Documentary Fans in Luck at SXSW Film Fest

By Jim Cullen

The South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin had 130 features in its lineup and while most of the attention was paid to the studio-produced narrative feature premieres, I generally stick to the documentaries, because 1) they’re easier to get into and 2) with many of them you don’t know if you’ll hear of them again.

Ten docs that definitely are worth checking out:

Page One, Inside the New York Times, directed by Andrew Rossi. Everybody’s got an opinion about the New York Times, it seems, but not as many people actually read it any more. In September 2010 its daily circulation was 876,638, down from more than 1 million in 2009. The Times ranked third in circulation behind the Wall Street Journal’s 2 million copies and USA Today’s 1.8 million copies. Still, the Times remains one of the most important newspapers on Earth and Page One, Inside the New York Times shows why that is — and why we still need the Gray Lady, warts and all, in an era when shrinking newspaper ad revenues mean less money is available for reporters covering public affairs.

The retreat of the Washington Post, which in 2009 closed its regional bureaus to pull back its focus to the D.C. metro area and its hometown industry of government, has left the Times as the principal newspaper of record for the United States. Conservatives believe the Times is too liberal and many progressives think it is too conservative. But it is inarguably highly edited, which is a feature you seldom see in blogs. The Times has won 104 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization, and it has the most popular newspaper website, with more than 30 million unique visitors per month. It plans to start charging heavy users of its website (more than 20 articles per month).

For over a year Andrew Rossi followed the Media Desk at the Times, focusing on two writers and an editor on the desk (which has 11 reporters). While bloggers may play down the importance of the Times, the documentary is at its best showing the role of editors — particularly media editor Bruce Headlam, who is shown getting updates on the stories his reporters are working on, pitching those stories to his bosses for possible placement on the front page and helping the reporters shape the narrative and direction.

The film follows two stories that show the value of editors: In the first, Headlam and other editors wisely decide not to go along with NBC’s declaration that the war in Iraq was over because combat troops had left Iraq (while tens of thousands of US troops remain in that country). The second follows David Carr’s reporting on the downfall of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and other media properties, by Sam Zell, a businessman with no journalism background or inclination to follow journalistic principles. When Carr reports on some salacious aspects of Tribune executives’ stewardship of the properties, Tribune attorneys send threatening letters to the Times, resulting in facts being checked and the stories eventually being published.

Rossi interviews Gay Talese, New Yorker editor David Remnick and former Times reporter Alex S. Jones, author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times.

The documentary focuses on Brian Stetler, a young journalist who made his name as an independent blogger before he was tapped by the Times, where he has been a key reporter on Wikileaks. The Times’ fiercest defender is Carr, the charismatic media reporter and columnist who came to the Times after overcoming drug addiction as a journalist in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. When a Vice magazine co-founder publicizing his own reporting in Liberia belittled mainstream news coverage of Africa in an interview, Carr interrupts to note that the Times has had reporters in Liberia (and elsewhere in Africa) forever. After Michael Wolff of suggests that journalism will proceed without newspapers such as the Times, Carr notes that without original reporting such as that produced by the Times, aggregators won’t have much to aggregate.

Commenting on the Times’ efforts to appeal to users of mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads, Carr asks, “Is that a bridge to the future? Oh, wait, it’s a gallows.”

In a question and answer period after the screening, Carr said the editorial process is a big part of the Times’ value. “The role of editors is baked into the film,” he said. It really is a must-see film for journalism students.

Incendiary: The Willingham Case, directed by Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr., examines the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murder in the burning death of his three daughters in their home in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991. Fire investigators with little scientific training ruled it arson and Willingham, who was a small-time criminal, had little chance with a court-appointed attorney who relied on an arson consultant who agreed with the arson investigators that it looked like arson to him. Years later, fire scientists refuted the arson investigators, but by that time Willingham already was approaching his execution date. So despite a report raising serious questions about the quality of evidence used to convict Willingham, Gov. Rick Perry (R) refused to issue a 30-day stay, so Willingham was executed in February 2004, still denying his guilt.

When the Texas Forensic Science Commission set a review of the case, Perry in September 2009 replaced the defense lawyer who was the commission’s chairman three days before the panel was to hear a report Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler who found the charges of arson were not sustainable. Perry’s new chairman was a hardline prosecutor who sent the report to a subcommittee for further study — coincidentally until after the Republican primary.

In July 2010 the subcommittee finally acknowledged that state and local arson investigators used “flawed science” in determining that the blaze had been deliberately set, but it stopped short of blaming State Fire Marshall Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg. In September 2010, the full commission refused to approve a draft report written by Bradley that held that arson investigators were not guilty of professional negligence or misconduct in the case. A state district judge in Austin conducted a court of inquiry in the case until he was stopped by an appeals court.

The movie received SXSW’s Louis Black Lone Star Award.

Two documentaries explore the lives of soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Heather Courtney was a documentary filmmaker looking to tell a story about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she grew up, when she met Dominic, who had signed up for the National Guard to help pay his way through college and persuaded his childhood buddies to join with him. In Where Soldiers Come From, which won the jury award for best editing, Courtney follows five young men through their training, their mobilization and deployment to Afghanistan, where they escorted convoys, looking for roadside bombs and getting banged up by their share of explosions. She travelled with the Guard unit to Afghanistan and also followed the concerns of the Guardsmen’s loved ones back home, as well as their efforts to readjust to life at home in the U.P. without a job after their tour.

Armadillo, directed by Janus Metz, tells the story of a platoon of Danish soldiers in Forward Operating Base Armadillo in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Metz and his cameramen embedded with the platoon, whose boredom is punctuated with occasional close-quarter skirmishes with the Taliban — with Metz and his cameraman in the thick of it — while the Danes are patrolling the nearby village, whose residents are either tired of losing their livestock to stray bombs or gunfire or fear that cooperating with the NATO forces during their daytime patrols will result in retaliation from the Taliban who rule the night.

The platoon’s one major success in drawing the Taliban into a firefight during a predawn patrol is tarnished when some of the soldiers’ bragging about the killing of three Taliban fighters leads to reports that the Danes may have executed wounded Taliban instead of trying to bring them in, leading to an official investigation.

When you notice a documentary by Steve James, check it out. The Interrupters, James’ latest effort, produced with Alex Kotlowitz, tells of the work of CeaseFire, a Chicago group that enlists former gang members to go back into their communities as Violence Interrupters to seek to defuse violence. The group was founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin M.D., who believes that violence is just like any other infectious disease that must be stopped at its source.

The movie follows three Interrupters: Ameena Matthews, whose father was Jeff Fort, a notorious gang leader, was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and her Muslim faith pulled her off the streets and grounded her. In the wake of the beating death of a Chicago high school student that was captured on videotape, Ameena becomes a confidante to the victim’s mother, and helps her through her grieving. Ameena also befriends a feisty teenaged girl who reminds her of herself at that age.

Cobe Williams was in and out of prison, until having his own family — particularly a young son — helped him find his footing. He combines street cred with a sense of humor to reach people, including a teenaged boy just out of prison and a young man from his old neighborhood who’s squatting in a foreclosed home.

Eddie Bocanegra’s CeaseFire work is partly in repentance for a murder he committed when he was 17. Now he spends much of his time working with younger kids in an effort to keep them off the streets and to get support to those who need it — including a 16-year-old girl whose brother died in her arms.

James has made several acclaimed documentaries, but is best known for Hoop Dreams (1994), which followed two Chicago high schoolers in their dreams to become professional basketball players. Kotlowitz wrote There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991).

The Interrupters is expected to get a limited theatrical release in midsummer and eventually will appear on PBS’s Frontline series.

Better This World, directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, tells the twisted tale of two boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, who planned to protest at the Republican National Committee and met Brandon Darby, a charismatic revolutionary who warned them that he expected action, not just words, as they prepared for the trip to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. After they arrive in Minneapolis, their van is broken into and their homemade shields are stolen, presumably by police who had been hassling other activists in town to protest the convention. Enraged, McKay and Crowder make eight Molotov cocktails. After the police return with warrants to search for the bombs and arrest the pair on terrorism charges, McKay and Crowder learn that their mentor was an FBI informant all along. The pair claim Darby was the provocateur, and his notes to his FBI handlers appear to corroborate that claim, as he admitted that he told them “I want to shut that f***er down,” among other things. But a retired FBI agent interviewed by the filmmakers noted that the role of informants was expanded after 9/11 to allow them to suggest illegal acts that would have been considered entrapment in the past.

Crowder, who was at the screening, was released after serving two years in federal prison for his role in making the bomb. McKay, who originally fought the charges and got a hung jury in his first trial, pleaded guilty before the second trial when the feds threatened to force Crowder to testify against him. McKay is now serving four years. Crowder said the threat to file additional charges against him, even after he pleaded guilty, if he refused to testify against his friend, was the scariest thing that happened to him, but Crowder added, “What happened to David and me wasn’t isolated. It happens to a lot of people. This is not a fluke.”

As a convicted felon, Crowder lost the right to vote but he remains committed to non-violent demonstrations. Darby is now a right-wing radio commentator.

The film is expected to air on PBS’s POV series this fall.

In Kumaré, which won the Audience Award at the festival, Vikram Gandhi sets out to expose Indian gurus and other New Age spiritualists as charlatans. So the New Jersey yuppie grew out his hair and beard, put on a robe, adapted his grandmother’s Indian accent and started an ashram in Arizona under the name Sri Kumaré. He provides an oblique warning to his followers that he is an illusion, but they accept his teachings hook, line and sinker. And, much to his surprise, he starts to believe that he is helping his followers. More important, his followers believe that he has changed their lives. At the end of his program, Kumaré finds that he is unable to unmask himself as he originally had planned, so he merely tells them that they are their own gurus. Later he comes clean with his followers, presents himself as the clean-shaven Vikram Gandhi and assures them that they are free to proceed with whatever of his teachings they found useful.

Morgan Spurlock conceived The Greatest Movie Ever Sold as a movie that not only would explain the role of product placement in the movies, but also would be financed by product placement in his movie. And the fact that the full title ended up as POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold suggests that Spurlock succeeded on both counts.

Spurlock is best known as the maker of Supersize Me (2004), and he starts out his new movie by exploring the possibilities of selling out with ad executives, branding consultants and corporate marketing departments as well as other commercial filmmakers who have found themselves with products they needed to work into their features.

Spurlock said he called hundreds of brands and ultimately got 15 in the movie. And the process is entertaining as well as informative.

Buck, directed by Cindy Meehl, examines the career of Buck Brannaman, who overcame abuse as a child to transform horse training with his belief that horses don’t need to be broken, they just need to trust that their owners will keep them safe and comfortable. He was one of the models for Nicholas Evans’ fictional Horse Whisperer and was a consultant on the Robert Redford movie of the same name. The animal-human relationship becomes a metaphor for meeting the challenges of daily life, whether raising kids, running a business or finding your flow with a dance partner. Buck is scheduled for a June release by IFC Films.

In King of Luck, the closing film in the festival lineup, Billy Bob Thornton directed a modest but thoughtful documentary on the career of Willie Nelson, his Family, friends, and the music that has kept him on the road for more than 50 years. Luck refers to a mock town on Willie’s property near Austin, where you’re either “In Luck” or “Out of Luck.” If you love Willie, you’ll enjoy the movie. If you don’t love Willie, well, what’s wrong with you?

Get more information on the films at (

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2011

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