, is the heart and soul of the creative process in XR. Finally, Brillhart was not the only speaker at SXSW to remind the audience that tech is the tool, not the goal.
The copyright doctrine of fair use, which allows creators to re-use copyrighted material without permission in some circumstances, was the secret ingredient that made many SXSW docs possible. Indeed, the entertainment firm Donaldson & Callif handled fair use (among other things) on 15 films in the festival.
One of the most notable was Janice Engel’s Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, which won the Festival Favorite Audience Award. Her frank and intimate portrait of the hilariously acerbic political journalist was created over six years, and overwhelmingly from archival material. “Molly had an extensive archive,” said co-producer Amber Howell, “so we had access but not rights.” The team licensed material where they wanted the high quality of a master, and sometimes—particularly for photographers—out of professional courtesy. But fair use was very helpful to lower costs for material they could use in the archive, but also in situations where they could not find the owner (what lawyers call an “orphan work”).
Another poster child for fair use was Romantic Comedy, Elizabeth Sankey’s loving, feminist essay about rom-coms through the years. The film is pretty much wall-to-wall clips from films and TV shows. Sankey told me she employed fair use for all of the film and TV clips, and also got errors and omissions insurance without difficulty.
And then there’s Brent Hodge’s Who Let the Dogs Out, a hilarious, improbable history of the evolution of the song—or is it a chant?—“Who let the dogs out.” Or, as producer Aly Kelly described to me, “an unnecessary deep dive on the world’s most annoying song.” The song has many fathers, all of whom eagerly claim paternity. The truth is more like the history of creative process in general—incremental, overlapping, and a combination of communication and misunderstanding. Who Let the Dogs Out makes understanding cultural production not only easy but fun. The producers licensed some works and fairly used others, depending on the context and use.
Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at American University in Washington, DC.