Keeping it Real Weird

Long gone are the days when Austin, Texas was merely a breeding-ground for progressive types, presidential hopefuls, and music junkies. As home to the South-by-Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), Austin has become the independent filmmaker’s Eden. As first time filmmaker Allison Berg explains it, "I thought [SXSW] was one of the best festivals for my film to get into . . . I think you have maybe a more laid-back crowd, but a great attendance in getting your film going. I think everyone applies to all the big ones, and I think this one, especially after last year, is getting right up there."

In its eleventh year, SXSW is in the top five on Film Threat’s Chris Gore’s list of festivals where filmmakers and their films need to be seen. But unlike other more elite festivals, SXSW’s reputation derives from its independent, friendly spirit and its interest in catering to both first-time filmmakers and veterans. Industry veterans participate in panel discussions that offer aspiring and burgeoning filmmakers like Yasuaki Nakajima advice on everything from film school to finding funding to the digital revolution. Meanwhile, SXSW helps "Keep Austin Weird" by preserving its creative, anti-corporate aura, and celebrating films that go where no filmmaker (and, in many instances, no other festival) has gone before.

For instance, in Nakajima’s After the Apocalypse (for which he serves as writer/editor/producer/director/co-star), SXSW attendees were taken to a new realm of living. Featuring five characters’ struggles to satiate their most basic needs after hazardous gases deprive them of their voices, this virtually silent black-and-white film invites viewers to imagine what life might look like if the contemporary prophecies of nuclear or chemical war came true. The world that the characters live in might not be pretty, but Nakajima’s film beautifully captures human abilities to communicate even in the absence of speech.

Similarly, Witches in Exile, a brilliant documentary directed by Berg, introduces viewers to a land and plight that seem as foreign to the film industry as they do to most Americans. Filmed in Northern Ghana, Witches features interviews with four women who have been accused of witchcraft, banished from their homes, and subsequently sent to witch camps where they know no one. Winner of SXSW’s Special Jury Award for a Documentary Feature, the film and its award are a testament to Berg’s skill as a filmmaker, SXSW’s refusal to judge solely on either experience or subject matter, and the desire of the SXSW audience to be challenged and educated.

This audience is, in fact, one of the primary reasons why Kris Lefcoe chose SXSW as the festival at which to premiere his film, Public Domain, a very smart satire of reality television shows. "SXSW seems like exactly my speed of festival . . . everyone is really cool. Austin and the audience here," she explained. "[Public Domain] is a very music-themed movie. Though the concept isn’t about music, I think music fans will get a kick out of it." But like many other films screening at SXSW, that kick doesn’t divorce the audience from questions about larger social issues.

Like Public Domain, Morgan Spurlock’s hilarious but disconcerting film, Super Size Me, found its perfect match in an audience committed to keeping Austin weird by preventing corporate colonization of the city’s independent spirit. Divulging what happened when an otherwise healthy Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food three times a day for one month, Super Size Me screened at Austin’s Paramount Theater before 1,200 viewers.

While both Berg and Spurlock’s publicist, Nicolette Aizenberg, likened the energy level at Super Size Me’s first screening in "the live music capital of the world" to that of a rock concert, Austin lived up to its name several other times during SXSW. That is, SXSW featured an abundance of highly acclaimed music documentaries, which explored genres such as pop, blues, and hip-hop. Topping this list was George Hickenlooper’s Mayor of the Sunset Strip, which uses pop impresario Rodney Bingenheimer and his friends (ranging from David Bowie to the band No Doubt) as a case study to critique the role that fame and celebrity play in Western culture. Leaving his Austin audience deep in awe and contemplation, Hickenlooper ensured that music and film fans alike had something to chew on for some time to come.

The same could be said for the vast array of political documentaries that only election year fervor could produce. While well-made, inspiring documentaries like Shola Lynch’s Chisolm ‘72 and Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist transcended time and geography, the most highly anticipated political documentary proved to be Bush’s Brain, which made its premiere at SXSW. Based on James C. Moore and Wayne Slater’s book of the same title, the film provides critical insight on the political career that seems to be at the fore of everyone’s mind: that of George W. Bush and his puppeteer Karl Rove.

Though troubled and contemplative about what they learned about Rove and Bush, the bipartisan audience seemed to be overwhelmingly impressed, even amused, by the documentary and its producers—Elizabeth Reeder, Joseph Mealey, and Michael Paradies Shoob. Given the controversy surrounding the film and the number of attempts made by Rove to prevent the film’s production and screening, one might find it surprising that the film premiered in the land of its native son. But SXSW’s commitment to keeping Austin weird made the location and fanfare surrounding the premiere quite fitting.

Louisa Achille’s debut documentary The Naked Feminist.

This also proved to be the case for SXSW’s extensive lineup of provocative films concerning sex and sexuality. At a time when what writer/director Brian Dannelly (Saved!) terms "Bushism" is attempting to prescribe sexual mores, SXSW featured several films that took a stand against what Straight-Jacket producer Michael Warwick dubbed "the final taboo" in the film world. That film’s writer/director Richard Day surmised, "If as an independent filmmaker you’re trying to do something that hasn’t yet been done, the largest field of unplowed snow is in the area of sexuality."

Leave it to filmmakers to plow that snow in Austin’s otherwise temperate climate. Deirdre Fishel, for instance, premiered Still Doing It, a documentary exploring the intimate lives of women ranging from ages sixty-five to eighty-seven. And Jacob Vaughan and Bryan Poyser screened their narrative film, Dear Pillow, which examines the frank ways in which a teenage boy obsessed with his virginity, a middle-aged man who writes pornographic "stories," and a thirty-something woman infatuated with unsolicited phone sex, articulate their desires. Though both films made audiences a bit uncomfortable at times, they accomplished what they set out to do—make viewers question that discomfort.

Dannelly, meanwhile, screened his first feature film, Saved!, which unravels the burgeoning pro-abstinence and anti-gay movements’ fantasy that premarital sex and homosexuality can simply be wished away. When "good girl" Mary (Jena Malone) becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, whom she sleeps with in hopes of "straightening" him out, her world turns upside down. Ostracized by friends and authority figures at her Christian high school, Mary finds true friendship in the most unlikely characters.

Similarly, when acclaimed 1950s actor Guy Stone must choose between his career and true (queer) love in Straight-Jacket, he finds a sense of belonging in a beautiful queer love story that defies sexual norms and Hollywood politics. But Stone, as I learned from Warwick and Day, wasn’t the only one forced to feign heterosexuality to make it in Hollywood. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, Warwick and Day were asked not to market their equally queer film Girls Will Be Girls as such. The reason? Sundance organizers believed, according to Warwick and Day, that a queer film could not attract a broad, "proper" audience. At SXSW, "outing" their film and participating in a panel discussion about queer cinema, Warwick and Day connected with more open-minded, tolerant audiences.

This same audience made SXSW the ideal place for Louisa Achille to premiere her debut documentary, The Naked Feminist. Featuring interviews with several dynamic women who have worked in the pornography industry, the film counters claims that pornography oppresses women across the board. Revealing that "feminist porn star" is not an oxymoron, Achille’s interviewees disclose that many women enter the profession by choice, moving their way up the ladder to become top executives and influential activists. Winning the SXSW Audience Award in the Emerging Visions category, The Naked Feminist, like many other films that broach the most taboo and provocative of subjects in the most unique of manners, seems to have been destined to thrive at SXSW.

With everyone at the festival giving to and receiving from the independent film community, newcomers and longtime attendees will almost certainly perform their own rendition of Same Time Next Year with SXSW, which remains committed to keeping Austin weird—no matter how large or prestigious the festival becomes.

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