SXSW: What’s Up, Docs?

By Jim Cullen

Although narrative features get most of the attention at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, which concluded its nine-day run on March 20, for my money documentaries are the better deal. Most of the feature films on the schedule will end up with some theatrical release, or at least DVD release. But you never know when or if you’ll get to see some of the documentaries again. This year — its 17th — festival producer Janet Pierson said she received more than 700 documentary entries for 50 slots out of 4,000 total film entries.

Some of my favorite documentaries from this year’s festival:

11/4/08. Two weeks before the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Jeff Deutchman asked friends around the world to record their experiences on Nov. 4, 2008, a day of historic expectations. Deutchman got back video from amateurs as well as acclaimed filmmakers such as Henry Joost, Margaret Brown, Joe Swanberg and Benh Zeitlin. From the start of voting that Tuesday morning to the declaration of Obama’s victory about 10 p.m. Central time and the celebrations that continued into the following morning, the documentary records events in Chicago, where voting lines are even longer when Obama shows up to cast his own vote. In St. Louis and Austin, idealistic volunteers think they can turn their states blue. In Harlem, a black man confesses that he cannot vote for Obama because he is a felon and he expresses doubt that Obama’s election can affect his life anyway. Another man replies that it might not affect him, but it will have an impact on a generation of black children for whom the nation’s highest office is no longer out of the question. In Dubai, people are skeptical that Obama will amount to much change in Mideast policy. In Paris, a group discusses whether there could ever be a black president of France. In Berlin, Geneva and New Delhi, expatriates express their hopes.

After seven years of George W. Bush burning the goodwill that was accorded the United States after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the world had high hopes for Obama. A woman in Geneva put it succinctly: “He is the American dream and the world loves America because it loves your dreams.” In the past year and a half, in the face of intractable Republican opposition, perhaps those dreams have gotten a little more realistic, but still — wasn’t that a night, where the world watched Obama claim victory in Chicago’s Grant Park, and anything seemed possible?

Deutchman continues to solicit raw footage of that election day and night at

Ain’t In It for My Health. Director Jacob Hatley was originally hired to make a music video for Levon Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for The Band, to promote his CD, Dirt Farmer. But Hatley stuck around for a year and a half to tape Helm’s storytelling and ended up with a fascinating story of Helm’s battle with throat cancer, his bankruptcy, slowing down from his partying past, the deaths of bandmates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko and his conflicted feelings when he was notified that he would receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, which he ended up rejecting as just an attempt by “suits” to drum up sales. He had mixed emotions about The Band’s legacy, stemming from personal disputes with bandleader Robbie Robertson. Helms was the only member of The Band from the US and Hatley argues that his Southern heart and soul was the root of The Band’s success.

American: Bill Hicks. Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas use video from Hicks’ performances as well as animation using photos of family and friends to bring the outlaw comic back to life. The film explores his journey from a teenager in Houston who had to sneak out of his house to attend his first open-mike tryout at a local comedy club and follows Hicks as he his experiments with drugs and alcohol expanded his consciousness but eventually sent him on a downward spiral.

Hicks wore out his welcome at many US clubs before he got clean. He found new audiences in Canada and Britain and returned as the outlaw who skewered the contradictions of America and modern life, the hypocrisies of government and the collusion of mainstream media. He was finally achieving wider recognition when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 1993 at age 32.

His last appearance on Late Night with David Letterman on Oct. 1, 1993, was cut from the show, allegedly because religious jokes made Letterman and his producer nervous. Hicks died five months later. Fifteen years later, Letterman invited Hicks’ mother on his show on Jan. 30, 2009, to apologize and Hicks’ routine finally aired in its entirety. (It is available on

And Everything is Going Fine. Director Steven Soderbergh, who collaborated with Spalding Gray on his filmed stream-of-consciousness memoir monologue, Gray’s Anatomy, in 1996, has sifted through 15 hours of footage recorded in 25 years before Gray’s apparent suicide by drowning in 2004 and distilled the videos to give Gray a final 92-minute monologue tracking universal truths via his favorite subject: himself.

Beijing Taxi. Director Miao Wang follows the lives of three taxi drivers to examine the changing times and values of the Chinese capital as it is transformed in the two years leading up to the Beijing Olympics. The cabbies include a veteran of Mao’s Cultural Revolution who now has health problems and is trying to survive the transformation to Chinese capitalism until he is able to retire; a younger man whose aging taxi keeps breaking down, causing him to lose his taxi permit as the Olympics approach; and a young mother who drives a cab but is eager to start her own clothing business in the economic boom leading up to the Olympics. Wang, a native of Beijing, left China in 1990 for the US but went back every five years, watching more of her childhood city disappear with each visit.

Camp Victory, Afghanistan, by director Carol Dysinger tells the story of US National Guardsmen stationed in Herat, Afghanistan, to train Afghan officers and sergeants to build the 207th Corps into an institution capable of providing stability, peace and justice in a volatile nation. The Americans are faced with an Afghan army 80% of whose enlistees are illiterate, simply seeking a job and not entirely trustworthy when it comes to fighting the Taliban but the Americans grow to respect their mentees even as they doubt that they accomplished much.

For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair. Filmmakers Bruce Bryant and Jim Barham spin the story of generations of artists, volunteers and patrons who have made Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant a cultural treasure in the Montrose area of Houston that has nurtured singer-songwriters for 40 years. Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams are among the artists who played for dinner and the “door” and/or tip jar. The film tells how the close-knit “family” transformed a politically subversive coffee house and restaurant in the 1970s into a musical institution that today is one of the oldest acoustic venues in continuous operation in the US. The restaurant has never made much money — in fact, it frequently had to be bailed out financially — but it has succeeded with a common vision that nothing gets in the way of the music. The film features new and archival footage of performances and interviews by Vince Bell, Guy Clark, Slaid Cleaves, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Steven Fromholz, Carolyn Hester, Robert Earl Keen, Eric Taylor, Dave Van Ronk, Townes Van Zandt, Griffith, Lovett and Williams. The producers said the film’s release may be held up pending final clearance of music rights, but they are hoping.

Haynesville tells the story of what the discovery of the largest natural gas field in the United States does to a community in northwest Louisiana. The documentary follows three people: a single mom who defends her community’s interests against the threat of groundwater contamination by the drilling process and seeing that property owners are not cheated out of their share of gas royalties; an African American preacher who attempts to use the money spread around by the project to build a school; and a self-described “country boy” who weighs the cost of losing his beloved 300 acres of woodlands against becoming an overnight millionaire. In addition to following these characters, Gregory Kallenberg, a former newspaper reporter, interviews academics, journalists and environmentalists to explore the role natural gas from the Haynesville Shale field could play in providing a bridge from petrochemical-based energy to a more sustainable renewable energy policy for the United States.

The People vs. George Lucas. If you are of the generation that grew up with the first three “Star Wars” movies there is a good chance you have strong opinions about what George Lucas did not only with the prequel trilogy but also in tinkering with the original trilogy. Director Alexandre Phillippe used crowdsourcing to lure hundreds of hours of Star-Wars-themed fan videos — featuring 3-D animation, claymation, puppets and childrens drawings — rants and interviews to examine the conflicted dynamic between Lucas and his fans over the past three decades, from the Star Wars originalists to the new generation, many of whom see nothing wrong with Jar Jar Binks. The film amounts to a love letter/indictment of Lucas’ handling of the Star Wars legacy. Me? I’m a Trekkie.

The Red Chapel. Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist with few apparent scruples, impersonates a theatrical producer to get permission to travel to North Korea with two Danish-Korean standup comedians, one of whom is a self-described spastic. Their mission: to test censorship in one of the world’s most notoriously totalitarian regimes under the pretext of being a socialist theatrical troupe, “The Red Chapel,” on a cultural exchange visit from Denmark. The troupe was given permission to travel to Pyongyang to perform at special events for selected audiences. In North Korea the Danes are assigned Korean minders who monitor their every move. Every night the minders examine the video the Danes shoot to make sure there is no objectionable content, but the would-be censors are stymied by the Danish dialogue, particularly Jacob’s garbled speech. The Danish Koreans offer an intentionally lame vaudeville-style comic song-and-dance routine, only to see it taken over and transformed by the official Korean director into an even lamer routine. As they get closer to the performance, Jacob, the “spastic” protégé, has fits of conscience where he rebels against Brügger’s ruses. You almost feel sorry for Mrs. Pak, the Korean minder who smothers Jacob with motherly affection and bursts into tears at the mention of North Korean patriotism. Almost.

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements. Director Chris Farina follows elementary schoolteacher John Hunter as his students in Charlottesville, Va., participate in an educational exercise Hunter invented called the World Peace Game, an interactive experience that makes the 4th graders assume roles as world leaders and leads them to learn how to resolve disputes.

We also got a look at My Trip to al Qaeda, the film version of Lawrence Wright’s one-man play based on his reporting on the terror group for The New Yorker magazine and his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Directed by Alex Gibney, the film chronicles the rise of fundamentalist power in the Middle East and explores Wright’s struggle to maintain his objectivity as a journalist writing about Islamic terror. It follows Wright abroad to places like Cairo, where he once taught at the American University and he renews acquaintances with local sources, and London, where Egyptian political refugees monitor opposition to the ruling party and express contempt for the West that harbors them.

Movies I didn’t actually see but which came highly recommended included Thunder Soul, a documentary on the reunion of the legendary Houston Kashmere High School Stage Band that won national acclaim as a jazz/funk powerhouse in the 1970s under the tutelage of Conrad “Prof” Johnson. Many of his students returned 35 years later to pay tribute to the man, now 92, who changed their lives.

For more on these films, see (

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2010

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652