SXSW 2012: Docs in Brief, Part Two: Other Sections

My last post on this year’s SXSW included my brief thoughts on the features I saw in the Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections. Today’s wraps up with profiles of eleven additional films from various other fest sections. Once again, I unfortunately wasn’t able to fit in all the titles I wanted to see, including GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS, LOST AND SOUND, THE WILL, and DREAMS OF A LIFE.

Katie Dellamaggiore’s entertaining and surprisingly affecting look at a junior high school’s chess team generated headlines during SXSW when it was announced that Scott Rudin had picked up narrative remake rights to the Documentary Spotlight title (pictured above). This non-fiction version has a lot going for it – a competition doc with well-selected, distinct, and diverse characters; a social issue element that is appropriate to the topic but isn’t overplayed; and a genuine audience investment in the outcomes of its young leads’ challenges. While chess is the throughline, Dellamaggiore allows key subjects to be revealed as well-rounded individuals by showing the viewer other typical aspects of their lives such as student government elections and the influence of their parents. As I’ve written about before, I typically respond well to competition docs, but largely as a guilty pleasure, as many simply repeat a tried and true format with a twist. By concentrating on one school and a handful of its team players, Dellamaggiore largely bypasses the often diffuse “who will win?” question in competition docs to instead focus the audience on what’s at stake for the school and for its players, win or lose. (Addendum: In addition to its Rudin deal, the film scored the Documentary Spotlight Audience Award.)

In her spotlight doc, past SXSW award winner Rebecca Richman Cohen concisely spotlights a number of key players on either side of the debate around medical marijuana in Montana. Though the state legalized the substance for medicinal use, helping manage pain and offset symptoms for terminal and other sufferers, a battle brews because of perceived weaknesses in its regulation and baseless fear-mongering that links a theoretical increase in teen pot usage to the medical marijuana laws. As marijuana dispensaries fear not only being pushed out of business, but also potential federal indictment, as the substance remains illegal on the national level, concerned parents and politicians ramp up the pressure for repeal. Despite an overuse of narration, Richman Cohen puts together a nicely balanced view of the issue, which speaks as much about the specific issue of marijuana as it does about states’ rights, and about the compromised form politics often takes.

Another controversial legalization forms the backdrop of Catherine Scott’s film – sex work. While her main subject, Rachel Wotton, lives in an Australian state where sex work has been legalized, there are harsher restrictions elsewhere, motivating her activism at home and internationally, signaled by the film’s title. But this heartfelt portrait is at its core less about politics and more about human connection. The captivating and ebullient Wotton has turned her attention to an historically ignored or ostracized client base – people with disabilities – and educates other sex workers and caregivers on the importance of accommodating their needs. She’s a dream doc subject – open, warm, and charismatic – whether meeting with other sex workers, attending to her clients’ special needs, or discussing her relationship with her boyfriend.

A darker side of a female dominated industry that trades on sexuality, Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s doc looks at the modeling dreams of young Russian girls. Recruited by a fascinatingly odd former model who reflects on her career and her role in the industry now, teenager Nadya is one of many pretty hopefuls who leave their families in Russia for promised work in Japan, only to find that things aren’t exactly as they were led to believe. Isolated by both language and culture, they risk falling into crippling debt or an even darker fate. I served as a consultant on this doc and have been thrilled with the response it’s received since its debut last Fall at Toronto. Sabin and Redmon deftly balance the stories of the veteran model turned scout and the wide-eyed innocent to expose the flaws in the system, and the potential for exploitation.

Women and their representation are the focus of Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s exploration of the archetypal superwoman and its status in American society. Using the unusual origins of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman – created by William Moulton Marston, the inventor of a lie detector prototype, based on his certainty that the world would soon be ruled by a matriarchy – the film explores not only the Amazon Princess, but other powerful women from within and outside comic books to consider their function as symbols of empowerment for females (and males) of all ages through the past seventy years. The doc impressively packs a lot in a relatively slim running time, smartly foregoing the trap of delving too deeply into specific, temporary story-based changes to the character of Wonder Woman, and instead focusing on her iconic, enduring elements.

More than twenty years ago, basketball superstar Magic Johnson put a most recognizable, and, at the time, unexpected face to AIDS when he publicly announced his HIV-positive status. Nelson George’s doc reviews Johnson’s career and swift rise to celebrity, the behind-the-scenes of his diagnosis and decision to retire, and how his towering presence in the sport helped to educate and shift public perception, awareness, and acceptance of the realities and myths that had formed around HIV and AIDS. While the film perhaps spends too much time in Johnson’s biography, it is effective in detailing the impact of the announcement on a worldwide audience of fans who were forced to confront their prejudices and ignorance around the disease, and especially in showing the microcosm of the NBA and how its various constituents reacted, for good or ill.

The final Documentary Spotlight title of those I was able to see at SXSW provides an insiders’ look at the Wikileaks story. Patrick Forbes’ doc wears its TV origins quite plainly – narration and talking heads predominate – but it’s still well told and comprehensive, providing the first-person accounts of not only the elusive Julian Assange, but also those of his Wikileaks collaborator and the major newspaper editors who worked with Assange to break the story. This participation, recounting in detail the massive coordination and ethical debates around such a massive and potentially problematic news scoop alone makes it worth a look.

Moving into SXSW’s Festival Favorites’ section, Brian Knappenberger’s doc takes a broader view than the Wikileaks case to examine the activities and ethos of the radical hacker/activist collective Anonymous. From the shared anarchic energy of 4chan, which birthed the group, to coordinated worldwide attacks on Scientology, which helped to bring their existence widespread notoriety, former and present Anonymous members reveal their history, conflicts, and methodology – and, for some, the legal consequences of their actions, often grossly out of proportion to their alleged offenses, which the group liken as a new form of civil disobedience. Able to speak to both insiders and neophytes, Knappenberger’s film is at the same time entertaining and provocative.

SX Global saw the North American premiere of Daniel Fridell’s film (whose title appeared as the above on screen, but as the more awkward CUBATON: EL MEDICO STORY in SXSW’s program), in which a young civil servant medical doctor pursues his pop star dreams. El Medico is charming enough, but what makes the film stand out among other such films is the presence of two additional characters – the shady European music producer who promises El Medico the world, and El Medico’s mother, who says more with a withering glance than other characters say in a soliloquy. The titular figure, caught between these two influences, risks losing his own voice – the producer pushes overtly sexual lyrics and dancing, and is unwilling to incorporate a strong sense of local music and traditions into his songs, while his mother, a stalwart supporter of the educational boons of Castro’s Revolution, is deadset against her son giving up his medical career, especially for scandalous and lascivious songs.

Another SX Global title about a young man’s dreams, Angelos Abazoglou’s film follows a sixteen-year-old who wants desperately to move from his role of baklava apprentice to master. As Mustafa finds obstacles to his dream in his small village, the appealingly naive young man eventually takes a likely foolish risk by traveling to Istanbul, with some homemade baklava as his only real means of bartering accommodation and, potentially, a chance at working towards becoming a master. Artfully blending documentary with some fictional set-ups, Abazoglou’s film is beautifully constructed, shot, and paced – a film about adolescence that nevertheless treats its subjects with maturity.

Finally, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir’s doc, from the festival’s music-oriented 24 Beats Per Second section, profiles a Danish/Icelandic woman who began making singular music in her home at the age of seventy. Selling them herself and through a local store, she became an underground legend, inspiring other musicians with her handmade aesthetic, which also translated to loveably crude album covers. The soft-spoken Nielsdottir takes clear pleasure in showing off for the camera, demonstrating not only her compositions, but also how she used common objects to approximate unusual sounds for her recordings. The film’s aesthetic choices – from collage tableaux created inspired by the album covers, to the texture of the film – perfectly match its eclectic and smile-inducing subject.

Addendum: Additional documentary audience awards have been announced for Sundance alums UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (24 Beats Per Second) and CHASING ICE (Festival Favorites), as well as for HER MASTER’S VOICE (SX Global).

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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