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Beyond FOMO at #SXSW2018: The Eclectic Documentary Agenda

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Hao Wu's Grand Jury Prize-winning 'People's Republic of Desire.' Photo: Eric Jordan.

Why would a filmmaker go to SXSW, the annual mega film/music/tech conference in "keepin' it weird" Austin?

a. The documentary films
b. Panels on film industry trends
c. Filmmaker talks
d. Music all night long
e. The virtual-reality showcase
f. Networking
g. Tech trends that affect media
h. Celebrity Q&As
i. The tacos
j. All of the above

You know the answer. Yeah. These days the biggest single problem at SXSW is dealing with the FOMO factor (well, that and finding affordable housing). But they've even got an answer for FOMO—orientation sessions that give newbies survival tips. They've also done a lot to improve logistics, down to quicker badging and designating some escalators temporarily one-way to handle the infamous escalator traffic jams. And this was the first year that I got the impression SXSW was putting some major effort towards diversity.


The documentary programming was wildly eclectic, with a tilt toward US makers. It ranged from the boldly promotional (a hipsterish celebration of tequila production, Agave) to the quirky and experimental (Brett Hanover's Rukus, a young artist's memoir of his friendship with a troubled friend), with cinéma vérité somewhere in the middle (Chi-Town, Nick Budabin's moving multi-year saga of NBA aspirant Keifer Sykes; Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's The Gospel of Eureka, about an Arkansas town with both a Passion Play and gospel drag shows). There was highly topical work, like Adam Bhala Lough's Alt-Right: Age of Rage, on antifa reponse to Charlottesville. The rough-around-the-edges work is carried by the genial Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a leading antifa activist, whose message is, "Hey, easy on the alarmism, we're winning, because we're right."

Three other topical films stuck out for their handsome design, high production values and clever, calculated framing. Weed the People, from Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake (The Business of Being Born), makes the argument for destigmatizing marijuana as a medicine. It focuses exclusively on pediatric cancer patients, their families and doctors. Marijuana is a promising anti-cancer medicine, as research in Israel and elsewhere shows. In a nation that uniquely demonizes a plant used for thousands of years medicinally, families face the challenge of unreliable and illegal supply, lack of research to guide dosage and lack of informed medical care. The film tugs at heartstrings, avoids the loonies and lets expert researchers give its arguments credibility; it also shows how easy it is to exploit parental anxiety without government-authorized research and regulation. TransMilitary, by journalist/filmmaker Gabe Silverman and advocate Fiona Dawson, features four transgender people who have sterling military careers—and who are variously charismatic, funny, kind and charming. Their stories make as powerful a case for inclusion as you can make, plus you want to know what happens next to all of them. The film started out as a NYT Op-Doc, and the filmmakers hope both for broad distribution and a lively engagement campaign. "The transgender community has been fetishized in our media, and so has the military," Silverman said at the festival. "I hope audiences can set aside their preconceptions and see themselves in the characters." TransMilitary took the Audience Award in the Documentary Feature Competition category. Alison Klayman's Take Your Pills (watch it on Netflix, which came to her with the idea) looks at a national preoccupation with Adderall and other amphetamine-derived drugs. Showing a range of legal and illegal users, some of whom are happy to take it and others not, Klayman finds a common thread in a societal focus on individual achievement and success.

And there were more evergreen items, including two more personal, indie films that I thought of as "surprise-inside"—both charmed me and kept my attention far longer than I had been expecting to give them. Gene Graham's This One's for the Ladies dives raffishly into the world of the mostly-male strippers of color who work hard and well to entertain the women taking a break from their own hard work in a racist world. It's both exuberant and thought-provoking, and I felt privileged to have been invited in. It won a Special Jury Recognition Award (for best cast!). Jeremy Workman's The World Before Your Feet follows an odd-duck obsessive as he accomplishes his goal of walking every block of New York. I was afraid of a tedious personal indulgence, or a film that would exploit mental frailty. Instead the film quietly celebrated, and shared with viewers the experience of, looking closely, experiencing your moment and enjoying human interaction.


For once, festival awards agreed with my own personal picks. The top award in the doc feature competition went to Hao Wu's People's Republic of Desire, which I've been following for years. It was even better than I had hoped. Hao Wu (or Wu Hao, if you're following Chinese custom) was a tech executive—he worked both in Silicon Valley and with Alibaba for years. And then he fell in love with documentary; his earlier work has showcased on public TV and this film was funded early on by ITVS. It'll be on Independent Lens in the 2018-19 season.

The film takes us inside the huge—but largely unknown in the West—Chinese Internet phenomenon of live-streaming. This huge business features aspirational young people who attract followers on their Internet channels, both among the huge urban migrant population and among the nouveau riche. The poor develop fantasy relationships, and the rich throw money at the Internet stars by buying them virtual gifts. A dashboard perpetually measures the celebrity's popularity. We meet a couple of celebrities, each desperate every night to win more; we also meet big spenders and a diaosi (average-joe/loser) worker. As you might guess, there are big interests behind it all, taking the lion's share of the profits.

Hao Wu brings both a sharply social analytical eye to the phenomenon and a warm interest in and empathy with his characters. "This is real-life Black Mirror," he said at the festival. "It's about the hyper-evolution of the Internet and of late capitalism at the same time. And we're all players. This version is Chinese, but there are themes that echo in the West too."

¡Las Sandinistas!, by Jenny Murray, won Special Jury Recognition, which made me very happy because I think the film rescues important social memory. History films are too easy to overlook, especially when they're on international subjects. This is another ITVS film, although Murray only won ITVS support at the end of the process. Murray recalls the role of women in the 1970s Sandinista revolution. Focusing on several women who played leading roles, with interviews and rare archival material Murray demonstrates the centrality of their participation, and their erasure from official history in Nicaragua as patriarchal traditions reasserted themselves. She also shows how Nicaraguans experienced US intervention (recall the US funding of anti-Sandinista contra forces once the Sandinistas took power), and how that US role fed the demise of democratic processes and with it the public roles of the revolution's women. They are still angry. And still fighting for a better Nicaragua. I loved meeting them.

"Finding the archival footage was really hard," Murray said at the fest. "A lot didn't survive the two wars. Also, there were copyright holders we couldn’t find, for things that just electrified history. With fair use we were able to use bits of things that were game-changing for the film."

Finally, the Chicken & Egg Award went to Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders, which already won at Sundance. The film is both a remarkable portrait of a reluctant spokesperson for the Yazidi people threatened with genocide in Iraq and also an oblique interrogation of journalistic coverage of human rights atrocities.

The Business

Streaming video services were everywhere at the festival. Filmmakers are looking for alternatives to the take-it-or-leave-it Netflix-style contract, and especially looking to hold on to some back-end rights.

If you had any doubt about the central importance of sophisticated visual design in films, a look at People's Republic of Desire and Take Your Pills would disabuse you. Good documentary filmmaking is now also good animation, good graphic design, good data visualization.

Several panels focused on making a living in documentary. In one of them, successful documentarians shared ways to grow and survive in today’s hardscrabble and crowded marketplace. Alexandria Bombach said shooting weddings was a great way to train—because you'll get the worst clients ever, you can't miss the shot and you can't forget any gear. Tom Hardy reminded folks to lean into community; it's a generous one, but also no one forgets bad behavior. Doug Blush mentioned equipment rental and teaching. Bradley Beesley celebrated ITVS, as the largest funder of indie doc in the country and a coproduction ally.

In another panel, strategy to change today's hardscrabble environment to a better-supported one was the theme. Jax Deluca from the National Endowment for the Arts highlighted takeaways from an ongoing, field-wide strategic planning process. The IDA's Simon Kilmurry flagged the IDA's funding database, as well as its collaboration with Reporters' Committee on Freedom of the Press. Michael Bracy reminded filmmakers that their own mini-ecology depends on larger policy issues, such as net neutrality. Diane Becker heralded the nascent Documentary Producers Association. Wendy Levy is working with the Department of Labor to create paid apprenticeships in the arts.


A lot of people are playing with virtual reality—there were too many documentary projects on display to see in one day. Many of them were passive-viewing 360 video, the low-hanging fruit of VR. My fave of that kind was a short VR for Good project (funded by Oculus, which matches nonprofits with filmmakers) from the UK by on testicular cancer awareness, Ryan Hartsell's The Evolution of Testicles. It deftly used the form to surprise you, make you laugh, and hammer home the message with humor. You get to go up high in an air balloon shaped like a giant pair of testicles. Very, um, ballsy.

Some created experiences within a gaming environment, allowing a viewer to move between interactives, VR and 360-video stories. The most intriguing to me was Lester Francois' RONE, about an Australian street artist who paints highly crafted female portraits one- and two-stories high on decaying, about-to-be-demolished buildings. Viewers could browse in a virtual art gallery, watch a film, and visit various installations where virtual-reality tours of Melbourne street art and at-will explorations of Rone's installations were available. The form was beautifully suited to the project, since Rone makes evanescent, site-based art, and the elegant design-made navigation, choice and experience a pleasure. Motherboard used the same format (and also the Unity platform) for a "museum-like" experience of endangered Brazilian jaguars.

But the limitations are still stark. The equipment is clumsy, access is minimal (perhaps 300 people at a festival), and smart-phone/Cardboard viewing surrenders on quality. Makers of course are endlessly hopeful than technological wizardry is around the corner.


Some of SXSW is just about being a fan. I was thrilled to hear Barry Jenkins talk about the importance of film school, and of making your "calling card" films really, really short. I couldn't believe I was sitting a few feet from Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about why he's liking the challenge of writing the next Marvel comic narrative of Captain America. Watching the live podcast of "The Nod" (podcasting was huge at SXSW), I was surrounded by people who could anticipate every punchline and loved them all. And I found out who Tatiana Maslany likes best of the clones she plays on Orphan Black.

And Just Weird

I think the oddest moment I had in the festival was while watching More Human than Human, by Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting. It's about the way AI (artificial intelligence) is all around us and getting big enough to be downright creepy. (Or worse than that; at SXSW Elon Musk went out of his way to warn people to be very afraid.) In it, an engineer is demonstrating the speech capacities of the robot he programmed, "Sophie." To do so, he hits on her…and she winks. Really. I'm waiting for the robots' #metoo moment.

Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at American University in Washington, DC.