SXSW 2011: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition

I’m back from Austin TX and another year of SXSW film, which actually continues through this Saturday night. Awards were announced on Tuesday evening, with DRAGONSLAYER (pictured) being the big doc winner with two nods. Other non-fiction features recognized included KUMARÉ, WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM, THE CITY DARK, BECOMING SANTA, and INCENDIARY: THE WILLINGHAM CASE. For a full list of winners, check out indieWIRE‘s coverage here.

As I’ve done in the past after attending other festivals, I’ll offer some brief reactions to docs which screened at SXSW – I managed to view many of the titles I was most anticipating which I wrote about in my pre-fest overview. This post will cover all eight of the world premieres in the Documentary Competition, while tomorrow’s will focus on a selection of offerings from other sections.

First time feature documentary filmmaker Tristan Patterson took home the Grand Jury Award as well as Best Cinematography in Austin for his portrait of Screech, an aimless young man and recent father who spends his days getting stoned or drunk and skating in the abandoned pools and in skateparks around the suburbs of Fullerton, CA, until he finds love. Featuring attractive DP work and a great score by T Griffin (full disclosure: Griffin also scored THE CANAL STREET MADAM), DRAGONSLAYER is an immensely appealing snapshot of youth on the precipice of maturity and responsibility. With the support of Executive Producer Christine Vachon and on the heels of its SXSW wins, it seems certain that the film will be a mainstay on the festival circuit and beyond later this year.

Filmmaking duo Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, Sundance Documentary and Film Independent/HBO fellows, have crafted an impressive, angering look at the effects of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 fear-mongering. Their film focuses on two young Texan men, best friends since childhood, who, experiencing a dawning of political awareness and dissatisfaction with the political status quo, found themselves drawn into questionable actions during the 2008 Republican National Convention protests. The result: domestic terrorism charges following arrests by the FBI, with potential decades-long prison sentences. To say more would reveal too many of the outrageous twists that take place in this story of criminal injustice, one of the strongest docs in this year’s line-up.

If BETTER THIS WORLD is sure to anger audiences, Vikram Gandhi’s SXSW Audience Award winning film is guaranteed to inspire the most interesting post-screening conversations, and perhaps an equal number of detractors and defenders – much like another recent film, CATFISH, that it was likened to in discussions I’ve had about it the last few days. Initially intending to expose spiritual leaders as charlatans, Gandhi constructs a Borat-like identity as the titular figure, a guru spouting largely nonsensical teachings to see how many people he can fool. Somewhere along the way, however, he shifts gears away from gently mocking or chiding his disciples, and promotes instead the idea that they have it within themselves to affect change in their lives without a need for a guru – as he reveals to them in a eventual unveiling of his true identity. While there is a streak of disingenuousness in the way the film elides its initial intent to get to its ultimate message, the result is nevertheless a fascinating, thought-provoking, and challenging project that intersects with questions of documentary ethics. While some audience members were incensed, calling on Gandhi to issue an apology to the subjects featured in the film (a small handful of whom broke contact with the filmmaker following his reveal), this reaction seems to miss the point that the film is ultimately sympathetic to Kumaré’s disciples. While it’s not a film I can stand behind unreservedly (beyond criticisms already noted, it’s too long, and the narration, especially the introductory sequence, grates), it’s one that I hope gets wide exposure.

Director Sally Rowe’s documentary profiles NYC chef Paul Liebrandt, who in 2000 was recognized by The New York Times with three stars – at 24 years old, the youngest chef to ever receive such a rating. The film begins in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when New Yorkers are still in shock from the WTC attacks, and, on the dining front, are turning to comfort food as one way to cope – leaving haute cuisine like Liebrandt’s in tough times. Rowe follows the extremely likable and driven chef over the course of the next decade from different restaurants to new ventures as he tries to reclaim the acclaim he received as a culinary wunderkind, providing a delectable and at times nail-biting behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant world that will leave foodies salivating.

Directors Don Argott & Demian Fenton, who have been behind acclaimed films like ROCK SCHOOL and THE ART OF THE STEAL, premiered their portrait of the largely unknown and unfulfilled musician, Bobby Liebling, whose band Pentagram is one of the best heavy metal bands you’ve probably never heard of. They just missed out on making it big, but, despite this, influenced a whole generation of more commercially successful musicians. As the film opens, the fiftysomething Liebling looks like he’s closer to seventysomething, is fragile, slow-moving, delusional, and addicted to crack and other drugs. He’s also living in his scene-stealing parents’ sub-basement in Maryland, and despite the efforts of his diehard fan-turned-manager and other friends, he’s either unwilling or unable to sober up, deal with his private demons, and exploit his musical potential. But then he falls in love… As regular readers of this blog may note, I often have huge problems with docs about musicians, but Argott and Fenton have succeeded in conveying why audiences like me who have no prior knowledge of Pentagram, nor a particular liking for their type of music, should not only care about their subject, but also actively root for him to succeed.

Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein are another filmmaking partnership who have received accolades for their previous work, which includes GUNNER PALACE and HOW TO FOLD A FLAG. Like Argott and Fenton, they have also managed to do what countless other filmmakers have not been able to do – make me care about a documentary about Mixed Martial Arts. As a relatively young sport, and one that was decried by politicians like John McCain as “human cockfighting” in its earliest form, MMA has not yet been able to command the respect that its practitioners believe it deserves. As a result, the docs on the subject that I’ve seen before have largely been bogged down by heavy-handed advocacy and self-justification, and often served as little more than ego-stroking profiles of not particularly interesting fighters. Thankfully, Tucker and Epperlein, while acknowledging the sport’s growing pains and public perception problems, wisely focus more on a broad range of interconnected and interesting subjects in the same Louisiana-based MMA league, including two fighters, their trainer, and the league’s charismatic, hardworking owner. The result is much more balanced, if at times bloody and brutal, look at the fledgling sport and industry.

Ian Cheney, who previously shot, produced, and co-starred in KING CORN, and later directed THE GREENING OF SOUTHIE, directs and appears in this competition entry, which took the award for Best Score/Music by The Fishermen Three and Ben Fries. The film brings a personal viewpoint to its subject, light pollution and the disappearance of the dark, as filtered through Cheney’s memories of stargazing as a youngster in Maine vs his relative inability to see the richness of the night sky in the dense, light-filled urban sky of the present. He also explores a series of consequences of this loss of darkness: its impact on the environment, animal life cycles and migration behavior, and, potentially, its link to human cancer. Personally, despite being a big fan of KING CORN, this project doesn’t wholly work for me – Cheney and/or his narration are too present, and the film is a section or two too long – but audiences seemed to be responding more positively than I did.

Finally, director Heather Courtney, whose previous films include LOS TRABAJADORE and LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE, contributed this ITVS and Sundance Documentary Fund supported project, which follows a group of Michigan friends into the army and to Afghanistan and back over a period of four years. Courtney and Kyle Henry shared the award for Best Editing, succinctly and effectively revealing the impact their military service has on the young men, their families and loved ones, and on the town itself. As significant as the footage is of the soldiers dealing with conditions of war, where injuries or death can result from combat or even everyday maneuvers, just as affecting are their (and their families’) experiences upon returning from war, potentially dealing with PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury).

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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