The 2014 edition of SXSW will (or at the very least, certainly should) always be remembered for the tragic drunk driving accident that ultimately took four lives – the last, a teenager, died two weeks after the incident – and injured many more. It may also be remembered for Lady Gaga’s controversial concert, which included a vomit artist performing all over the pop star on stage. These two events, while wildly unrelated, are not unconnected. As a massive event that boasts annual international gatherings for not one but three industries, some have argued that SXSW has grown to a size too unwieldy and commercial in scope for its own good. However, as a conference, SXSW continues to incubate relevant conversations and host significant leaders across the three sections (film, music and interactive), as signalled by Edward Snowden’s virtual appearance and Tilda Swinton’s corporeal one. The sheer size and corresponding range of selections was reflected in the film program, which once again featured truly independent work as well as straight Hollywood fare.
Joel Potrykus’s Buzzard represents a quintessentially raucous SXSW entry through and through. After the premiere, Potrykus catapulted into the Q&A by encouraging the audience to, “Ask me a question about anything, it doesn’t have to be about the movie.” A flippant proclivity for anarchy undergirds the last film in Potrykus’s animal trilogy (Coyote, Ape), which sketches out the metalhead gamer iteration of a particular strain of frustrated American masculinity. Displayed in Office Space by the daily degradation of TPS reports and a malicious copier, here castration by cubicle capitalism manifests in chaos-monger Marty (Joshua Burge, rounding off a trio of performances for Potrykus), a bank office temp dishevelled both in physical appearance and moral orientation.
Marty gets by – or at least gets off – on scamming the corporate system that oppresses him with small scale rackets like ordering pricey office supplies on the company card, then returning them in store for cash. Hurtling carelessly through pencil-pushing drone days, his only refuge is the last bastion of juvenility: adorning frozen pizzas with tator tots and letting loose to metal music. Soon Marty is signing clients’ tax return checks over to himself and stops going to work altogether. When paranoia finally sets in, rather than unravel, he lashes out with ever wilder fury. The chief recipient of Marty’s unbridled disquiet is his piteously dweeby co-worker and seemingly only friend in the world, Derek, played by Potrykus himself. When Marty finally goes on the run, it actually means crashing in Derek’s dad’s basement for some length of time before his tempestuous tailspin eventually takes him to the the centre of the Midwestern abyss – Detroit. Potrykus shot the whole trilogy in Grand Rapids, but ostensibly has little love for his home state. (“That school can kiss my ass,” he said at the Q&A of his alma mater, Grand Valley State University.)
In what is easily the most memorable scene of the film, Marty invests his last bit of stolen cash in a $20 plate of spaghetti he orders from the bed of luxury hotel room. As he shovels forkfuls into his mouth, glazed eyes fixed on the TV, heedlessly spilling all over his white hotel bathrobe and bed sheets, the carnal display of gluttonous excess transcends the specificity of Marty’s context in one long, sublime take. Ultimately, the economic and cultural conditions that created Marty’s disturbed brand of professional aimlessness might belie late modern capitalism’s more cogently sinister directives. Perhaps Potrykus said it most succinctly: “I put the audience to sleep and then kick ’em in the balls to wake ’em up.”
In a more subdued take on post-college angst, 25 year-old Wesleyan graduate Nick Singer’s debut Other Months is an immersive, moodily cerebral counterpoint to more linear narratives of post-liberal arts college anxiety (the latest wave of which began with another SXSW discovery, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture). Singer’s first feature began as a short film called February that premiered at Slamdance in 2012. Subsequent sections – the other months – were shot as resources were pieced together. Nash (Christopher Bonewitz) spends his days wading through flooded basements as a plumber and his nights wandering through nondescript clubs, parties and strangers’ bedrooms. Not exactly aloof but far from fully engaged in the people or places that surround him, Nash’s detachment is signalled by halting conversations and long takes that cast him in shadow. A dispassionate encounter with a water-logged rabbit corpse recalls the film’s eerie opening, a slow motion sex scene (a dream, no doubt) that blurs human and animal bodies, set against ominous bass rumblings. One highly syncopated sequence finds Nash wiling away countless hours – days, or months, even – in his studio apartment, mostly at his laptop. The static camera cloisters Nash while evoking the ever increasingly relatable experience of isolation in front of a screen. The static camera sequence is finally disrupted through the frame of the computer screen, and specifically, of Photo Booth. In the Q&A, Singer spoke of his interest in long takes that “allow your mind to wander” and cited Asian and European art cinema as a major influence.
Cumbres (Heights), Gabriel Nuncio’s first feature, had its U.S. premiere in SXSW’s Visions category. Produced and lensed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, who co-directed the well-received Jean Gentil (2010) (produced by Nuncio) and Cochochi (2007), Cumbres follows two sisters on the run – though only one of them knows from what. In the middle of the night, teenaged Miwi is instructed by her father to chaperone her older sister Juliana across the country, but does not tell her why. As they flee farther and farther from home, Miwi pieces together the severity of the event that haunts Juliana and has forced them into hiding. It’s a heavy tale about the limits of trust and unconditional love, though not one without humour, such as when the sisters’ search for support funds takes them to an affable cousin who fancies himself a rapper, going by the name “Danny the Freakasorus”. Ignorance is far from bliss, and the car figures as a trope for the distance between the sisters: police lights lacerate the frame, sun spots blend with traffic lights, the sparse score glistens poignantly during a cross country drive, and Miwi, in sore need of respite from the pressure of it all, wanders through a traffic jam, lost in thought or hoping to get lost. In a reconfiguration of the fear that typically accompanies on-screen Mexican border crossings, Danny discovers the crime Juliana is charged with just as they approach a state toll. In a film that crucially must show instead of tell for its narrative conceit to succeed, Cárdenas’s exquisite framing through windows and curtains evokes the shrouded, obscured truth – a story Juliana is hiding from Miwi and perhaps even from herself.
Arriving at SXSW by way of Amsterdam, Song from the Forest recalls another IDFA world premiere by a European journalist about a Westerner who travels to the Central African Republic (CAR) in pursuit of cultural insights: The Ambassador. In 2011, the world’s largest documentary festival opened with Mads Brügger’s work of “radical journalism”, an undercover foray into the entangled worlds of blood diamonds and European diplomatic affairs; it tread a fine line between hidden camera exposé and exploitative pastiche.
Whereas Brügger’s documentary smacked incongruously of flashy self-assurance for a film shot on the sly about a serious subject, Obert’s quiet, restrained study, which won him the Best Feature Length Documentary prize at IDFA, reflects the contemplative nature of its main subject, Louis Sarno. After first travelling to the rainforest as a young man to learn about the music of the Bayaka pygmies, Louis fell in love with the people, the music, and the forest. Over the next 25 years, he built a life in the forest with the Bayaka, recording thousands of hours of music and raising a son, Samedi. Obert, himself extensively well-travelled in remote locales as a journalist, picks up Louis’s story as he prepares to return to the U.S. for the first time in years with the intention of introducing 13 year-old Samedi to his home country. The trip includes a visit to Louis’s dear old college friend, Jim Jarmusch.
“I love polyphony,” Sarno says of the Bayaka music, and indeed, Song from the Forest gives visual voice to the many melodic strands that comprise the soundscapes of globalisation. Bayaka music overlays establishing shots of the American urban jungle in a sonic merger of two disparate worlds wedged ever closer together by the mechanics of globalisation, most grossly symbolised by the destruction of the rainforest the Bayaka have called home for centuries. Eschewing linear narrative, Obert scaffolds a ruminative exchange between forest and city that avoids dichotomous portraiture by de-emphasising Louis’s outsider status among the Bayaka and Samedi’s outsider status among the Americans. “Give me money, Louis,” a Bayaka boy says to the American in the forest, followed by a cut to a shot of the stately brick house of Louis’s brother. At other points, Obert catches moments of contrast that need no editing: Louis’s brother remarks on how much he admires Louis for his gutsy lifestyle, before calmly putting an indoor golf ball; when Louis and Samedi’s taxi pulls away from the airport, a limo immediately replaces it. For even more texture, Obert could have spent more time with Samedi’s mother, whom he interviews only once in a group setting. However, Song from the Forest ‘s aural attunement presents a valuable contemplation of global change from a rarely articulated position.
When Jon Matthews decided he wanted to become a filmmaker after working for seven years as a lawyer for the ACLU in West Virginia, he bought a camera from Target so he could shoot something to send with his application to New York University (the only school he applied to). After shooting the short, he returned the camera so he could get his money back. He asked a friend to watch the film, who reported back that it was terrible, so he re-bought the camera and, not knowing what else to do and without any editing skills to speak of, he shot it again and “just did everything faster”. The final product landed him a spot in NYU’s MFA program. For Surviving Cliffside, his thesis film, he returned home and filmed the daily trials and tribulations of his cousin E.J.’s family in rural West Virginia. At a scant 65 minutes, Surviving Cliffside is a rare example of a genuinely compelling family documentary and an even rarer consideration of impoverished rural America that doesn’t slip into poverty porn. Matthews structures the film around seven year-old Makala’s participation in beauty pageants and her hopes of becoming Little Miss West Virginia. Her father tells her, “This shit’s for sissies and sodomites. Why don’t you take up boxing? You get to hit people.” But the escapist appeal of pageants evident in the face of hardships that befall and surround the family, such as losing welfare support, a battle with leukemia, suicide and rampant drug use in the community. Unusual editing flairs combine freeze frames, experimental sound design, and rapid montage to push the formal limits of documentary. A man hopped up on opana twitches in the dusk on the side of the road, dancing in order to stay awake, fearful of slipping into a coma if he stops. Brief, haunting passages of songs by fellow NYU student Brantley Jones’s lend a tender gravitas and soften rough edges. The line that Matthews walks is still a fine one; he films his cousin huffing gas in a garage, buying drugs in front of a child, and, when no pipe (“not even a pop can?”) is to be found, resorting to smoking out of the barrel of a gun. Matthews avoids exploitation through thick layering. When E.J. reunites with members of his old gang on the anniversary of a friend’s death, they smoke, drink and shoot guns, but EJ also recites a poetic ode, and Jones’s sincerely wistful soundtrack adds an ethereal dimension to the proceedings. The opening title card for the film reads: “dedicated to my homestate of West Virginia and all her complexities, contradictions, and immense beauty.” Historical context adds to this simmering of complexities and contradictions. Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) mentored Matthews and encouraged him to research the history of the area, which used to be a summer camp for the families of manufacturing workers.
In American Interior, Gruff Rhys of Welsh electro-psych rock outfit Super Furry Animals embarks on a quest to retrace his ancestor’s footsteps across the U.S. In the late 18th century, Welsh explorer John Evans became convinced that a fellow countryman had discovered the Americas. To prove his point, he set out on his own in search of a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe, and along the way mapped the Missouri river (a document that proved handy for Lewis and Clark) and entrenched himself in the contested frontier’s complex geopolitical dynamics. Flash forward two centuries: Rhys receives a fax notification of his familial connection to Evans (Rhys’ “extremely” great uncle), inspiring him to journey through the American interior himself on an “investigative concert tour” with stops along the way of his ancestor’s route, including Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, the Mandan Reservation, throughout the Mississippi Basin, and New Orleans. In each location, he presents a multimedia show that tells his ancestor’s tall tale: part music concert, part history lesson, part puppet show, Rhys blends fact, fiction, and form in a series of rousing performances infused by his infectious sense of humour, simultaneously dry and whimsical. Along the way, Rhys conducts research by talking with journalists, intellectuals and townies. At one point he meets up with his friend Kliph Scurlock, the drummer of the Flaming Lips, who plays a couple shows with him; shots of one performance overlooking the Missouri river is breathtaking.
The film is also about language preservation, with intriguing parallels drawn between Rhys’s native language of Welsh, and the native languages of North America on the verge of extinction. The multi-faceted nature of this project: a music road trip, historical investigation and language preservationist mission, is reflected in the multi-platform nature of its production, which also entails a book, an app and an album. Shot in black and white but punctuated by colour, including the psychedelic titles sequence and selective touches throughout (a book title, a lollipop, police car lights), the visuals are as compelling as the sound. After the screening, Rhys remarked, “it seemed fitting we should premiere the film in the American interior.” While Evans died destitute at age 29 in New Orleans, thanks to Rhys his fantastical story survives.
Less idiosyncratic were the two major documentary winners: Vessel by Diana Whitten (Audience Award) and The Great Invisible by Margaret Brown (Best Documentary Feature). Vessel charts the course of Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch doctor so determined to offer abortions to women with no other recourse that she takes to the sea with a nautical clinic. Fierce and fearless, Gomperts doesn’t flinch in the face of opposition, whether that means enraged local protesters or Portuguese warships blocking entry to the port. When one critic asks if Gomperts herself has had an abortion, the doctor retorts: “Are you going to ask someone who works for Amnesty International if they’ve been tortured?” While Gomperts is a fascinating subject with an admirable mission, the film itself is marred by jumpy editing, didactic exposition, and protest footage overwhelmed by music.
Another ship-centric true story, The Great Invisible follows the aftermath of the three month-long 2010 BP oil spill that killed eleven and damaged many more lives and communities in the states around the Gulf of Mexico. Brown interviews survivors as well as the families of victims, and the lawyer who headed BP’s massive, if poorly administered, fund for settling claims. Brown also investigates the impact of the spill on the seafood industry, revealing how many local businesses in states like Alabama had to close shop because of the damage to sea life. Relying heavily on news footage and interviews, the structure is formulaic if choppily paced at times, but that’s in part due to the challenges of grappling with the many tendrils of the great invisible: the connections between an environmental disaster, the demographics it devastates, and the industry conditions that perpetuated it.
When it comes to the mediative role that technology plays in modern modes of conduct for romantic relationships, the cinematic question of interest is no longer how to acknowledge this fact but rather how to adequately render the ever expanding array of communication tools at our disposal. Carlos Marqués-Marcet’s directorial debut, 10,000KM (Long Distance) is a well-composed exercise in telling the story of a long distance relationship primarily through the modern day tricks of the trade: Skype, google maps, international SMS messaging, all tied to the inevitable temptation to multi-task during screen-based correspondence.
In the opening scene, an impressive twenty minute long-take, Marqués-Marcet establishes the comfortable rhythms and routines that couple Alex and Sergi (Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer, who won a special jury prize for their performances) have carved out in their small Barcelona flat. When Alex receives word that she’s won a year-long photography residency in Los Angeles, the couple spends the ensuing moments grappling with the weight of a trans-atlantic long distance undertaking.
The immensity of the physical distance stretched out between them is thrown in sharp relief not only by the confines of computer screens, but by Marqués-Marcet’s smart choice to virtually never leave Alex and Sergi’s respective flats once she travels to Los Angeles. Through clever close ups, edits and manipulations of the frame, Marqués-Marcet blurs the edges between Skype calls, google map tours and home movies. The morphing contours of human physicality are embodied most explicitly in a literal laptop waltz. This sort of simultaneously active and passive engagement raises the question: has our role as spectators of screens been replaced by our role as fodder for online content? But in a time when the intangibility of pixelated representation tethers claims of complacent disconnection, we sometimes forget that humans, in fact, made the internet, and Marqués-Marcet (who edited Eliza Hittman’s very offline drama It Felt Like Love) gestures to this as well. Some aspects of relationships remain constants whether or not they’re long distance, whether or not they’re conducted online: people will always forget important dates, or misunderstand each other, or simply not listen, and this is true despite the proliferation of platforms through which communication can (or can fail to) take place. It’s salient that this relationship is possible only because of Alex’s bilinguality, but also necessarily hindered by it; barriers to communication existed across the technologies of the human mind before their online extensions.
7-15 March 2014
Festival website: http://sxsw.com/film