SXSW 2012: Docs in Brief, Part One: Competition & Emerging Visions

While the torrential downpours of the first few days made for a much different SXSW than I’ve been used to, Austin needed the rain, so I tried not to complain too much, and it was still a great fest. Despite leaving a day earlier than usual in order to attend the second half of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, I managed to see a nice chunk of the films on my wishlist while in town, enough for a couple of posts. In this one, I’m including my thoughts on the Competition and Emerging Visions titles I was able to catch, while the next post will cover Documentary Spotlight, 24 Beats Per Second, SX Global, and Festival Favorites.

Sadly, I missed two of the Competition titles – WELCOME TO THE MACHINE and SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE – and one from Emerging Visions – EATING ALABAMA – but I hope to catch up with those elsewhere on the circuit at some point.

Using a treasure trove of archival documentation and contemporary reflections from past members of the Source Family, Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos have crafted one of the Competition’s most compelling films (pictured above), offering a privileged look into the inner workings of a 1970s cult/sometime rock band. While not as notorious as the Mansons, Father Yod’s group of free-love, health food acolytes generated a fair bit of controversy both in their original southern Californian home and later in Hawaii, but the doc is far from some sensationalistic exposé. Instead it carefully encapsulates a particular period of experimentation – one that left an indelible mark on its members and on the offspring of its utopian plan. Most effective is the incorporation of the family archivist’s historical audio recording of the film’s climatic moment – a remarkable bit of footage of which documentary filmmakers dream.

Chris James Thompson’s film on notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is also concerned in representing a particular time and place – in this case Milwaukee in the early 1990s. In a storytelling decision that may not sit well with some documentary purists, this representation is in the form of enacted scenes showing Dahmer’s daily life – mundane on the surface, but revelatory about how he managed to murder seventeen people and nearly get away with it. I typically hate re-enactments, so I had issues with this approach, but recognize that simply relying on the talking heads that provide the bulk of the exposition in the film would have likely resulted in a very dry doc. The unusual quietness, lack of predictable theatrics, and verisimiltude in these scenes do elevate them beyond UNSOLVED MYSTERIES – but I still found the documentary subjects’ testimony from Jeffrey’s neighbor, chief investigator, and coroner – a lot more interesting.

Jay Bulger had the challenge of conveying multiple decades in music and history in his profile of drumming legend Ginger Baker. Luckily (or not) he had a sometimes willing, sometimes antagonistic subject – Baker does physical harm to the director in the opening scene – available to relate his tumultuous and troubled life. Interviews with the curmudgeonly Baker are undeniably the crux of the film, while other musicians and family members provide varying perspectives on the life and career of the troublemaker and addict. As I’ve admitted many times in the past, music docs generally leave me cold, and despite an appreciation for Bulger’s ability to pull together the strands of more than five decades of a performing career in a fairly concise manner, I left feeling that fans of Mr Baker will respond best to this, while others, like me, with no prior knowledge of the subject, might most enjoy individual moments in an unusual life- such as the strange twists his life took when he embraced polo, or tried to make his own unwieldy band work. The Documentary Features jury responded more strongly, awarding Bulger SXSW’s top doc prize.

A number of poor families dwelling in palafitas – essentially makeshift shacks positioned on poles above water – in the slums of Bahia in Brazil are followed over multiple years in Annie Eastman’s doc, which picked up this year’s Documentary Audience Award. Constructed by the community over decades by introducing tons of garbage into their bay, the palafitas are a breeding ground for pollution and disease, leading the Brazilian government to draft a plan to clear out the water slums and relocate the inhabitants to new public housing. As the years tick by, and as infants in the opening scenes quickly grow up in poverty, little progress is made, angering the residents and motivating some to political activism. The locale is fascinating, and the longitudinal approach demonstrates starkly the pitfalls of governments and their good intentions, but the characters and their reactions to their situation best engage the viewer’s sympathy and engender frustration with the cycle of poverty they seemed doomed to endure.

Clocking in at a slim hour’s length, Jeffrey Kimball’s doc is a charming love letter to the birds and birders of NYC’s well-known park. The nature on display, shot over multiple seasons, is beautiful, with glimpses of colorfully plumaged wildlife, making their stopover during long migratory flights or spending time in the park to breed. Even if the viewer isn’t particularly enamored with birds, Kimball – himself a birder – has smartly chosen a wide range of individuals whose birdwatching obsession is either winningly infectious or watchably quirky. Beyond the bird focus, the doc smartly reflects on people’s relationship with nature, providing plenty of food for thought about what kind of connection – or lack thereof for many urban dwellers – we have in our daily lives.

Iranian-American director Caveh Zahedi provocatively pushes the limits of free speech in a non-democratic land when he’s commissioned to create a film for a new Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. Though the theme of the show is “art as a subversive act,” Zahedi quickly finds himself challenged at every turn as he attempts to use the opportunity to satirize decidedly sensitive topic like religion and government. His documentary relates his struggle as his team and he push all the wrong buttons – dance numbers featuring women in burkas, a fictionalized kidnapping attempt on the head of state – with the filmmaker telling his story directly to the camera. I’ve written before about my general dislike of films about filmmakers making films. Many audiences will view this as extremely self-indulgent – I myself fought against the film for much of its running time, irritated by this often unnecessary and indulgent technique and, more importantly, what reads to me at time as disingenuousness in Zahedi and his crew’s unlikely lack of knowledge about sensitive issues in the region. That said, I was at least won over by the filmmaker’s simple point that, whether or not Zahedi is right or wrong, sensitive or insensitive, he should have the right to express his opinions without fears of personal harm, harm to participants, or outright censorship. I just think he could have gotten to that in a less obvious and self-indulgent manner.

Mark Kendall makes his documentary feature directorial debut with this appealing Emerging Visions title which follows a decommissioned iconic yellow school bus as it is auctioned off, driven from the US through Mexico and into Guatemala, and transformed into a hopeful man’s means of providing for his family. The bus emerges as a silent but telling character, repurposed through repairs and a vibrant, intricate paint job into the titular vehicle. Along its journey, it reveals aspects of the backgrounds of individuals who come into contact with it – the driver who makes multiple trips across the border, the mechanic and painters who fix it up, and the enterprising family man who is risking much by buying it – especially, as the film carefully shows the audience, in the face of the violence faced by camioneta drivers who are not able to pay gangster’s “protection.”

A more pointed anthropomorphism is present in Wu Tsang’s portrait of legendary Los Angeles bar the Silver Platter, which is not only the setting of the doc, but also one of its vocal subjects, at times itself revealing its own story, and its intersections with the diverse groups that have found refuge and community within its doors, through poetic narration. It’s a tough conceit to pull off, and while I respect Tsang’s inventive approach, it doesn’t completely work for me. But more than this, I personally had difficulty with the focus placed on the titular party that was held in the Silver Platter – an event that attracted a very different demographic to the bar that caused friction with its longtime Latino gay and trans clientele. While the film doesn’t shy away from the controversy the party engendered, the film’s focus on Tsang – one of the party’s organizers – and its very title still leaves me feeling that this upstart, pseudo-gentrifying event is offered a privileged position over a historically marginalized group that had an earlier claim on the space. I’ll readily admit that others have not read it quite the same way I have, however, so readers should take a look and judge for themselves.

45365’s Bill and Turner Ross return to SXSW with another simply beautiful film. They move from their Ohio roots to their present-day stomping grounds of New Orleans, reflected in the nocturnal journey of three brothers who take the ferry over to the busy streets of the city from their home on Algiers Point. Missing the last return ferry, they wander the streets and become immersed in the sights and sounds of the city, and especially of the titular, music-filled street. As one of the SXSW jurors who presented the top doc prize to their last film, I was hopeful that they would continue their exploration of place and atmosphere, and they have definitely come through, presenting the young boys’ experience in a stunningly palpable and lyrical way.

Kahlil Hudson – who was the cinematographer on SXSW alum KUMARÉ – and Tyler Hughen present a study of friendship between two men united in their obsessive love of fly-fishing. Like a doc version of OLD JOY, this artful observational film presents a complex and engaging consideration of the bonds of male friendship and the rivalry that is often its underpinning. Impressively photographed, nicely paced, and effectively integrating music (one of the subjects is the son of Townes Van Zandt), the doc should appeal far beyond a niche group of fishing enthusiasts to strike a chord with wider audiences, who don’t usually have exposure to nuanced explorations of what are often easily mocked and dismissed as “bromances.” (Addendum: SXSW audiences clearly agreed, voting the film as the Audience Award winner in the Emerging Visions category.)

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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