I’ve just awoken from my post-SXSW cryosleep, where I collapse every year for 10 days post-festival. As I eat my first meal in over a week, the fresh memories from this year’s film bonanza in the Texas capital wash over me. The long lines, the drunken introductions, the awkward Q&As. Everything that keeps thousands coming back year after year. Here I give you the best of the fest from SXSW 2016!
By far, my favorite section this year was documentaries, perhaps because I saw more of them than anything else.
This was out and out the best film I saw at the festival (sorry, Keanu, you were great). Many readers may already be familiar with the infamous Duke Lacrosse Rape scandal. In 2006, members of the Duke University lacrosse team were accused of raping a woman hired to dance during a party at the house of the team co-captains. The story exploded in the national headlines, propelled by a media-friendly District Attorney, Mike Nifong. Director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) turns her deft eye on what made this case so controversial, compelling, and why it sparked an enormous witch hunt.
The first mass school shooting happened right here in Austin when a deranged young man climbed to the observation deck of the tower on the University of Texas campus with a sniper rifle. Keith Maitland’s Tower doesn’t focus on him, though. Instead, the director turns his lens on those who chose to exemplify the best of humanity on that day, often at the risk of their own lives. From survivors to witnesses to the men who eventually took down the shooter, this film swells with the power of human decency triumphing over fear and hate. It won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award this year.
One of the most endlessly debated issues in the American political landscape is that of abortion; whether it should be legal, how easy it should be to get one, whether it’s the right solely of the woman whose body is affected,. and on it goes. Director Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army) takes a deep look at the laws (dubbed “trap laws”) which seek to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion by not making it illegal, but by making it so difficult to get one that it is essentially impossible for most women. You may have already seen clips from this film, which were used in a piece about abortion laws on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Under the Sun
This was one of my most-anticipated films of the festival, and it didn’t disappoint. Russian filmmaker Vitaliy Manskiy brilliantly uses the strict rules of the North Korean regime to his advantage, letting them be their own worst enemy. When making a documentary in cooperation with the North Korean government, filmmakers must cede most of their control over the subject matter, storyline, and filming locations. These are left up to government officials, who write a script and carefully construct the vision of how they want “normal” life in the DPRK to appear to the outside world.
The government must also review every bit of footage for approval, so rather than sneaking around behind the backs of the North Korean chaperons to steal shots which would likely be confiscated, Manskiy and co. simply let things play out. They always keep the cameras rolling, and this way capture take after take of the chaperons instructing people on how to act like themselves, shattering the happy façade which the state is desperately trying to maintain. In spite of this, the film still manages to capture several moments of honest emotion from its subjects, especially that of its eight-year-old lead.
Under the Sun isn’t just about “gotcha” filmmaking, however. It’s also beautifully shot and wonderfully observational in its style. My feelings about this film are only intensified by the most recent news coming out of the hermit kingdom.
Beware the Slenderman
Another one on my most-anticipated list which also didn’t disappoint. Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky (who was interviewed by co-contributor Lauren Marie Paterson at the Portland International Film Festival) crafts a stunning and disturbing portrait of two twelve-year-old girls, both with no history of violence, who stabbed a friend nineteen times in the woods in an attempt to appease a being called Slenderman. If you aren’t familiar with Slenderman, I wasn’t either until this story hit the news in 2014. Chances are that anyone you know under the age of twenty is familiar with this urban legend, and tragically, the fantasy became reality for at least two of them. Fortunately, their victim survived, though the physical and emotional scars of this event will surely be with her for a very long time.
Oscar-nominated Brodsky, who was in attendance after the screening, made sure that people knew they weren’t making a film that tried to excuse what the girls did, but wanted to explore how this particular event had occurred. Indeed, this was not simply the case of two deranged bullies who had shown signs of antisocial behavior all their lives. The truth is very different and somewhat heartbreaking for all involved. The parents of the injured girl were not interested in participating in the film, understandably, and thus we have only the sides of the perpetrators and their families. Aside from a jarring and amateurish opening sequence, the film deftly weaves an engrossing and layered story.
An enduring, fun aspect of SXSW are the late night films which explore darker matters.
Under the Shadow
In addition to being under the sun, it’s also no fun to be under the shadow, especially if that shadow is a repressive regime and you are a woman. Set in Tehran in the late 1980s, Under the Shadow explores the social and emotional turmoil with which many normal citizens wrestled following Iran’s war with Iraq and the ensuing political revolution. Add to that the possibility that supernatural forces have taken an interest in you and your family, and you’ve got a rough time on your hands. Gorgeously shot and powerfully acted, this one is a winner even for those well outside of the horror fan clan.
I Am a Hero
This is one that my dear friend and head of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, Igor Shteyrenberg (see my SXSW preview to get acquainted with him), dragged me to see ‘round midnight. There are several zombie films which I hold in high regard, but I’m pretty tired of the genre in general. Add to that a robust 126- minute run time, and you had a not-very-excited and sleepy Stephanie. But, this one came through with some genuinely great humor – without relying entirely on things being squishy and gross – and heart. If a zombie-weary gal like me enjoyed it, then those who are more enthusiastic about the genre will probably have a great time.
Narratives! For when you just want a good, old-fashioned made up story that isn’t a slasher or thriller.
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, this border drama concerns three checkpoint agents and the uncontrollable mess in which they become embroiled. I can’t say much about the plot without giving away too much, so suffice it to say that the film is carried beautifully by its three co-leads, Gabriel Luna, Johnny Simmons, and Clifton Collins Jr. It doesn’t hurt that the film has ties to Texas, and several of the actors have ties to Austin, in particular. The one big low point was the film’s score. My apologies to The National, who wrote it, but I spent three years researching border issues and watching any films I could get my hands on regarding this issue. Too often the noodling acoustic guitar just like the one heard in this film is found in those movies.
I got in line for this past-midnight screening earlier than I did for any other film at the festival, and it was certainly worth the wait. It’s still an unfinished cut, so I don’t want to comment too much on editing, sound and other aspects which will likely get perfected down the line. I’ll just say that tired as I was, I was fully wrapped up in this nutty homage to John Wick. Before the film, stars/writers Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele came out to greet the audience and to throw little stuffed Keanus into the crowd. Sadly, I was in the balcony and they couldn’t get one up there, though they gave it a valiant effort. My buddy, Paul, was on the floor and managed to snag one, though!