Just the Facts at SXSW

By Jim Cullen

South By Southwest (SXSW) is best-known for its Music Festival, which draws hundreds of bands and thousands of fans to Austin in mid-March, filling local bars during what would otherwise be the dead week of spring break. Its lesser-known companion is the Film Festival, which this year, the 16th edition, featured more than 130 feature films and documentaries over nine days.

SXSW takes a back seat to Utah’s Sundance Film Festival when it comes to high-dollar feature film premieres, but the Austin fest shines in offering exposure to creative filmmakers—particularly documentarians who are looking for exposure and perhaps a distribution deal or a shot at PBS or a cable channel.

My favorite documentaries from this year’s festival:

MINE, directed by Geralyn Pezanoski, tells the story of the continuing conflict over the fates of animals rescued from New Orleans in the weeks after the backwash from Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Some residents who fled the city as the hurricane approached were forced to leave their dogs and cats in their homes because they didn’t have room in their cars, thinking that they would be home in a few days at most. Others refused to leave their pets behind and hunkered down through the storm.

After the levees broke, flooding most of the city and killing more than 2,000 humans, rescuers retrieved human survivors but were unable or unwilling to take pets. In some cases National Guard crews were ordered to take human survivors by force if necessary; in other cases they simply assured survivors that their pets would be taken care of and could be reclaimed when things settled down.

Of course, things didn’t settle down for several months as residents were unable to return to their homes. Animal welfare groups descended on New Orleans to rescue some of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned pets, many of which were locked up in houses and starving. As area animal shelters quickly ran out of room, the pets (mainly dogs, because cats were least likely to make their presence known to rescuers) were transported across the country with no comprehensive plan to reunite lost pets with their owners. That set up a second wave of tragedy as residents returned to New Orleans to find that their pets had been rescued but had been adopted by new families elsewhere. Some rescuers who had done valiant work to save dogs and cats now found themselves criticized for finding new homes for the pets and preserving the privacy and rights of the adoptive families. Some survivors got their dogs back; others are still fighting three years later.

Over the Hills and Far Away documents the touching story of Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff’s attempts to come to terms with their 5-year-old son Rowan’s autism, which subjected him to uncontrollable tantrums, withdrawal and incontinence. The parents tried conventional and alternative treatments to find relief from the condition before they noticed Rowan’s ability to connect with an old mare, Betsy, at a neighbor’s farm. Seeking therapy that combined horses and healing, they traveled to Mongolia, where horses were first domesticated and Shamanism is the state religion. The family, their film crew and Mongolian guides rode a van and horses into remote parts of Mongolia, participating in Shamanic rituals and searching for the mystic Reindeer herders and their shaman who was reputed to be the most powerful of all. I don’t suppose I’m spoiling too much to disclose that the family is changed for the better. Kristin, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas, remains a skeptic about Shamanism, but Rowan is able to make full use of the toilet, which would have made the trip worthwhile if nothing else were accomplished. Director Michel Orion Scott accompanied the Isaacsons to Mongolia with no idea how the trip would end and he brought back a story that would strain credulity if Hollywood served it up. The movie should get a nationwide release and the Isaacsons have set up The Horse Boy Foundation, which runs a learning and equestrian center for autistic and normal children at Elgin, Texas (near Austin). Rupert Isaacson also has written a book, The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son, which will be published in April by Little Brown.

Severe Clear presents a Marine’s-eye view of the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, delivered by camcorder-wielding First Lt. Michael Scotti, an artillery spotter who was in the thick of the action as the Marines drove from Kuwait to Baghdad. Scotti, who already was a veteran of Afghanistan, went into Iraq with a picture of a girlfriend from high school who had died in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. He reflected the widespread determination to make Saddam Hussein pay for the terrorist attacks (which, of course, it turns out Hussein had nothing to do with). The footage, taped by Scotti and three buddies, sometimes in the midst of firefights, takes viewers into the daily life of Marines as they first fight boredom waiting for the invasion, then are caught in firefights and nighttime rocket attacks when they finally meet opposition from Iraqi forces. Later they drive past fly-infested bodies and approach Iraqi civilians, unsure which, if any, they could trust.

The film is not preachy, but by the time Scotti reached Saddam’s palace a few weeks later, he and his fellow Marines were beginning to show some doubts about the clarity of their mission. It is clear that what unites them is their battle-tested brotherhood. Directed by Kristian Fraga.

Other recommended documentaries:

American Prince revisits the story of master storyteller Stephen Prince, who was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “lost” 1978 documentary, American Boy. Perhaps best remembered as Andy the Gun Salesman in Taxi Driver, Prince was a longtime Scorsese pal who soured on the film industry in the 1990s as the beancounters routed the creative side at the major studies. He became a general contractor in Austin, Texas, but he can still weave a yarn.

Last Beekeeper, directed by Jeremy Simmons, asks where the honey bees have gone and what beekeepers and the farmers who depend upon them for pollination of their crops can do about the catastrophic declines in bee populations in recent years.

The Time of Their Lives follows residents of the Mary Fielding Guild home for the “active elderly,” near London. The film follows 101-year-old former sex therapist Rose, who claimed to be the oldest newspaper columnist in the world; fellow centenarian and peace activist Hetty, 102, who embarked on her 84th peace march; and 87-year-old writer Alison, a former lefty who confessed that she had drifted right in her old age. All are still as active as they can be at their age. They share their insights on politics, sex, life and death as they await the Big Sleep, which they welcome. Director Jocelyn Cammack.

Saint Misbehavin’: Life of Wavy Gravy tells the story of Hugh Romney, who started out as a beatnik poet, former roommate of Bob Dylan, comic storyteller and Merry Prankster during the 1960s, who is perhaps best remembered as the emcee of the first Woodstock Music Festival, where he was the unlikely head of the festival’s security, which he styled the “Please Force.” He adopted the guise of a clown when he found that police tend not to beat up protesters who are dressed that way. He still embodies the era’s peace-and-love spirit with humor and heart and runs Camp Winnarainbow, where he teaches clowning and performing arts to kids of all ages and raises funds for worthy causes such as eye care in the Third World. Director, Michelle Esrick.

Say My Name tells the story of women in hip-hop, which usually is thought of as a male-dominated industry. Featured hip-hop artists include Aaries, MC Lyte, Big Manda, Miz korona, Chocolate Thai, Monie Love, Eryka Badu, Princess and Diamond, Estelle, Remy Ma, Georgia Girls, Rha Digga, GTA Crew, Sparky Dee, Invincible, Shanika, Jean Grae and Trinie. Director is Nirit Peled, a Dutch filmmaker.

Trust Us, This is All Made Up features two comic improvisers, T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, Chicago Second City alumni who rely on their imagination, instinct and trust in each other’s abilities to improvise a 50-minute performance at a New York theatre in which they invent characters and situations on the fly, switching characters when necessary to change scenes or advance the story. Purists will tell you that improv should be seen live. If you can’t get to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City for their monthly gig, this is the next best thing. Director Alex Karpovsky.

Winnebago Man is a surprisingly poignant documentary that tracks down an obscure actor who was notorious for foul-mouthed outtakes from a promotional film for Winnebago recreational vehicles in 1979. Videotapes of the outtakes were widely circulated before Youtube made them accessible to millions on the Internet, but little was known of what happened to Jack Rebney until filmmaker Ben Steinbauer got on his trail.

Steinbauer found Rebney, a TV newsman before his brief industrial film career, on a California mountaintop and coaxed him to talk about his unexpected notoriety. In the process, he discovers that Rebney, for all his old-coot persona, is articulate and kind. In his defense, he quotes Andre Gide: “The man without anger is no man at all.”

Yes Men Fix the World follows the work of corporate pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who use fake websites, alter-egos and whatever else they can to take aim at multinational corporations, whether by impersonating corporate spokesmen or federal bureaucrats at business conferences. In a notorious interview with the BBC, Bichlbaum passed himself off as a spokesman for Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, finally taking responsibility for subsidiary Union Carbide’s poisoning of thousands of residents of Bhopal, India, in 1984. Dow lost more than $2 billion in stock value in the hours after the interview before investors realized that, no, Dow would not be forced to pay for the damage done by its subsidiary.

Among narrative features, one of the best is American Violet, based on a small-town Central Texas drug raid in 2000 that targeted African-American residents of a public housing project based on the testimony of a single informant who claimed he bought crack cocaine from 28 defendants. The accused, who were unable to come up with excessive bail on charges of distributing crack cocaine, were held in the county jail for weeks, while court-appointed attorneys tried to persuade them to accept plea bargains that would let them out of jail at the cost of putting a felony drug conviction on their record. A drug rap also means the probationer is not eligible for food stamps, public housing, education assistance loses the right to vote until two years after she completes probation—and probationers must pay court fees through the term of their probation. In the movie, Dee Roberts, played by Nicole Beharie, refuses the plea bargain and, with the help of the ACLU and a local lawyer, sues the district attorney and helps expose the drug sweep as a sham.

Director Tim Disney does a good job with the fictionalized account, set in the fictional town of Melody, Texas, and featuring Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton and Michael O’Keefe as the dastardly DA. Disney hopes the movie will draw attention to the abuse of plea bargains to coerce defendants to plead guilty to offenses they did not commit. The movie is based on the real-life experience of Regina Kelly, a waitress who was one of 28 people arrested in Hearne, Texas, in November 2000 on the word of an informant who later claimed he had been beaten by police and promised that theft charges against him would be dropped if he cooperated in producing 20 drug arrests. Even after the case fell apart, when one of the defendants was found to have been at a hospital when the informant claimed he was selling him drugs and others were able to show through time cards and witnesses that they were at work during the time they were accused of participating in drug deals, Robertson County District Attorney John Paschall said he still believed the defendants were guilty of dealing drugs. “I don’t doubt one minute their guilt in dealing drugs,” Paschall told the New York Times in 2001. Paschall in February 2002 dropped charges against most of the accused whose cases were still pending, some of whom were jailed up to six months, but he refused to allow seven defendants to withdraw guilty pleas. (He has since been re-elected and still wields authority in the rural county; a Catholic priest sponsoring a showing of American Violet in Hearne told the Houston Chronicle that several local businesses took down posters promoting the film after an investigator from the district attorney’s office suggested that their business might suffer unless the posters were removed. The priest said he now fears retaliation.) There are enough differences between the movie and the Hearne case to raise questions of where facts of the case blend into fiction. For example, the movie states that “Dee Roberts” was exonerated and her record was cleared, but Kelly told Radley Balko of TheAgitator.com the arrest is still on her record. Also, Erma Faye Stewart, one of those who was coerced to plead guilty, remains on probation.

Disney said the fictionalization was done for “liability as well as dramatic reasons.” It is worth viewing with that caveat.

Radley Balko, a senior editor for Reason magazine, noted at his blog, TheAgitator.com (March 21) that the Hearne scandal was largely attributable to the federal Byrne Grant program, which created unaccountable, multi-jurisdictional drug task forces like those responsible for Hearne and a similar case a year earlier in Tulia, Texas, in which 46 people were arrested based on the word of a undercover police officer who was found to be lying. Most of the 46 who were arrested in the Tulia sweep were released and shared in a $6 million settlement. (A documentary on that case, Tulia, Texas, was released last year and was broadcast on PBS in February. A feature movie reportedly is in the works.) The Byrne program “also sets artificial, improper incentives by tying future funding to the number of arrests and drug seizures a task force makes,” Ralko noted. The Texas Legislature changed the law to stop the conviction of defendants based on the uncorroborated testimony of a single informant and the Bush administration phased out the Byrne grants but Balko notes that the Obama administration wants to revive the Byrne drug eradication program.

There were “marquee” features at the festival, but lesser-known movies worth checking out:

Eggshells, the long-lost first feature of Tobe Hooper, has been rediscovered and is in the process of being restored. This psychedelic and mystical depiction of a commune in Austin in the late 1960s sunk from view after a few showings in college-town arthouses, and Hooper went for the big payday with Texas Chainsaw Massacre but Eggshell is worth a viewing for Hooper fans.

Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle tells the story of Dory, a computer wonk who, when he loses his job as a data manager, is forced to take a job with a janitorial company staffed with oddballs who become addicted to an experimental, biochemically-engineered hallucinagenic cookie they find in the trash of a product-testing company. Director, David Russo.

The 2 Bobs is a comedy by writer/director Tim McCanlies of Austin (Iron Giant, Secondhand Lions, Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81). Two video game tycoons, both named Bob (Vertical Bob and Horizontal Bob) fall from grace when the computer containing their long-awaited new game software is stolen or repossessed and their gaming empire collapses, sending them back to live with their folks as they plot their comeback. Hilarity ensues. (Disclosure: I am a friend of a producer, but the crowd liked it too.)

For more information, see www.sxsw.com/film.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2009

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