When a film starts with a history lesson told music video-style through French-language rap, you know you're watching something unique. The impeccable sound design is the first thing I noticed about They Will Have to Kill Us First; clear gun pops accompany news reports and this introductory music. The opening sequence explains recent events in Mali that led to the split of the country and the sharia law ruling the northern section. Residents of Timbuktu and Goa became refugees in their own country as they left the violent unrest of the north to live in Bamako... or surrounding border countries such as Burkina Faso.
Among those forced to leave were many musicians, as music was banned in the north in 2012. How difficult it is to imagine a day without music -- months without it must have felt a lifetime. As famous singer Khaira Arby puts it, "Music is like oxygen for human beings." When we first see her in 2012, she seems a dimmed version of her self, distraught over the fate of her country. Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz also introduces us to the newly formed band Songhoy Blues, party musician Moussa and refugee singer Disco.
KRISHA is why we go to film festivals.
In a world full of great films that are very much alike -- even indie movies at festivals -- KRISHA rises above the been-there-seen-that noise with a truly unique style and vision. Trey Edward Shults' odd but arresting drama is a thoroughly original twist on a well-worn genre, the family holiday film.
KRISHA rose far enough above the noise at this year's SXSW Film Festival to take home the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Award. Those who had the foresight and good sense to attend the film's world premiere at SXSW (which did not sell out, but should have) know it certainly deserves the honor.
Based on Shults' short film of the same title, which won the Narrative Short Special Jury Award at SXSW 2014, KRISHA is a story many of us know too well. The film's titular character arrives at a family Thanksgiving gathering after an absence of more than 10 years. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a gloriously dysfunctional middle-aged woman who barely keeps it together (and frequently doesn't) while battling various inner demons.
The Duplass brothers break the mold as far as family filmmaker teams go. They seem to have a knack for stories that are zany, yet peppered with flecks of true humanity. Even as producers, no two of their projects seem to be like one another. It therefore was no surprise (to me, at least) that they were part of the team behind writer/director J. Davis's premiere narrative feature film, Manson Family Vacation.
Jay Duplass takes the acting lead in this film as Nick, an anally neurotic lawyer who lives a structured life with his wife and son. When his off-the-wall adopted brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) passes through town on his way to a mysterious new job, Nick gives in to Conrad's plea of spending some quality time together. But Conrad's idea of brotherly bonding isn't quite normal: he wants to visit all of the landmarks and sites of the Charles Manson murders.
Driven by Conrad's urgent desire to start his new job with a group of "environmental activists" in the desert, the two find themselves thrown into a journey that forces them to acknowledge their estranged childhood. When Conrad's connection to Manson becomes deeper than expected, it challenges Nick to finally be the brother Conrad always sought in him, causing the story to take an unpredictable turn. (Like I said: zany with flecks of humanity.)
You just can't live in Texas/If you don't have a lot of soul
-- Doug Sahm, "At the Crossroads"
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove is a groove all right, and a great tribute to one of Texas' greatest musicians.
Doug Sahm gave us "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino" -- along with a zillion other songs -- and was an influential songwriter and performer who reinvented himself musically many times. He played in country bands as a child, cranked out Sixties pop songs with the Sir Douglas Quintet, turned psychedelic in San Francisco, helped put Austin's cosmic cowboys on the map in the Seventies, and ultimately returned to his San Antonio Tex-Mex roots with the Texas Tornadoes in the Nineties. Sahm wasn't just able to play any form of indigenous Texas music; he was Texas music.
Sir Doug celebrates all of Sahm's musical incarnations. Kicking off with a killer 1976 Austin City Limits performance of "She's About a Mover," the documentary then takes us back to Sahm's days as a child prodigy playing steel guitar in San Antonio clubs. (Known as Little Doug Sahm, he played with Hank Williams and other greats before he was a teenager.)
Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, a collection of six short films made in the Austin area in the early Eighties, is a great flashback to the early days of Austin's film scene.
A great flashback -- but not necessarily a collection of great films. They're intriguing cinematic artifacts made by filmmakers with obvious talent, but most of them are crudely made and may appeal only to those who share the filmmakers' punk/new wave sensibilities.
Demme presented the movies in a program at the Collective of Living Cinema in New York City in October 1981 after seeing them on a previous visit to Austin. The program earned a lot of great press -- but despite critical success and Demme's enthusiastic cheerleading, the films suffered the fate of most short films, being mostly forgotten outside a cult following of devoted fans and film history buffs.
But thanks to SXSW co-founder Louis Black (who was involved with several of the films), the surviving filmmakers and a team of film restorers, the six films in Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas are back, lovingly restored, headed for the film-festival circuit and soon to be released on home video from The University of Texas Press.
I'm so satisfied with my idea to limit my SXSW Film schedule to movies made by female filmmakers that I'm wondering if I should make it a regular festival practice. I've seen some groundbreaking work that I might have missed otherwise. Now, all my picks haven't been winners, but most of them have either been astonishing, moved me to tears, or both.
The documentaries in this year's selections have exceptionally strong game, from the more traditional methods of Frame by Frame and They Will Have to Kill Us First to the genre-defying A Woman Like Me. These ladies are creating complicated works, and I am here for it.
On Saturday afternoon I attended the world premiere of Frame by Frame, a documentary about four photojournalists in Afghanistan. The film's subjects, three men and a woman, have confronted various setbacks -- including the Taliban government, which once banned photography of any type. Co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli show these photographers at work and in tense moments.
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Velasquez is 25 years old and weighs 58 pounds. Velasquez, a native Austin and Texas State University alumna, was born with a rare, unnamed syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. As a child, she was bullied in school for her appearance and later, as a teenager, was bullied online where she found a YouTube video that called her "The World's Ugliest Woman."
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, which premiered at SXSW this week, shows Velasquez's physical and emotional journey from bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. The documentary paints a portrait of Velasquez using stories from friends and family and leading up to her 2013 multi-million-viewed TEDxAustin talk. She garnered acclaim from this motivational talk and was invited to speak about her experiences on television shows such as The View, and has been interviewed by the Associated Press, among other publications. These experiences prompted her to lobby on Capitol Hill for the first federal anti-bullying bill.
Velasquez was unable to answer questions by phone or in person because of health issues but did so via email instead.
Slackerwood: When and how were you approached with the idea for the documentary?
Lizzie Velasquez: Sara Bordo, the director and producer of my film, called me in February of 2014 after my TEDxAustinWomen talk went viral. Sara, who also directed the TEDx event, told me she had a wild idea to do a documentary with me to help put a spotlight on my story as well as my anti-bullying efforts.
Layla (newcomer Devon Keller) is a high-school senior shacking up with her dropout boyfriend Danny (Kiowa Tucker). An honor student, she gets a scholarship to UT Austin and then finds out she's pregnant. Given her predicament, what can she do? Petting Zoo, from director Micah Magee (see my interview with her), thrusts the viewer into several months of Layla's life.
One notable facet to the main character is that she is working poor. Layla refuses to live with her financially stable but abusive father, so has to move in with her elderly grandmother (Adrienne Harrell, Zero Charisma) and share a bed. Magee perfectly conveys the utter vulnerability of her situation. We see Layla sleeping many times -- through loud parties in Danny's apartment, in a friend's car after seeing Girl in a Coma, on her grandmother's couch after hearing bad news. Such sequences illustrate the precariousness of her life, and the limits of her control -- especially when she loses her support system.
This is not to say that Layla has no choice in anything; that would be a false statement. What decisions she can make, she does. She leaves her loser boyfriend, decides to keep her baby, and wants to make it on her own. She also falls into a relationship with fellow graduate Aaron (Austin Reed).
Dramas do not get much darker than Heaven Knows What -- or more realistic.
Based on the novel Mad Love in New York City by Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film, Heaven Knows What is bleak from its first horrifying scene. Homeless, heroin-addicted teen Harley (Holmes) is threatening to kill herself, and her emotionally abusive boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) goads her into going through with it. She slashes her wrist, but immediately changes her mind and pleads with Ilya and her homeless friends to call 911.
Harley's desperate act lands her in the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital. True to form, Ilya disappears from her life while she's recovering. Completely alone when she's released, she relies on her friend Skully (underground rapper and cult figure Necro) to help her survive on the streets. But Skully is little better than Ilya; he tells her to forget her useless and noncommittal boyfriend -- something she doesn't want to hear -- and becomes abusive when she rejects his friendship.
This is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.
Movies I've seen:
This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.
Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.