SXSW opens in a week, and I’m happy to be attending once again. I’m honored to be serving as a juror for the fest once again, this time for the documentary short competition, and I’ll also be participating on the very first film panel, Beginners Guide to SXSW Film, on Friday, March 9 at 2pm.
With great weather, a fun atmosphere, a welcoming staff, and fantastic programming, SXSW has quickly become one of my favorite festivals after just a few years of attending, and a trip I look forward to every year. The documentary programming is diverse, spread throughout the various sections of the festival, and reflects a freewheeling mix of portraiture, social advocacy films, music docs, and everything in between. While my trip this year is slightly truncated so that I can also attend the Thessaloniki Documentary festival in Greece, I’m hoping to catch as many of the festival’s lineup of nearly 60 feature documentaries as I can while I’m in Austin.
The Documentary Feature Competition includes eight world premieres, selected from nearly 900 submissions. Annually, I make an effort to try to see all the films in this category, but I’m especially looking forward to Caveh Zahedi’s new film THE SHEIK AND I, in which the director of I AM A SEX ADDICT’s faces a fatwa; Avi Zev Weider’s WELCOME TO THE MACHINE, a meditation on technology and humanity by the producer of DANLAND and CINEMANIA; Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulous’ THE SOURCE (pictured), on a 1970s utopian experiment that went wrong; Chris James Thompson’s JEFF, about Jeffrey Dahmer through those around him during his 1991 arrest; and Jeffrey Kimball’s THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT, a look at birds and birdwatchers in NYC’s legendary park.
I have to admit that I’m not particularly drawn to the three docs in Headliners, the fest’s showcase of star-driven vehicles. Of these, I’m most likely to check out Oscar winner and Sundance alum Kevin Macdonald’s MARLEY (pictured), despite having just about zero interest in Bob Marley, and its 152 min running time. Music docs at SXSW have won me over in the past, however, so perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I’m much more attracted to SXSW’s new filmmakers’ spotlight, Emerging Visions. Of the five films in this section, I’ve already seen earlier cuts of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s impressive LOW & CLEAR, which examines a friendship through the lens of a shared love of flyfishing; Bill and Turner Ross’ mesmerizing TCHOUPITOULAS (pictured), a dreamlike exploration of nocturnal New Orleans by the SXSW Jury Prize winning directors of 45365; and Wu Tsang’s WILDNESS, in which a legendary Los Angeles bar reveals itself as a nexus for multiple, and sometimes competing, communities. I’m eager to see Mark Kendall’s LA CAMIONETA – THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS, the story of the rebirth of an iconic yellow school bus as a vital means of transportation in Guatemala; and EATING ALABAMA, Andrew Beck Grace’s look at how one couple tries to balance sustainability, community, and eating locally.
The fifteen films in Documentary Spotlight showcase a broad range of premieres, including the US debut of Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s GIRL MODEL, which debuted at Toronto and has screened extensively internationally. Other notable titles featured in this section include Nelson George’s THE ANNOUNCEMENT, focusing on Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his HIV status; Katie Dellamaggiore’s BROOKLYN CASTLE, on an inner-city junior high school with the best chess team in the nation; Rebecca Richman Cohen’s CODE OF THE WEST (pictured), in which the director of SXSW Special Jury Prize winner
WAR DON DON looks at the battle over medical marijuana in Montana; Ben Shapiro’s GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS, in which the celebrated photographer creates his very unusual smalltown images; Catherine Scott’s SCARLET ROAD, on an Australian sex worker and activist (up my alley thanks to THE CANAL STREET MADAM); Patrick Forbes’ WIKILEAKS: SECRETS & LIES, an in-depth look at the controversial online organization; and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s WONDER WOMEN! THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICAN SUPERHEROINES, an exploration of the seventy year history of DC Comics’ Amazon warrior, and what she means for female identity and empowerment.
The ten documentaries in 24 Beats Per Second all focus on music and musicians. As with MARLEY, I’m open to seeing past my traditional lack of interest here, and there are a few films that have gotten my attention: Lindsey Dryden’s LOST AND SOUND, in which musically-focused individuals navigate deafness; Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir’s GRANDMA LO-FI, about a septuagenarian musician; Hans Fjellestad’s SUNSET STRIP, an ode to LA’s famous street; and Mark Ford’s UPRISING: HIP HOP & THE LA RIOTS (pictured), which examines the connections between the music genre and the outbreak of violence in Los Angeles in 1992. Also screening in this section are Malik Bendjelloul’s standout Sundance winner SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN and fellow Sundance alum UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, by Joe Berlinger.
I’m interested in all eight of the docs in SX Global, the festival’s international focus. In particular, three films focused on individuals’ dreams: Christian Sønderby Jepsen’s THE WILL (pictured), which I missed at IDFA, dealing with two brothers waiting for an inheritance; Daniel Fridell’s CUBATON – EL MEDICO STORY, in which a doctor contemplates becoming a popstar; and Angelos Abazoglou’s MUSTAFA’S SWEET DREAMS, focusing on a teenager’s desire to become a famous pastry chef.
Finally, the Festival Favorites section includes seven doc standouts from other notable festivals. In addition to a number of Sundance alums, including two of my personal favorites, Bart Layton’s THE IMPOSTER and Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, this section also features Carol Morley’s DREAMS OF A LIFE, a speculative investigation into the mystery of Joyce Vincent, whose body was discovered in her flat three years after her death; Jessica Yu’s water crisis doc, LAST CALL AT THE OASIS, which I missed at Toronto; and Brian Knappenberger’s WE ARE LEGION (pictured), on hacktivist collective Anonymous.