We created a monster ... It's just sensory overload ... like the first day of school times twenty thousand people.
Prophetic words from Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, Alan Berg's documentary about how four guys living on next to nothing created one of the largest benchmarks of alternative culture. Check out my interview with director Alan Berg for an insight of how it all began for South by Southwest.
Everything was bigger this year -- the number of attendees and campuses for SXSW Interactive, the crowds of people lining up at the Paramount Theatre for movie premieres, and the swell of music fans filling the streets of downtown and beyond for SXSW Music. Despite years of volunteering in "the belly of the beast" as I call downtown Austin during SXSW Music, I found it overwhelming. I joked that I'm no longer a SXSW veteran, I'm a SXSW old-timer as I no longer care about where the free food, drinks or parking are -- I just wanted to find a seat in a theater and a clean bathroom.
In an attempt to avoid the maddening fray, I went with a light schedule this year. I didn't have every moment planned as I've done in the past, which I found myself regretting only slightly. I didn't regret unplugging from the sensory overload of SXSW Interactive in an effort to balance Film and Interactive simply by cutting back on both.
In retrospect, I had some wonderful serendipitous moments that would never have happened had I stuck to a planned schedule. I also realize that it would have taken me several weeks of research and planning to filter through the hundreds of panels, films and events at SXSW this year, and then fit them into the scheduling tool du jour -- some worked, some didn't and some were often wrong. Here are my favorite aspects of SXSW Film 2011:
Twenty-five years ago, four guys organized what they expected to be a small gathering for local musicians to perform and get some exposure. Running it from the offices of the Austin Chronicle, the four -- Louis Black, Louis Meyers, Roland Swenson and Nick Barbaro -- didn’t expect that 700 people would show up for that first fest. Since then, South By Southwest has grown into the largest annual event in Austin and one of the largest and most recognized of such festivals in the world.
In Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, producer/director Alan Berg chronicles the rise and history of SXSW through photographs, old footage and interviews not only with the founders, but also writers Michael Corcoran and Joe Nick Patoski, Creative Director Brent Grulke, entertainer Mojo Nixon and many others.
Set to a rocking soundtrack, the movie begins with a nostalgic look back at shows at Liberty Lunch and the birth of the Austin Chronicle and credits Louis Meyers with being the driving force behind the creation of the festival. It covers the explosive debut and growth of SXSW, the launch of wristbands, the theme of industry vs. consumers and how that led to the arson of the festival offices. A sizable portion of time is spent detailing influence of major record labels on SXSW as they sponsor events and push their latest acts as well as how free events and parties outside the official festival have sprung up in protest.
As someone who has only ever experienced SXSW through the film festival, I was disappointed that Film and Interactive, which have grown to equal the music festival in prestige (and in the case of film, exceed it in length by three days), were barely a footnote. Still, this was an interesting and educational documentary and enough fun that I watched it twice. The older footage provides a haunting glimpse of Austin-that-was, which brought a flood of memories of my first years here. This is a must-watch for anyone who has spent two decades or more in this city as well as anyone who enjoys the live music scene.
Visit the Outside Industry website for more information about upcoming screenings, etc.
I didn't get to see many SXSW short films this year, but I made sure to find time for Pioneer, the latest from Dallas-area filmmaker David Lowery, which won the Narrative Shorts Jury Award at SXSW. Lowery did most of the SXSW 2010 bumpers (the micro-shorts promoting the fest that play before each film), and also directed one of my favorite features of SXSW 2009, St. Nick.
Pioneer premiered at Sundance this year. It's minimalist in setup -- theoretically, a simple bedtime story scene between a father and son. But the film is beautifully shot by David Blood, and the outcome of the short itself will have you thinking for awhile afterward. Myles Brooks plays the little boy, and Will Oldham the dad. It's Brooks's first time onscreen, but Oldham has acted in a number of indie films (Wendy and Lucy, The Guatamalan Handshake) but is also a musician under the name Bonnie Prince Billy.
The most moving documentary I saw at SXSW this year is from Austinite Heather Courtney, although it's primarily shot in her hometown, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Where Soldiers Come From. I had more or less decided after The Messenger that I'd had enough of war-related features and documentaries, but I don't regret seeing this movie, not for a minute. The film had its world premiere at SXSW 2011.
Where Soldiers Come From follows three young men from their decision to enroll in the National Guard after high school, through their deployment overseas, and what happens post-deployment. Dom is an artist, and we see a lot of his graffiti-like art on the walls of an abandoned building in his hometown, before he leaves. He hangs out with his friends Cole and Bodi, and they all end up in the same National Guard unit, sent to Afghanistan to find IEDs (improvised explosive devices; aka bombs).
Romantic thriller Apart had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this month, and will be playing in competition at the Dallas International Film Festival on April 3 and 5. I interviewed star Josh Danziger and writer/director Aaron Rottinghaus while they were in Austin to promote the movie (read my review for more details).
But before I get into my conversation with Rottinghaus, allow me to take a moment to share what actress Joey Lauren Adams had to say, when I spent a few minutes chatting with her. Adams (Chasing Amy) hired Rottinghaus as an editor on her writing/directorial debut Come Early Morning, which Austin Film Festival in 2006 after a Sundance premiere earlier that year.
"In the process of editing [Come Early Morning], we became friends and he went above in beyond in helping me with my project," Adams told me. So she returned the favor to take a small but significant role in Apart.
"Once he gave me that first bit of direction, he was really good. And all at once he was my director and I was his actor, and I trust him. Aaron had a vision, whether you liked the film or not, and it was very thought out and very detailed. He did a great job on it, and he stuck with it." Would Adams work with Rottinghaus again? "In a heartbeat. As a director, or an editor."
Arguably the best thing about SXSW is discovering "new" talent, both onscreen and off. One of the world premiere films at SXSW 2011 was Apart, the feature directorial debut of Aaron Rottinghaus. The movie starred Texas native Josh Danziger, who worked on the original story with Rottinghaus (read the Slackerwood review). Both took time out of their whirlwind week to talk with Slackerwood about their romantic thriller, the story of a young man haunted by the past and the girl he cannot remember.
Below are excerpts from my conversation with Danziger, who was in town to support the movie and to celebrate making it in his home state of Texas. We're confirming he's also going to be in Dallas for the screenings of Apart at the Dallas International Film Festival in less than a week.
I have a confession to make: I really enjoyed Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, a new documentary by director James Moll that played SXSW this year.
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth traces the story of the band Foo Fighters from their start in 1995 to the recording of their current album. For those of you who don't know the Foo Fighters, it's the band David Grohl founded after the tragic death of his Nirvana band mate and friend Kurt Cobain.
One of the things I really liked about this documentary was how the story was told. Where a lot of documentaries are told using narration, this documentary was told using interviews of current and former band members. I really liked hearing the stories of the band from the people that actually lived it. I can imagine that Moll's background doing interviews for the Shoah Project has something to do with this.
This year at SXSW Film, I decided to spend less time in line and more at the satellite and smaller venues, and catching the Narrative and Midnight Shorts programs. Kudos to SXSW Film programmers Claudette Godfrey and Stephanie Noone who set up the short film lineup. Anyone who's read my AFF Selected Shorts or Fantastic Fest coverage knows I love the short film format, partly due to the small time investments for great rewards. I found myself on the edge of my theater seat in under 15 minutes for one film and brought to tears of joy by another in the next 15. Find out which films that I found were most engaging after the jump.
Typically I'm a staunch believer in the cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking, with little if any involvement on the filmmaker's part so I can feel immersed in the story. On the other hand, there's Austin filmmaker Turk Pipkin, who narrates and is seen in his documentary films including Nobelity, One Peace at a Time and now Building Hope. His latest film often focuses on The Nobelity Project, an Austin-based nonprofit led by the filmmaker and his wife Christy Pipkin. The Nobelity Project partnered with a remote low-income African community with great results for the local primary school, and so Pipkin promised to help build Mahiga Hope High, the first high school for the community, while connecting Kenyans with American supporters.
In Building Hope, viewers learn that in Kenya, primary school is free and mandatory but families have to pay their teenagers to attend high school. Making matters worse are the gaps in qualified teachers, high school tuition and poor conditions of the few existing high schools, including lack of clean water and sports facilities. Without a high school education, the children of Mahiga are left with few options in life. The Pipkins were determined to change this fact, by introducing the "1000 Voices for Hope" program with the goal of getting 1,000 donors to donate $100. Donors included Austin musicians Lyle Lovett, Emily & Martie of The Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson, who stated, "That's a choir I want to sing in."
A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt may seem like it's riding on the coattails of foodie phenomenon of recent years. Nine years in the making, the documentary about a rising-star New York chef pre-dates Top Chef by some years.
Liebrandt made a splash on the New York City food scene as the epitome of enfant terrible chef, arrogant with the skill to back it up. But as A Matter of Taste reveals, all the skill in the world does not equate to success, especially when your art depends on location, reputation and finances. At 24, Liebrandt was the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from The New York Times, but outside of New York you may not have heard of him. Until now.
Sally Rowe's feature directorial debut focuses as much on the business side of restaurants as the man as Liebrandt matures as a chef and a person. When Rowe started filming him, Liebrandt was on the verge of culinary stardom only to have it elude him in arguably the most competitive restaurant arena in the world. Filled with interviews of food critics and celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, A Matter of Taste is insightfully engaging as Liebrandt's journey is documented, with Liebrandt is the viewer's guide to into the kitchens of New York. Most people know about "location, location, location" but the economic realities are much more involved, as is the personal toll of working the hours necessary to bring those gorgeous dishes to your table.