Five days before I got on a plane to SXSW, the world turned. All international travel was cancelled by my institution. A hammer blow. It took time to emotionally process this lost opportunity. There was no Covid-19 in the United States, was there? Surely this was corporate paranoia.
This shock turned to grateful relief when the Austin Mayor, Steve Adler cancelled SXSW, responding to a glut of cancellations from attendees, sponsors, corporate entities and media organisations and a circulating local petition to cancel the event. Against SXSW’s $355 million of economic benefit stood the Covid-19 threat. Adler stated, “if you’re inviting 100,000 to 200,000 people into your city, you enhance the risk that the virus is going to arrive.” We all learned later that it had already arrived as background noise across the United States. The cancellation was announced on March 6, just a week before the film festival was due to start (its dates were to be March 13-21) and was one of the first major film festivals to cancel, eliciting a response of, variously, shock, grief, sympathy and even (as in my case) relief. I had been rescued from being marooned in Austin without an event to attend. In the following week there was a global crescendo of cancelled events that would make such a trip complete folly.
SXSW’s 2020 program would have presented 135 feature films, including 99 world premieres, nine North American premieres, five US premieres, and 75 films from first-time filmmakers. There would have been 119 short films including music videos, 12 episodic premieres, seven special events, 14 episodic pilots in two curated programs, 30 title design entries and 27 virtual cinema projects. While none of the films or works played to an audience, films in competition were still screened to the juries, who bestowed prizes on the films they deemed best in their respective categories.
As the dust settled SXSW announced that a selection of films would stream from their Screening Library for festival participants and press. Filmmakers needed to opt-in and only a fraction of the full program was initially available. Independent films, documentaries and short films dominated the remaining moving image works. This library grew over time. This was different. It was no longer a social or celebratory festival with stars and late-night meetings, yet films could be viewed with residential control and intimacy. A selection from this archive is considered in the remainder of this review.
The first feature viewed was a sci-fi fiction film, Noah Hutton’s engaging Lapsis, watched with two family members before the lockdown. Lapsis delivered an unsettling sci-fi future, a world framed by a gig economy. Its dystopia reminded me of some of the class issues explored in Andrew Nicoll’s classic Gattaca (1997). In a not too distant future, blue collar deliveryman Ray needs to step up to pay the medical bills for his young brother who suffers from “Omnia”, a chronic fatigue illness. He takes on contract work for Quantum which requires trekking long cables from one large metal cube node to another through challenging forested terrain. This alternate universe is populated with drones and robots and enmeshes Ray in highly technologised forms of corporate slavery with game-play reminiscent of the institutional forces at play in our current contemporary environment. Through low budget, low key strategies Hutton effectively constructs this believable commodified corporate realm.
Understandably, coming out of this world, we re-entered a disturbing shifting present more unsettling than the one Hutton had constructed. This is not how science fiction normally functions. I subsequently gravitated my viewing to a primary interest in short film, animation and documentary, looking for work that could help frame approaching traumas. This seemed psychologically judicious.
An initial fare of documentaries included The Pushback by Kevin Ford, TFW NO GF by Alex Lee Moyer, The Donut King by Alice Gu and Hamtramck, USA by Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman. Both The Pushback and Hamtramck, USA delivered clearer political insights than those available through the evening news. The Pushback highlights a range of progressive Texan politicians and activists, fighting for justice in this traditional “red state”, including Veronica Escobar, one of the first Latinx people including to represent Texas in Congress, and Natasha Harper-Madison, the only African-American woman to run for city council in Austin in 2018. Harper-Mason’s experience was notable, because it was only once she attained a slither or real power that the knives came out to cut her down through death threats and face-to-face assertions that she did not belong in the council chambers. The racism she implicitly experienced growing up had now manifested itself physically. The film also depicted the seizures of land to build the border wall. Fertile grazing land, an old homestead and access to the Rio Grande will end up on the wrong side of a wall that was being built some distance inland from the river. Father Roy Snipes from the La Lomita Chapel does not know how his Chapel will retain access to the waterfront. Monument One, the marker historically setting the border between Texas, New Mexico and Mexico will be on the wrong side of the wall and require special access. An Indian cemetery will have to be re-located.
Alex Lee Moyer’s TFW No GF spreads out from where Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies ends. Moyer offers up a vista of alienation, homelessness and suicide amongst a generation of disenfranchised, frustrated yet articulate young men through their online activities and her dialogue with them. She wraps it all up in the Wojak meme and uses this “movement’s speed, its shorthand tweets, ironies, and evasive imagery to sputter out its half-truths in post-post-post-post punk angst. TFW NO GF is shorthand for “that feeling [I get] when [I have] no girlfriend” a phrase developed in online discussions to describe one’s fragile emotional state as a result of loneliness and lack of companionship. It is the old story of being young and finding your place in the world, but here told through fragmentation and an acknowledged short end of the stick left by feminism for this emergent subculture. The alt.right, 4chan, a performative online disaffection and Kantbot’s articulate rants offer a way out to “adulthood” for these socially alienated young men. The film offers a great manifesto-like insight into the next generation’s gestural morphing screams – the pain seeps through – though it probably requires multiple viewings to mine all its layers.
Alice Gu’s The Donut King offers a tragic joyride through the American dream. It is the story of a Cambodian refugee, Ted Ngoy, who escaped genocide to build a doughnut shop empire across the United States before franchising took hold. Each shop was populated by another family arriving out of Cambodia, whose Visas were sponsored by Ted. At the pinnacle of his success an attraction to high roller gambling in Las Vegas slowly cooked the goose that had laid the golden egg. This story is told with honesty, lack of malice and pain that this betrayal brought to his community and ends as a story of forgiveness and redemption. The film received Special Jury Recognition for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling from SXSW.
In Hamtramck, USA, Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman document the Council elections in Hamtramck, Michigan, a city of 22,000 and the first Muslim majority city in the United States. Karen Malewski sees herself as the last in a century-long line of Polish mayors. This is no longer a Polish city. Rallies, doorknocks and speeches are casually witnessed as the election calmly rolls on. Malevski persists but with an influx of Muslim representation on council. A sustained study of community, social cohesion and change.
At times during this lockdown period my ability to focus fluctuated, and when my attention was challenged because of real world events it was more productive to view shorter works.
Charlie Tyrell’s Broken Orchestra was a favourite short documentary because of its neighbourhood-based political content but also because of the way it told its story. There were thousands of broken instruments lying forgotten in back rooms in the Philadelphia public school system with no money for replacements. To sustain music education, funding was obtained to rejuvenate the discarded. There was no money to buy the new. The program’s innovators, educators, volunteers, advocates and musicians tell their story on video monitors placed in the hallways and rooms of an emptied school building, with instruments strewn throughout. The camera glides seamlessly through the building past these artefacts and videos in a sustained movement reminiscent of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) which glided through St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Broken Orchestra is much more frugal project, of course, expressing hope at the working-class local level.
Geeta Gandbhir’s Call Center Blues, documenting a community of U.S. deportees in Tijuana, Mexico struggling to make ends meet, had some powerful moments. It witnesses men and women dealing with both grace and pain through their unjust situation. With interviews and by following his subjects through their daily lives, Gandbhir documents a special patience that allows them to take one day at a time, but may never change. One deportee, working in a call centre for piecemeal wages, was on the phone to a stranded motorist touring America in a hire car with a flat tyre. He was assuring his client in perfect American English, not to worry, that help was on its way. The deportee’s isolation predicts the kind of isolation that Covid-19 will bring to all of us, and his conversation with his stranded client on the other side of the U.S border, a mobility we are all now losing.
The short animation Coup d’état Math by Sai Selvarajan delivered the trauma of four immigrant stories, all resonating with the emergency situation that Covid-19 brings to all our doorsteps. How do you deal with such trauma? Like a compacted version of Johnathan Hodgson’s animation Camouflage (2001), about schizophrenia, these four immigrant stories display how unexpected duress shapes our lives. The four rudimentary hand drawn animation styles, different for each story, amplified the emotional vulnerabilities being expressed. Coup d’état Math received a Special Jury Recognition at SXSW.
The documentary shorts winner was Carol Nguyen’s polished No Crying at the Dinner Table. Solitary audio-recorded interviews with the filmmaker’s mother, father and sister are played back to the group at the dinner table. Each has been asked to reveal undisclosed secrets. What surfaces is the Vietnamese taboo of kissing parents, sitting at a parent’s deathbed, guilt about the failure to stop a suicide attempt and the absence of working parents. The film is seamlessly shot with interviews interspersed with stilled shots of the family members in contemplative mundane moments; in bed, having a bath, washing vegetables, enabling the film to be pared down to 15 minutes. The cinematic framing of such moments was inspired by the Buddhist cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998).1 A considered Vietnamese formalism has migrated out of the body into the film’s structure and one cannot help wondering what other layers of grief lay hidden under its surface, suggested by the choices of pain offered up and the partially rehearsed body language of its participants.
Amongst unique quests such as a blind man running alone through Death Valley and astronomers piercing the depths of space and time, in Echoes of the Invisible, photographer Rachel Sussman quests the documentation of the oldest living organisms on the planet to consider a deeper understanding and embrace of a wider timescale. There are lichens that grow 1 cm in 100 years, slower than continental drift. The clonal Creosote Bush, for example, in the Mojave Desert is 12,000 years old. Sussman’s photographs stress these remarkable resiliencies.
This focus connects to another documentary streamed, We Are As Gods, a feature documentary about counterculture icon and environmentalist Stewart Brand, completed on the day the festival was cancelled. Its creators David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg were concerned that this absence would impact distribution and sales of independent productions like theirs. I wonder if the cloistered worlds that Covid-19 imposed is now producing expanded opportunities for sales for online streaming. “We are as Gods” are the opening words to the opening line of the Whole Earth Catalog, edited by Brand, first published in 1968 in Menlo Park, as database for an emergent counterculture: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand embarks on this life journey with mixed success. Watching at home, I could put the film on pause and walk out to the back room to see if I still had my copy of this publication. Its unwieldy large size made it easy to find, under a pile of old Atlases. The Whole Earth Catalog was a compendium of counterculture creative ideas for DIY living, at a time when the mobility of sound in the transistor radio rehearsed the global mobility digital media produced for digital culture. Its layout and database also predicted our contemporary social online databases that now enable an online trace of the cancelled SXSW.
We Are As Gods documents Brand producing posters for music events that became known as “happenings”, naming the musicians to be showcased, who would then just show up because they had seen the poster. Such was his social impact. The economic success of the Catalog gave Brand an independence that transformed him into a tech visionary. One project is the Jurassic Park-like return of the Mammoth, based on DNA recovered from mammoth flesh preserved in melting glaciers.
The Clock of the Long Now is another Brand project (he is co-chair of the Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building it, though the actual concept was conceived by fellow co-chair, Daniel Hillis). Like Sussman’s photography, this project expands our understanding of what “now” means to a 10,000 plus and minus year window. Such a way of thinking about time emerges when one immerses oneself in the wilderness and the landscape. This reminded me of my animator friend’s Hugh Foulds’ comment, that when he canoed through desert landscapes in lower British Columbia, he could sense the sand dunes in motion, moving.
The Clock of the Long Now is designed to survive and perform for 10,000 years. Costing $42 million it is being installed in a mountainside in West Texas on land owned by Jeff Bezos. Brand does seem to be playing god. Is it “ethical” to colonise the future with such technological reach? Does such a clock do for the future what religious texts like the Bible do in defining our past? How does our current pandemic struggle re-contextualise such thinking? These thoughts seep in while watching.
One of the strong points of SXSW’s film programming has always been its music documentaries and another film that shared the previous film’s preoccupation with counter-culture moments was Alison Ellwood’s Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time. Laurel Canyon was where a critical mass of LA’s rock musicians lived in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a ten minute drive from the legendary Troubadour, where they mingled, performed and cut their teeth as performers. Like many music documentaries it is through the memories elicited from a viewer’s “life lived” that these re-collections produce relevance. Although the fantasy and entertainment dimensions of the music industry are not lost on me, at this point of transition into the pandemic’s clutches, I found such documentarist nostalgia more grounding than an escape into the fantasy of fiction. The history was laid out through interview recollections of the shared households, drug use, friendships and relationships lost and found: The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork from the Monkees, Joni Mitchell, Love, James Brown, The Eagles, Linda Rondstadt, The Mamas and Papas and The Doors.
A counter to this nostalgia-fest was Matt Eskey’s The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon, which provided more hard-headed insights into the mechanics of the music industry. Mojo Nixon (a.k.a. Neill Kirby McMillan Jr.) achieved cult success through psychobilly parody of American culture in the ‘80s, many with musician Skid Roper, with such lampooning songs as “I Hate Banks”, “Burn Down the Malls”, “Don Henley Must Die” and “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin”. MTV’s unwillingness to air the video for “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child” marked his withdrawal from mainstream visibility and success. The weight of archive material drives this film, counterpointing the requisite commentary by fellow musicians and the interview with an older retired McMillan. The uneven VHS material gave the documentary a suitable in-your-face punk aesthetic. Its non-linear storytelling, jumping from one period to another reflected the impulsive personality of its subject.
Matt Riddlehoover’s insightful and balanced My Darling Vivian peeled away layers of Johnny Cash’s first marriage to Vivian Liberto through love letters, home movies, photographs and interviews with their four daughters. It documented the slow train wreck of this first marriage with Cash’s growing success, absences from the family home and the eventual solace of drug use. A respect for their mother of Italian descent and a sense of setting the record straight came through these re-counting interviews. Racism again, reared its ugly head. A rumour that Cash’s first wife was a black woman had plagued his early career and was based on an early newspaper photograph of the couple standing on the steps of a government building with Cash. In the photograph Vivian’s olive skin was underexposed and in shadow.
The pick from the screening library was Finding Yingying by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, which won the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice. Yingying Zhang was a Chinese graduate student from Nanping studying at the University of Illinois. She was kidnapped and murdered by an ex-PhD student Brendt Christensen in 2017. Chistensen’s pick-up of Yingying from a campus bus stop registered on campus surveillance cameras. He took her back to his flat where he choked, raped, stabbed and decapitated her, placing her remains in a dumpster. Christensen was eventually sentenced to life for his crime. These disturbing events are evidenced over a two-year period, in which Shi follows Yingying’s parents and her boyfriend around the University campus looking for their missing daughter and later following the court case. This slow reveal allows Shi to embed herself inside the family with empathy and document the family’s changing hopes and emotions in an alien environment. The dialogue between the resolution of the crime and the emotional temperature of the family provides this documentary’s unique power, as it reveals unresolved cracks in the parent’s marriage, the sacrifices made for Yingying’s education and the consequent loss of status for the family in their home village in Nanying.
It is hoped that next year’s festival will be a physical one with a celebration of world premieres, networking opportunities and a gamut of sessions and panels that look to future developments in cinema and, no doubt, a productive appraisal of the festival’s response to this year’s events. Certainly the films that were available benefited form an introduction of sorts to the market and possible sales. I hope to attend next year to explore the impact of new immersive technologies on the cinema experience. This year’s experience can act as a hardcore case study for its pro and cons.
SXSW Film Festival
Festival website: https://www.sxsw.com/festivals/film/