SXSW Film Fest:

Ten Documentaries to Look For

By Jim Cullen

South By Southwest started out 25 years ago as a music festival seeking to generate business for Austin bars that were cleared out in mid-March when University of Texas students left town for spring break. In 1994, with out-of-towners crowding the musical venues, festival promoters added a Film and Multimedia Conference, giving locals another chance to participate. And while Toronto and Sundance film festivals are better known as markets for high-dollar features, the Austin festival has earned a reputation for promoting quality documentaries. Ten of the best, which you should check out if they appear on TV or in a theater near you:

Scarlet Road, by Catherine Scott, tells the story of Rachael Wotton, an Australian “sex worker” who specializes in disabled clients. Scott become a friend of Wotten, who is an advocate for the legal rights of prostitutes, over a decade ago. Over the years they had discussed the possibility of doing a documentary about Wotton’s profession.

Prostitution is legal in Sydney and is decriminalized but tightly regulated in other parts of Australia. But as filming started three years ago, the focus centered on Wotton’s work with disabled clients — two in particular who agreed to become subjects of the documentary. At first, Wotton didn’t want cameras in the bedroom. She said she wanted the experiences to be treated with dignity and respect, so that the documentary could not be dismissed as pornography, or a “happy hooker” film. Scott said when she pitched the film idea to John Blades, disabled with multiple sclerosis, he replied, “I would be honored to be in this film,” not only because of his high regard for Wotton, but also to show how sexual self-discovery had transformed his life and helped him regain body movement that he thought was lost. Mark Manitta, a client with cerebral palsy, also welcomed the role, as he fulfilled his dream of falling asleeep with a woman and waking up beside her in the morning. “It just flowed from there,” Scott said. They ended up with tastefully shot scenes in a shower and in bed.

Wotton, who is in her 30s, noted that she does not deal exclusively with disabled clients, but she built up experience seeing people with a wide range of disabilities. “I see all clients holistically — as people first and foremost. If they happen to have a disability, I just adapt my services accordingly to best meet their desires and needs.” While she did not discuss her rates, she apparently is not cheap. “It’s my job. It’s how I pay my bills,” she said, adding that she rejects about half of potential bookings.

Wotton also noted that she doesn’t need a pimp because, if she has a problem with a client, she can call the police. “In the United States, if I was assaulted [on the job] and called the police, I’d be locked up. If we did this documentary in the US, it would be ‘Scarlet Lockup.’”

In fact, she noted, to enter the US, she listed her occupation as a health educator, which is true enough as she recently received a graduate degree in sexual health from the University of Sydney.

“When I put a smile on my client’s face it might not be exactly what Jefferson and the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence,” she said in a publicity interview at “But seriously, America should be leading the way – or at least following in the sound footsteps of [New South Wales], Australia and New Zealand where decriminalization has been proven to work. It is a disgrace that the USA is actively turning its back on sex workers.”

Some of her most vocal critics, she added, are feminists, many of whom refuse to believe that women can willingly become sex workers. “They’re always trying to save us,” she said.

Since the documentary was finished, Wotton has moved to Brisbane to live with her (very understanding) boyfriend. Prostitution is decriminalized in Brisbane, but it is more tightly regulated, she said.

Wotton has founded Touching Base (, which helps organize and train sex workers, particularly those who want to assist people with disabilities, and she dreams of setting up the world’s first not-for-profit brothel. Probably not in the United States.

Seeking Asian Female, by Debbie Lum, follows the modern and perhaps unlikely love story of Steven, a 60-year-old, twice-divorced white man with “yellow fever,” that is, obsessed with marrying an Asian woman, and Sandy, the young Chinese bride Steven finds online. Debbie, a Chinese-American filmmaker, documents and narrates with skepticism and humor, from the early stages of Steven’s search, through the moment Sandy steps foot in California for the first time. Lum is pressed into translating between the two and helping them sort out the tangles in their courtship. Lum at first was repelled and fascinated with Steven, a parking attendant who had spent years of his life and thousands of dollars in matchmaking services and online matchmaking sites. After an abortive engagement with a Chinese girl who appears to be taking advantage of him — taking expensive gifts from him while holding off on his spontaneous marriage proposal — Steven finds Sandy, a 30-year-old woman who grew up on a farm, migrated as a teenager to the industrial city of Shenzhen in search of opportunity and worked her way up from the factory floor to a white-collar job. And she seems to be genuinely attracted to Steven — at least until she gets to California and reality sets in. Does love conquer all? Or is it the inability of the couple to admit that they’ve made a mistake that they won’t back away from?

Code of the West, directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen, follows the backlash against Montana’s legalization of medical marijuana in 2004. Despite 62% approval of Montana voters, opponents of medical marijuana pushed for its repeal after Republicans regained majorities in the Legislature in 2011, claiming that marijuana use had increased dramatically since the law was implemented in 2006, despite federal studies that showed teen drug use had actually dropped.

Filmmaker Cohen noted that though the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic (with no accepted medical use), 16 states and D.C. have legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, severe nausea, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.

Despite instructions by the Department of Justice that the Drug Enforcement Agency should not target medical marijuana providers who comply with state laws, a federal task force raided 20 Montana medical marijuana operations on the morning that a state Senate committee was to vote on the repeal bill. The Senate eventually passed the bill, but after Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) vetoed it, the Republican-dominated Legislature returned with a bill with restrictions that all but banned medical marijuana. It passed by a veto-proof margin and while a state judge has blocked its implementation, it has placed a chill over the industry.

Chasing Ice, by Jeff Orlowski, follows photographer James Balog, a skeptic about climate change until an assignment to the Arctic for National Geographic showed him undeniable evidence of the planet’s changes. His Extreme Ice Survey deployed time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers. As the debate polarizes America, and the intensity of natural disasters ramps up globally, Chasing Ice seeks to deliver fragile hope to our carbon-powered planet.

Last Call at the Oasis, by Jessica Yu, focuses on the looming global water shortage in the 21st century. Starting with the profligate use of water in Las Vegas and other cities that depend on the Hoover Dam, whose needs are so great that water levels will soon drop below electricity generator intakes. The documentary covers climate change, aquifer depletion, pollutants in drinking water and the need for better sewage treatment and water recycling. It features experts, including environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who revisits Hinkley, Calif., the water-poisoned town made famous in the movie bearing her name.

Marley, by Kevin McDonald, tells the story of Bob Marley, the reggae legend, from his early days in a Jamaican hillside village, where he grew up suffering prejudice because of his mixed racial background, with a white father he never knew; his mother’s move to the ghettoes of Trenchtown, where he formed the Wailers in the 1960s; and his rise to international superstardom and move to upper-class addresses in Kingston but was only beginning to break through in the US when he was stricken with the cancer that eventually killed him in 1981 at age 36. With the support of the Marley family and close associates, the film features rare footage, performances and interviews with people who knew him best. McDonald, who won an Oscar for the documentary One Day in September in 1999 and directed The Last King of Scotland in 2006, also explores Marley’s conversion to Rastafarianism and his relationship with the sometimes violent Jamaican politics, which got him shot in a botched assassination attempt before the eventual concert during which he tried to unify the political rivals.

Trash Dance, by Andrew Garrison, finds inspiration in the beauty and grace of garbage trucks — and the men and women who pick up our trash, doing much of their best work while the rest of us are in bed. Choreographer Allison Orr joined Austin, Texas, sanitation workers on their daily routes to listen, learn and ultimately to try to convince them to collaborate in a unique “dance” performance. She finds a few are game, some of them expressing hope that they will get the public, or at least their kids, to recognize that they work hard and do a good job. After months of rehearsal two dozen trash collectors and their trucks performed an extraordinary spectacle on an abandoned airport runway before a couple thousand people who showed up on a drizzling evening to see how in the world a garbage truck can “dance.” As crane operator Dan Anderson reminds us about midway through the film, “There is some grace to what we do.” Trash Dance might make you view your trash collectors in a new light.

Under African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, travels with Paul Simon back to South Africa in 2011 for the 25th anniversary of his historic Graceland album. The making of that album defied a cultural boycott of South Africa declared by anti-apartheid activists and adopted by the United Nations. It’s easy to forget how many people Simon pissed off when he went to South Africa, where the white minority ruled with brutal methods, to meet and record black musicians whose rhythms would provide the foundation for the comeback album that many now consider Simon’s masterpiece. When the record came out, the African National Congress, among others, condemned him for it, there were protests and bomb threats on his tour, and some hard feelings have lingered ever since (even though Nelson Mandela invited Simon back to South Africa after he became president).

Simon admitted that he might have done things differently (he ignored advice from Harry Belafonte to clear the project with the ANC beforehand), but he argued that it would compromise his artistic integrity to seek permission to record songs. Sometimes artists have to defy authority, even well-meaning authority, he reasoned, and bringing artists such as guitarist Ray Phiri and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a worldwide audience was a good thing. Berlinger interviews Dali Tambo, co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, about the group’s grievance and a 2011 meeting of Tambo and Simon was arranged to clear the air and they finally hugged — even if neither side admitted they were wrong.

But footage from the original recording sessions as well as the reunion of the musicians in 2011 are fascinating and delightful to watch. When Simon took the band to Saturday Night Live in 1986 to debut his new songs — months before Graceland was set to release — producer Lorne Michaels was uncertain how American audiences would receive it, but he figured that he could always cut that segment if it fell flat. Of course, that performance was transcendent, and the rest is history.

We are Legion: the Story of the Hacktivists, by Brian Knappenberger, puts human faces on Anonymous, the “hacktivist” group whose members style themselves as the first Internet army and usually are seen wearing “Guy Fawkes” masks from the movie V for Vendetta. Anonymous started spontaneously as young hackers, using automated “digital denial of service” attacks that overwhelm targeted websites, harassed Hal Turner, who produced a neo-Nazi podcast. When they turned their attention to the Church of Scientology, which is notorious for threatening criminal and civil prosecution of critics, not only did DDOS attacks shut down Scientology’s websites but more than 10,000 showed up to protest in front of Scientology offices — many of them wearing the Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities.

Scientology tracked down some of the hacktivists and sicced federal authorities on them. One of them, a 20-year-old man in Grand Island, Neb., found FBI agents at his door, seeking a “friendly conversation,” which resulted in Mettenberg’s admission that he participate in a DDOS attack and brought a felony charge against him — proving, if nothing else, that there is no such thing as a friendly conversation with an FBI agent.

After credit card companies and PayPal, the online payment site, stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks, hacktivisits struck the websites and shut them down. Feds traced the DDOS attacks to 14 individuals who have been charged with felonies. An attorney claimed the attacks were little more than the electronic version of a “sit-in” and thus should be covered by the First Amendment. Whether you think the hacktivists are ePatriots or eVandals, We Are Legion is an interesting primer on the movement.

Wikileaks: Secrets & Lies, by Patrick Forbes, lets the people involved in the WikiLeaks affair tell of their involvement in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of leaked US diplomatic and military messages. As the tale goes on, the former partners dish on their collaborators. The documentary features an extended interview with Julian Assange, the brilliant if mercurial Australian hacker who founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as a non-profit whistleblowing organization who received the windfall of more than 250,000 messages, many of them classified, apparently from US Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, who is facing charges in US military court.

Seeking the greatest exposure, Assange offered the messages to the New York Times, London’s Guardian and Berlin’s Der Spiegel. The newspapers in cooperation with WikiLeaks published Iraq war logs and diplomatic cables in 2010, with some sensitive information redacted that would endanger "innocent" people named in the posts. Editors felt burned when it was discovered that WikiLeaks put many of the files unredacted on the Internet, with Assange quoted saying of the sources, “They’re American informants. They deserve to die.” The documentary is a good introductory examination of the competing interests of freedom of information vs. the need to keep government secrets in a democracy.

For more information on these and other films at the South By Southwest Film Festival, see (

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2012

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