SXSW: A picture’s worth a thousand songs

 

SXSWIt started out so innocently. As a music critic for The Star Newspapers , last year I booked a trip to Austin, TX for an extended weekend, to cover the cornucopia of music that is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival as a special feature in my Pop Stops column.

But then something happened.

The Death of Salvador DaliWhen I went there, notepad in hand, prepared to see a slew of cool bands (which I did) I also caught a couple of the oddball feature films that were playing around town at the same time, because just as the music portion of SXSW was starting, a film festival was winding down.

I was hooked.

This year…I decided to head to Austin again – but even earlier so that I could cover both portions of the SXSW festival. From Sunday March 11 to Sunday March 20, my schedule was designed to turn me into a living, breathing, multimedia sponge.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All ThingsAs of this writing, the music portion of the festival is about to kick into gear (my coverage of that will appear next week) and I’ve seen about a dozen feature films and a dozen short films over the past four days. Those films have ranged from experimental features about holding emotion-charged conversations with dead people in The Dead Room to the difficult “child of a junkie” autobiographical film based on J.T. Leroy’s novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things to surreal humor in the short film The Death of Salvador Dali.

Last year, the breakout Oscar-nominated fast food documentary SuperSize Me played at SXSW, and this year there were plenty of documentaries on the bill – ranging from an animated film that takes a light but serious look at the topic of geriatric sex, to long-form documentaries on the life and troubles of music figures like Townes Van Zandt, Wild Man Fischer, The Flaming Lips and Roky Erickson.

Cowboy del AmorOn Tuesday, March 16, one of the more oddball-themed documentaries picked up a film festival award for best documentary feature – Cowboy Del Amor tells the story of an older Texas ex-cowboy who started a business to help get American men “Mexican wives.”

The film shows both the main character’s own difficult love life problems, and follows a couple of his “clients” through their trips with him into the depressed areas of Mexico to interview women for the possible position of “wife.”

The film sounds like it could be exploitative, but ultimately, it’s a heartwrenching depiction of the lengths both men and women will go to to find love. Hopefully this film will see the distribution in 2005 that SuperSize Me achieved last year thanks to its success on the film festival circuit.

Grace Lee ProjectAnother of my favorite documentaries was an amusing, poignant personal documentary on the seemingly ubiquitous Asian name Grace Lee (the filmmaker, Grace Lee, interviews many other women with the same name to discover truths about herself, and her heritage). To find the women, she set up a web site at www.gracelee.net.

Four days, three theatres and two dozen flicks later, and I can honestly say there hasn’t been a real dog in the bunch; nearly all of the films I’ve seen have proven more thought-provoking than virtually anything Hollywood has sent to the local megaplex in the past year.

 

Film Festival – not just for film students
Most people don’t ever attend a film festival, but have heard of the big ones, like Cannes or Sundance. These are high profile film festivals that have been around seemingly forever. Unless you’re a true independent film buff though, you may not have ever heard of the South By Southwest Film Festival. And yet, this is a festival that this year celebrated its 12th year of giving a leg up to independent directors and producers, by showing nearly 200 films, and offering a host of panels and guest speakers to talk with budding film producers, actors and promoters about how to achieve their goals in the independent film business.

While most average people wouldn’t fly to the Cannes festival, people do actually come from all over to attend SXSW and see the films. And though a full attendee badge might be expensive (the badge gets you attendance to all the film panels and tradeshow exhibits, as well as film showings), the organizers also sell wristbands for just $60 that will get interested filmviewers into all the movies they can swallow over the course of a week (though badge holders do get to go into screenings first…so wristband holders do sometimes get shut out of popular showings).

Because the independent directors and actors are often debuting their film before an audience for the first time, they are frequently present at the showings, and answer audience questions and answers after the film – now there’s something you just never get at your Cineplex-Odeon.

For those interested in getting into the film industry, the convention includes more than just film screenings. It also includes a host of panel discussions featuring directors and other members of the film industry, talking about the mechanics of making, financing and distributing your films. And there’s a tradeshow with vendors who represent businesses from across the range of the movie industry -- everything from selling software to help edit your movies on a computer to DVD duplicators to talent scout firms.

From star power to shot-in-the-basement chutzpah
Started as an offshoot of the SXSW Music Festival, perhaps the largest music industry tradeshow in the world, the film component of SXSW has truly come into its own, drawing debuts this year from comedian Paul Reiser (the as-yet-without-a-distributor The Thing About My Folks) and the new comedy by Owen Wilson and his brothers, The Wendell Baker Story.

c.loneBut “big names” aren’t really what an independent film festival is about, and in actuality, among the nearly 200 offerings of this festival, there weren’t that many with star profile pedigrees. No, there were sci-fi films like cl.one, an ambitious (if somewhat muddled) feature that proves that with a lot of community support, ingenuity and time, anyone can afford to make a film good enough to play on the big screen – complete with special effects.

After showing the film, the director noted that most of the actors were first time volunteers, the locations were heavily “altered” on the computer, and the costumes were often yards of burlap donated by local businesses. cl.one was made for a tawdry $25,000 over a five-year span by a group of first-timers from Cleveland who really got their entire community involved in making the film (there were frequent newspaper chronicles about the project, as well as TV and radio coverage in the director’s home town). While the science is suspicious and some of the plot devices over-extended, this is an action sci-fi film that could hold up well compared to lots of big budget flicks on the Sci-Fi channel.

Likewise, the low-budget film The Roost, was done with limited resources, but is still a fun thing to watch – it’s a campy homage to those old creature features films where you just KNOW that our heroes shouldn’t look into the dark room (in this case, a barn). Bats and zombies and screams, oh my. And even a campy “crypkeeper” style host.

Dead BirdsProbably the slickest film that I saw was Dead Birds, which with a $1.5 million budget was made for a bit more money than your typical “indie” film festival offering. Set during the civil war period, it’s a classic “gang-robs-bank, gang-gets-just-reward” movie. But the period costumes, taut acting, marvelously gothic eerie sets and a voodoo backstory (the gang holes up in a haunted house where a husband sacrificed his slaves to try to save his dying wife)…it’s one of the better horror movies you’ll find. The director promised that the film should be available on DVD soon, since it sadly, hasn’t achieved backing for a theatrical release.

I don’t have the space here to review all of the films I’ve seen over the past week, and those are just the tip of the iceberg of the innovative, intriguing movies that have played here. The sad thing is, that outside the film festival circuit, very few of these movies will ever end up being seen by the mass public – too often, independent movies play a few festivals and never get released to either regular theaters or even on DVDs. Nevertheless, fans of film who pay attention, will be able to catch some of these movies at Chicago area festivals, and hopefully some will find at least limited distribution on DVD. Watch for them – these are visions unfettered by Hollywood’s narrow-focused “make a buck or don’t make a film” mentality.

For more information on these films and the other intriguing non-Hollywood fare that played at SXSW this year, check out the festival’s Web site at www.sxsw.com.