My coverage of non-fiction films from the just completed SXSW wraps up with this look at a few films each from four of the non-competitive sections of the festival, Visions, Special Events, SXGlobal, and 24 Beats Per Second – I previously wrote about Competition and Documentary Spotlight titles. Once again, I didn’t have the opportunity to see all the films in these sections that I was hoping to, and would single out a few that were also on my list – THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX, THE PUNK SINGER, and BAYOU MAHARAJAH – that I’d like to catch elsewhere.
Utilizing 8mm footage shot by key Nixon staffers HR Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, and John Erlichman and seized by the FBI decades ago, together with the sneaky President’s own hidden audio recordings, period media reports, and contemporary interviews with the major players, director Penny Lane opens a back door into one of the most controversial administrations in this country’s history (pictured above). Like a domestic cousin to Andrei Ujica’s THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUSESCU, the result is thoroughly engrossing, revealing moments of unexpected humor and providing insight into the long-vilified figure and his aides-de-camp – all of whom served prison time for their part in the Watergate scandal – as Lane takes the viewer through key events, from Nixon’s visit to China through his resignation. My favorite from SXSW’s Visions section, the film has been tapped to close NYC’s celebrated New Directors/New Films at the end of this month.
FUCK FOR FOREST
Michał Marczak’s contribution to Visions is also revealing, in more ways than one. Not for those of a prudish disposition, his newest film follows the efforts of the titular non-profit organization, a small Berlin-based group of neo-hippies who have come up with a plan to save the environment through porn. Photographing themselves or willing recruits as they engage in all manners of sexual behavior, they hope to finance the purchase of a piece of Amazonian forest for preservation by selling their explicit photos and video online. Marczak’s main guide through this unusual world is Danny, an adorable new convert to the cause, who hides his insecurities behind an eclectic wardrobe culled from others’ refuse and through incessant music making. As the ragtag (and frankly often annoying) group makes its way to the Amazon to see their world-saving efforts put into practice, their privileged naïveté is gloriously taken to task in a jaw-droppingly perfect scene that alone makes Marczak’s film unforgettable.
Also screening in Visions is Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa’s hybrid doc, a lyrical exploration of what happened to her older sister when she moved to New York City to study acting. Years later, Petra followed in her footsteps, influenced by her sister’s passions and also trying to make sense of her fate. Family photos, letters, and home video elusively combine with partly staged scenes to tease out the puzzle of both sisters, and the impact of their respective journeys not only on themselves but also on their relationship to their mother, the third major presence in the film. Costa’s film is often beautifully, poetically lensed, and deeply personal – narrated by the filmmaker in a plaintive, searching manner – but the ambiguous approach she takes doesn’t always resonate beyond its insularity, making the project uneven as a whole.
After Laura and her father prevail against Dutch social services in a long court battle that generates worldwide attention, the amiable fourteen-year-old sets out on her boat, dubbed “Guppy,” to circumnavigate the globe during a two-year voyage that she films herself, stopping frequently to explore various ports of call, from the Galapagos Islands to South Africa. Director Jillian Schlesinger does a good job of using this footage to let the viewer join the young protagonist, making for a experiential film of sailing the high seas. At the same time, as laudable as it is for such a young sailor to undertake this singular crossing, Laura herself is fairly quiet and introspective, and very little of note actually happens, so it’s not exactly a thrill-packed adventure film. Still, it’s a solid portrait of a self-confident young woman, and one with which viewers clearly connected, as Schlesinger’s film was the winner of the Visions section Audience Award.
NO MORE ROAD TRIPS?
Noted archivist Rick Prelinger also takes his audience on a trip in his participatory assemblage of American home movies collectively forming a crosscountry roadtrip, presented at SXSW as a work-in-progress in the Special Events section. By the nature of the project, it seems it could always be said to be something of a work-in-progress, as Prelinger occasionally throws out factoids about the onscreen footage and its provenance, and invites his audience to talk back during the participatory screening. At the screening attended, this ranged from the mildly interesting – viewers helping Prelinger identify various locations featured in the clips – to the groan-inducing – unfunny, strained jokes from the peanut gallery better left unuttered. Given this, the viewer’s experience will likely vary wildly, but it seems a given that this kind of project is a very self-selecting one, intended for fellow archivists and those curious about 20th century Americana, and not optimally for general audiences.
AND WHO TAUGHT YOU TO DRIVE?
Shifting over to SXGlobal, the festival’s international showcase, but still retaining the road focus, is Andrea Thiele’s charming look at culture clash, as revealed through learning how to drive in a foreign country. Following a great selection of subjects – a stereotypically blunt German woman in India, an isolated young American man in Japan, and a conflicted South Korean mother and grad student in Germany – as each tries to learn the rules of the road enough to pass a driving test, Thiele expertly taps into the universal anxiety around test taking, brilliantly exposing cultural mores in the process – from the minutiae of Japanese car etiquette to the arcane hand signals employed on India’s chaotic streets – making for an immensely enjoyable film.
SOFIA’S LAST AMBULANCE
There’s also a sense of the absurd in another vehicular-inspired SXGlobal selection, Ilian Metev’s engrossing verité ride-along with one of the few ambulances serving Bulgaria’s capital city. While Metev follows the three attendants on emergency calls, much of the film’s running time is spent in the front seat, the camera trained on their faces as they chitchat while waiting for their unreliable dispatch or weave through traffic to get across town to reach the staggering millions dependent on their limited services. But if these darkly comic moments point out the near-futility of an overtaxed healthcare system, the corrective comes those times when the filmmaker joins his subjects in the back of the ambulance, as when the female doctor tries to distract a young patient, or calm down an agitated drunk – humanistic examples of what drives these professionals to do their thankless work. Despite this, if the film seems to end an ominous note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the odds stacked against them. Though the film picked up an award at Cannes last year, the Audience Award evaded it at SXSW – in the SXGlobal section, that honor went to THE PUNK SYNDROME.
Finally, despite wanting to see a surprising number of titles in the music doc section, 24 Beats Per Second, including BAYOU MAHARAJAH: THE TRAGIC GENIUS OF JAMES BOOKER, THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX, and THE PUNK SINGER, it wasn’t to be. I also missed the Audience Award winner in this category, A BAND CALLED DEATH. Even so, the film I did see, Doug Hamilton’s behind-the-scenes chronicle of the development of Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT album into a Broadway rock opera, was among my unexpected favorites. As a fan of neither music docs, Green Day, nor musical theatre, this film doesn’t automatically tick any boxes for me, but it’s very well-made, extremely engaging, and unusually insightful about the creative process – enough to have quickly won me over. Beyond highlighting what went into the adaptation, the film surprises by focusing on the impact the world of theatre has for Green Day frontman Billie Joe – his discovery and embrace of this new medium feels genuine and organic, elevating this from what could easily have been a celebrity puff-piece.
Note: I’ve amended my previous posts to include Audience Award winners for the Documentary Competition and Spotlight categories. For the Festival Favorites section, that honor went to Lucy Walker’s THE CRASH REEL.