Posted by keelsetter on March 11, 2012
SXSW was founded in 1986 as a music forum and later, in 1994, added film and multimedia events to their yearly shindig. Attracting, as it does, artists from all walks of life introduces new elements every year to add to its ever-changing melting pot ethos that is pivotal to both its popularity and vitality. It also translates into a cacophonous tangle of insane traffic interweaving through the milling crowds and pedicabs that populate all the downtown intersections. This year the dates of SXSW are March 9 – 17. These are days on the calendar marked by an acute housing shortage for the throngs of people traveling to Austin to view or participate in this multi-media circus. Having a film pass but no lodging, I decided to drive the 900+ miles on a wing and a prayer, figuring that I could sleep in the car if need be but, preferably, staying with kind souls who will let me stake a tent in their backyard or crash on their floor.
How best to describe the SXSW film component to enthusiasts who have never attended? One answer is in the overview provided on p. 79 of the their film catalog. The categories below, alongside an attendant example, give a glimpse into the sprawling and funky beast that still only represents a sliver of offerings. For starters, it doesn’t touch on all the events that cat-wrangle around 400 panelists to sing for their dinner. Latter activities range from expected über-geeky talks (“Does HTML5 Offer a Montage Moment for Web Cinema”) to the self-evident (“A Conversation with Willem Dafoe”).
Special Events: “Live Soundtracks, cult re-issues & much more. Our Special Events section offers unusual, unexpected & unique film event one-offs.” Example: Pairing up Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 silent comedy, The Oyster Princess, with a live score by Bee vs. Moth, a jazz/rock band that has been featured on NPR‘s All Songs Considered.
Headliners: “Big names, big talent: Headliners bring star power to SXSW, featuring red carpet premieres & gala film events with major & rising names in cinema.” The opening night film in this category is the highly anticipated directorial debut by Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods (which already received some strong reviews), but also features such stalwarts as William Friedkin whose latest film, Killer Joe, features Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch.
Narrative Spotlight: “High profile narrative features receiving their World, North American or U.S. Premieres at SXSW.” Or, put another way, these are the titles that SXSW has full bragging rights to. Blue Like Jazz, about a a Texas college student who wants to escape his religious upbringing, is directed by Steve Taylor and based on The New York Times bestseller by Donald Miller. Another title within this section that immediately comes to attention is Keyhole, the latest film by Guy Maddin starring Isabella Rossellini, Jason Patric, and Udo Kier.
Documentary Spotlight: “Shining a light on new documentary features receiving their World, North American or U.S. Premieres at SXSW.” There are 17 titles to choose from, and this category seems exceptionally strong this year. Code of the West examines the policies of medical marijuana along the rockies. Scarlet Road looks at an Australian sex worker who specializes in therapeutic sexual intimacy with clients with physical disabilities. Wikileaks: Secrets & Lies scoops up “the first major television interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.” WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines seeks to “offer an enlightening and entertaining counterpoint to the male dominated superhero genre.”
Narrative Feature Competition: “8 World Premiere Narrative Features selected from over 1000 submissions, these films express a clear vision and voice.” Unlike the Narrative Spotlight, these are lower-profile titles that deal with things like human trafficking and gang wars amidst graffiti-writers in the Bronx.
Documentary Feature Competition: “8 Wolrd Premiere documentaries selected from over 800 submissions, these films use real life to tell amazing stories and investigate deeper truths.” Single-mothers living in the water slums of Bahia, Brazil. A look at “the world’s greatest drummer,” Ginger Baker, who played with Cream and Blind Faith. Jeffrey Dahmer. Devotees of “Father Yod.” These are some of the subjects, and I’ll also toss in Caveh Zahedi, whose last film, I Am a Sex Addict, surely left him less exposed than the film he premieres this time out which is titled The Sheik and I, which gets him banned in the Middle East for blasphemy and now has him threatened with a fatwa.
Emerging Visions: “Audacious, risk-taking artists in the new cinema landscape demonstrating raw innovation & creativity in documentary & narrative filmmaking.” With 20 titles to choose from, there are plenty of incredibly interesting things on tap here, ranging from Dollhouse, the latest film from Kirsten Sheridan (Disco Pigs), to a tale of a tailed, female forest creature based on Norwegian folklore (Thale).
Midnighters: “Scary, funny, sexy, controversial & provocative after-dark features for night owls and the terminally curious.” From that description alone you can sense the passion that programmers have for this particular niche, which is woefully overlooked at most other film festivals. Small wonder that SXSW was picked by the filmmakers behind the “Nazi’s on the moon” cheese-fest that is Iron Sky for their North American premiere – a film tailor-made for the likes of Udo Kier (is there anything he won’t star in?)… Personally, I’m looking forward to Intruders, by Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who directed Intacto and 28 Weeks Later.
24 Beats per Second: “Showcasing the sounds, culture & influence of music & musicians, with an emphasis on documentary.” Here’s the section that SXSW cranks up to 11, and not just because it’s literally eleven titles but because SXSW has such an integrated relationship to the music scene.
SXGlobal: “A diverse panorama of international filmmaking talent, including premieres, documentaries & shorts.” This strikes me as a catch-all nook that could have been folded into Emerging Visions, but I understand the need for flexibility. Perhaps Her Master’s Voice, a 59 minute “ventriloquial docu-mocumentary requiem” about bereaved puppets on a pilgrimage to “the resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists” is otherwise hard to file away. Either way, I’m glad to get a chance to see Victor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, which comes highly recommended.
Festival Favorites: “Acclaimed standouts & selected previous premieres from festivals around the world.” Here we have 16 gems that have already screened elsewhere but clearly deserve further cheerleading. From the documentary Chasing Ice (Sundance) to another on the global water crises, Last Call at the Oasis (Toronto International Film Festival), along with other top-shelf features and comedies, these are titles whose passports have been stamped for approval by multiple locations.
Shorts Program: The categories are “Narrative, Medium Cool (not so) Shorts, Docs, SXGlobal, Animated, Midnight, Music, Texas, Texas High School.” Basically, more stuff than you can shake a stick at.
Reflecting on the offerings within the catalog I’d like to add that SXSW deserves to be singled out for being a festival that properly labels the film formats for each title on display. They let you know when it’s going to be a DVD, HDCAM (the predominant format), DCP, or even – gasp! – 35mm. Yes, there are still some films on film at a film festival.
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