Austin, Texas, transformed into a carnival this past week as the 25th annual South by Southwest festival rolled through town. SXSW features three festivals in one: a technology summit (called SXSW Interactive); the film portion; and one of the most celebrated convocations of musicians in all of the United States. The flurry of activity was non-stop. Gadget-clad techies swarmed through trade shows. Bands and their fans spilled out of Sixth Street’s smoky barbecues and saloons. Filmgoers packed the sidewalks waiting in line for screenings. And hoards of half-naked college kids on spring break ran drunkenly amuck. These activities and more make SXSW perhaps the most festive of all the US festivals.
True to reputation, this year’s film program showcased dozens of eclectic and acclaimed films. Technological change and imaginings of the future were clear theme trends, from the narrative feature Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, about a pregnant “freelance technologist’s” road trip through the Arizona desert, to Convento, a doc about a robotics sculptor and his family, who inhabit the arcane world of a Portuguese convent. But technological change could also be felt in the filmmaking craft, as a slew of films were shot on the latest cameras or with new mobile technology, such as DSLRs or flip cams.
Take Dragonslayer, the documentary feature that garnered two top documentary prizes: Grand Jury Winner and Best Cinematography. Shot on the Canon 5D and with flip cam video diaries, Dragonslayer’s layered cinematography took audiences inside the raucous world of Joshua “Screech” Sandoval. Screech is a mohawked twenty-something who spends his summer days in Fullerton, California draining the pools of foreclosed homes, transforming them into makeshift skateboard rinks. Screech and his friends are a debaucherous bunch: from skating over fireworks exploding at their heels to drinking until blacking out, they seek self-destructive thrills to pass the time. It’s sad and fatalistic, but there’s heart to their aimlessness. With subtle observation, director Tristan Patterson draws out Screech’s own tentative hopes and dreams: He wants something more than he has. He wants to see things—the world, a road ahead—but is not sure how. Set against the crumbling backdrop of unemployed, foreclosed California, his journey (or lack thereof) can be read as an allegory for the wreckage of a generation.
“I didn’t have a set storyline in my head,” Patterson explained during the Q&A. “Instead, I wanted to create an authentic experience. I thought of ‘story’ as peeling back layers until you arrive at an understanding of a world.” The stunning DSLR cinematography and a sculptural sound design that mixed aggressive post-punk skater rock with moments of quiet, contemplative character voice over indeed constructed a cohesive sense of place. Whether you like the noise and grit or not, you’re in deep.
Far away from the world of skater punks, came Something Ventured, the latest documentary by acclaimed Bay Area filmmaking duo Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, who celebrated their World Premiere at SXSW. Told through stylish talking heads and cleverly selected archival footage, Something Ventured is an engaging genealogy of America’s first venture capitalists. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, a small group of California-based businessmen, such as Arthur Rock, Don Valentine, Tom Perkins and Pitch Johnson, took extraordinary risks to reap unparalleled financial rewards; they provided the vision and spark (read: money) that fueled the last half century’s most revolutionary technological innovations. Abandoning all conventional wisdom, these men were the pioneers of California’s second gold rush.
Geller and Goldfine elicited personality from seemingly taciturn businessmen and imbued their world—which, from the outside, some may perceive as dry—with character and depth. “These men are used to being the ones who listen,” Dan Geller explained to me. “People sit in front of them and pitch them ideas for investments all day.” “But here we were,” Goldfine said, “asking for them to instead talk to us, to tell us their ideas.” In turn, Geller and Goldfine collected an array of humorous anecdotes about Genentech, Apple, Cisco, Intel and others, relaying the origin stories of our contemporary technological world.
Aside from docs, Natural Selection by Robbie Pickering swept the Narrative Feature Competition with six awards: Grand Jury Winner, Breakthrough Performances (by Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score and the Audience Award. Natural Selection tells the story of Linda, a barren housewife in suburban Texas who discovers her dying husband, Abe, has a long lost son –the result of a sperm donation 23 years ago. Abe’s deathbed wish is for Linda to find the son, so she sets out on a rough and tumble journey to Florida to track him down. What follows is a surprising, delightful and sobering road movie about the most unlikely of family relationships.
Other feature narratives included Miranda July’s highly anticipated film The Future, released six years after her award-winning Me, You and Everyone We Know. Though it premiered at Sundance, July’s film found a home among the offbeat films of the SXSW program. The Future is about Sophie and Jason, a couple living in LA, who adopts an injured cat. But, they have thirty days before the cat can safely come home, hence, thirty days to live out their wildest dreams. Once the cat arrives, responsibility will set in quashing their fantasies for the future. The problem is, they don’t know exactly what those fantasies are, launching them into existential journeys through unexpected people and places.
Like Me, You and Everyone We Know, The Future is firmly rooted in July’s imagination—a place where the couple in the throes of a break-up can literally stop time, where T-shirts become alive and crawl down LA streets, and where strangers instantaneously become intimate companions. During the Q&A, July was asked, “It seems like the character of Sophie has a mental problem. Is that really the case?” With a diplomatic smile, July explained that, while she might not be as “normal” as the person who asked the question, her world is actually quite familiar to many; each of us see “reality” through a bizarre lens.
Other programming highlights true to the techie theme included the one-off ITVS’ FUTURESTATES screening, which premiered its second season of ten short films at SXSW. “The FUTURESTATES films each imagine the not-too-distant-future,” Karim Ahmad, ITVS Programming Manager, said as he introduced the series. “They are meant to examine the choices we make now and spark dialogue about how we move forward.” While the ten films were distinct in plot and visual style, each orbited around a social, political, economic or environmental theme and exhibited extremely high production values. San Francisco filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ short film Remigration stood out as cinematic gem. In Remigration, a working-class family financially forced out to move out of San Francisco years ago is recruited by a government development agency to move back home. The agency promises them good jobs working with their hands, healthcare for their ailing young daughter and the chance to once again live in the city their family helped to build. Employing a similar dreaminess to Remigration as he did to his acclaimed Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins constructs a lucid futuristic San Francisco. He evokes emotion from pastoral swathes of seaside landscapes; he creates a visceral and visual sense of the meaning of “home.” By doing so, we feel the psychological effects of gentrification, provoking considerable critique of contemporary urban politics.
Aside from the SXSW premiere, the FUTURESTATES films will be broadcast online and are part of a national educational campaign through ITVS’s Community Classroom program. To watch the films, go to futurestates.tv.
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