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Wednesday, 03 June 2009 00:00

Tales of SXSW

Written by  Hunter Davis
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sxsw1It's 2:15 p.m. in downtown Austin, Texas. Hordes of people with colored badges fill the sidewalks and spill into the streets. Red carpets and long lines surround every theater. The bars on 6th Street are at capacity. All this could be for only one event: the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW Film).

In 1994, the world famous South by Southwest Music Festival expanded to include film and interactive conferences. Since then, SXSW Film has become one of nation's elite festivals.

sxsw2The theme of SXSW Film has always been about passion. According to Festival Founder Louis Black, “[There’s] a passion to make films, to see films, to program films so a larger audience can see them, and to support films made passionately by passionate filmmakers.” An ideal example was the SXSW World Premiere of David Lee Miller's My Suicide, which placed in the Emerging Visions competition. The film tells the story of Archie, a teenage film geek who plans to kill himself for a high school film project. The film created major buzz with SXSW audiences with its challenging subject matter, brilliant performances and cinematic blend of animation, stock footage, home video and reenactments.

One of the most interesting components of My Suicide is the film’s electrifying animation sequences. Arvin Bautista was the lead animator responsible for visually portraying Archie's persona using both traditional and rotoscope animation. “SXSW is Austin amped up to eleven,” says Bautista. “Great music, great people, laid-back attitude ... It’s the perfect place for us to have premiered our big little indie.”

Documentaries have always been widely showcased at SXSW Film, and this year was no exception. Mai Iskander’s film, Garbage Dreams, was the only documentary to sell out every screening at the Festival. Set in a small village on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, the film follows three teenage boys as they work in the trash trade and grow up in the world’s largest garbage ghetto.

“Garbage Dreams is a coming-of-age story dealing with issues of recycling and globalization,” says Iskander, a first-time director. “I not only wanted to screen Garbage Dreams in front of an audience, but I also wanted to use the film as a tool to initiate a dialogue about sustainability and recycling.”

Iskander surprised audiences after a screening when she brought Adham, one of the documentary’s main subjects, on stage for a brief Q&A session. Adham explained that, during his brief time in Austin, he visited several schools and organizations to share his knowledge and perspective on the art of recycling. And after a week of support and gratitude from one of America’s greenest cities, Adham told Iskander that he “never felt prouder being a garbage worker.”

While SXSW Film is a great showcase for filmmakers, it’s also a competition. And the big winner at this year’s Festival was That Evening Sun.

Shot and set in rural Tennessee, That Evening Sun tells the story of a proud widower who escapes an old folks home only to find that his beloved farmhouse has been rented to a rival family. That Evening Sun was directed by Scott Teems, and at the Festival’s closing ceremonies, it took home both the SXSW Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast.

Kathryn_Bigelow_Red_Carpet_-_The_Hurt_Locker“It’s supremely gratifying when an audience connects to your film,” says Teems, a first-time feature director. “What surprised me was the way the film seemed to connect across age and gender lines. But that’s Austin for you, an amazingly eclectic group of intelligent art lovers.”

Teems also talked about what makes SXSW Film different than other major festivals. “SXSW has the intimate feel of a smaller fest,” he says. “You're constantly running into other filmmakers and colleagues everywhere you go in Austin; the staff is friendly and accommodating; and the venues are easily accessible and nicely spotted around the downtown area –– but it has the prestige and exposure of a major fest. And that prestige is growing.”

In addition to independent films, SXSW also premiered a select group of larger titles soon to be released in theaters. This year’s more notable screenings included The Hurt Locker, an award-winning war thriller by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break); Seth Rogen's (Knocked Up) twisted dark comedy, Observe and Report; and the hit “bromance” comedy I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd.    

Pre-release studio films are always a hit at SXSW, but it just wouldn’t be Austin without midnight screenings at the world famous (and crowd favorite) Alamo Draft House Cinema. This year, the SXSW midnight buzz was for a world premiere of the highly anticipated British comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, in which two average English blokes are pitted against a gathering of (you guessed it) bloodthirsty lesbian vampires. The film’s titillating title did not disappoint the eager Alamo Draft House crowd –– they cheered on the film’s graphic violence, gruesome gore and erotic vampire fondling. What’s not to like?

Movies may be the heart of the Festival, but SXSW Film offers its attendees more than just screenings. One of the larger attractions throughout the week was a plethora of panels dedicated to providing insight and advice from some of today’s brightest filmmakers. Among some of the larger panelists were directors Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Lords of Dogtown), John Hamburg (Along Came Polly, I Love You, Man) and Jody Hill (Observe and Report, “Eastbound & Down”). Hometown filmmaker heroes Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Grindhouse), Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Far from Heaven) and Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) also made appearances to host special conversation panels for enthusiastic fans.

Another popular staple of SXSW is the annual Film and Interactive Trade Show. Held in the Austin Convention Center, the trade show features pioneering websites, technology, products, services, organizations, film commissions and much more. “The trade show is a good opportunity to meet with filmmakers that are walking the trade show floor between panels and other conference activities,” says Sten Iversen, manager of the Montana Film Office (MFO). With only a handful of other film commissions exhibiting, Iverson adds that SXSW is a great festival for the MFO: “It specifically focuses on emerging talent, and showcases the type of film that Montana is set up to attract.”

It’s no secret that Austin has a renowned reputation for partying. This reputation is amplified during SXSW –– its sponsored parties raged nonstop from opening day to the closing ceremonies. The majority of these bashes took place at various venues on 6th Street, a world-famous stretch of bars and restaurants in downtown Austin.

One of the larger SXSW Film parties this year, the fourth annual SXSW Filmmaker BBQ at Maggie Mae’s, was co-hosted by the MFO. “The SXSW Filmmaker BBQ was a great opportunity to co-host a reception for the filmmakers that were accepted into the festival,” says Iversen. With a massive turnout and nearly 160 VIPs in attendance, the BBQ was a very successful event.

Despite a nationwide economic crisis, another flourishing year for SXSW Film made the city of Austin seem temporarily recession-proof. “I don’t know how long they can keep up this art and entertainment oasis they’ve got going, but I can’t wait to come back,” says My Suicide Animator Bautista. He may have channeled the collective mindset of many SXSW Film patrons with those insightful words –– like a desert oasis, Austin’s spirited passion for cinema can seem almost too good to be true. But this is no mirage, it’s South by Southwest.

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