This was my first time at SXSW and it was exhilarating and overwhelming and awesome and completely exhausting. There were SO MANY PEOPLE there, and there was stuff going on ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE! Huge conference rooms full of video games, food trucks giving away free stuff, impromptu street parades, corporate-sponsored parties in random venues on every block. After one late night screening I stumbled upon this guy, screening cartoons for free BBQ on a brick wall via his portable projector pack (I gotta get me one of those):
Despite all the madness, unlike other big film festivals I've been to (I'm lookin' at you, Sundance) I found that SXSW film was able to maintain kind of an air of funkiness and somehow, a feeling of being not TOO big. Some of the theaters were quite intimate, and the majority of the film venues were within a few blocks of each other in the downtown area. The most preferred modes of transport between them was walking, followed by riding in a pedicab (if you haven't seen one, they're like a rickshaw behind a bicycle). The couple of venues outside downtown could be reached via a free film shuttle, something I appreciated a lot since I was staying right across from one of them. Austin is a really great town to check out in general, and the spring weather was a welcome change for this Seattle gal. Good stuff!
Unfortunately, aside from the photo above the only other one I took at the fest was of this cute lamppost outside of downtown Austin covered with a hand-knitted cozy, because I was too busy going to movies!
My first few days at the fest were spent dashing from one film to the next as I raced to squeeze in as many screenings as I could while figuring out the SXSW film systems (how you acquire seats for each film is a little different at every festival), learning where all the venues were, and trying to find as much free food as I could. I waited in a lot of long lines and held my breath a couple of times, but amazingly managed to make it in to every film I went out for.
I have a bit of a rule for myself at film festivals: I try not to prioritize seeing movies that I could see in the theaters a few months later, just for the chance to say that I saw it first. I'm not trying to be a snob here; I am looking forward to seeing Super, Bridesmaids, Source Code, and all the other big movies that everyone was talking about at SXSW this year. But to me this seems like sort of a waste of the precious time I get to spend surrounded by non-Hollywood films, so instead I focused on seeing movies that probably wouldn't get a wide release, like independents and shorts and foreign films. Of course, this approach poses its own problems as it's hard to tell in advance which movies are actually worthwhile, and which ones just sound good on paper. Some movies you hear about. You know–they've got that magical "buzz." But sometimes you've just gotta study up on that festival guide and take a leap of faith. Here's a few of the standout films I got to see at SXSW 2011:
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. This documentary about the Spanish avant-garde restaurant of the same name, named by many the "best restaurant in the world" profiled the strange and wonderful process by which the chefs put together their brand-new menu each year. The restaurant is open 6 months of the year and serves one meal a night to its lucky customers, who eat 30-40 small courses of mind-blowingly original and new simple little bites of food over the course of 3-5 hours. What impressed me most about the movie, aside from the subject matter ('cause I am a total food nerd), was its "cinema verité" style of storytelling. I'm always super impressed when a feature length documentary manages to tell an entire story without a single interview and very few explanatory titles. This film achieved that beautifully. I felt completely immersed in the world of El Bulli.
Blacktino. This was one of those "buzz-worthy" films, and I managed to see it on opening night! It's "a dark teen comedy about an overweight half-black, half-hispanic nerd." How could you not want to see that?
blacktino SXSW Trailer from Aaron Burns on Vimeo.
Although I felt like some of the acting performances were a little wooden, I appreciated the interesting, though somewhat stereotyped, characters (a goth girl with depth! a best friend with muscular dystrophy!), and it was great hearing people talk about race in a real way, in what still manages to be a pretty funny highschool comedy. The film ends with a musical retrospective of a non-whitewashed version of our country's history that is awesome.
SHORTS! I got to see a selection of narrative and documentary shorts at SXSW, and they were some of the best-programmed short films I've ever seen, and really just some of the best stuff I saw at the whole fest. Usually when I watch a shorts collection, there's one or two that are so excruciatingly bad that I walk out of there feeling like, "hoo boy. I am never going to get those 12 minutes of my life back," but that was not the case this time around! I was particularly fond of the documentary shorts, and not just because I am a documentary shorts filmmaker. In fact, I walked in to the screening ready to not like them, since my filmmaking collective's short doc entry to the fest this year didn't get in. But I couldn't help myself! They were all incredibly awesome and filled me with lots of inspiration and ideas for my own future work. Of particular note was former RG mentor and my college buddy Annie Silverstein's "Night at the Dance," a profile of the last days of a Czech dance hall in rural Texas and the old-timers who come there to polka.
Also, "My Big Red Purse," a doc that couldn't have been more than 2 minutes long but still managed to tell a complete, incredibly heartwarming and funny story about a fashion accessory belonging to the filmmaker's mom when she was a kid. The re-enactment of that story was spot-on, right down to the hair, fashion and cars of the time period. What a great example of one very simple idea done very well.
Apart from all the amazing movies there are to see at SXSW, there's a whole program of interesting panels as well. Sadly, I missed the Catherine Hardwicke (director of Twilight, Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen) Director's workshop. But I still got to check out a few of the professional filmmaker's panels, which covered everything from emerging technologies to industry stumbling blocks to strategies for shooting and editing. My favorite panel was definitely "The Female Funny: is it Different for Girls?," moderated by Rachel Sklar of the awesome changetheratio blog, and featuring writers and comedians working in the industry as well as Irin Carmon of the also awesome jezebel. Not only did this panel dive right in to the questions of why it is harder for female comedians, especially those over 35 and/or those who do not conform to our ridiculous standards of beauty, to succeed in the industry, but it did so with grace and many many laughs.
Most of the people in the room had just seen the SXSW sneak preview of Judd Apatow's Bridesmaids, the first ensemble comedy film in recent Hollywood history with a cast of females in all leading roles. There was a lot of talk about how great and funny the movie is, and how important it is for everyone to "vote with their money" for female-led comedy when the film is released this spring. I know I am planning to see it. But people also talked about the fact that Judd Apatow movies normally cast women as the stable, adult characters that the wacky, childlike guys get to return to at the end of their adventures. Apatow basically made Bridesmaids because people were pointing out to him the fact that women comedians are not centered in our film culture, which just goes to show that women in any male-dominated industry need to speak up for ourselves!
So that's the update from this year's SXSW film festival and conference. It was great fun to go, and I hope I get to bring some Reel Grrls there in years to come! Perhaps a SXSW youth media panel is in our future...