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SXSW 09 Kicks Off the Pierson Era

By Kathleen Fairweather

Janet Pierson, SXSW's new festival director, built a doc slate for this year's edition that skillfully mixed every conceivable doc genre type and tone of film--tragic melodrama, farce, drama, social issue, slapstick, romance, comedy, rock musical and action. There was something for everyone.

It was reported that 2009 SXSW badge sales were up by 10 percent this year, given the lines around the theaters and the filmgoers who were turned away from screenings. Like the "down and outs" in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, people still want to be entertained in these tough economic times. Forget the Dow and A.I.G.; bring on SXSW's cinematic immersion for seven festival days.

Whether it's the economy and tenure of the times, or folks yearning to be thoughtfully entertained as opposed to directly provoked, both Documentary Feature Jury Prize winners seemed to hearken back to simpler times.

Director Bill Ross's 45365 took the SXSW Jury Award with his study of the urbaneness of small-town lives. Nothing happens here in Sydney, Ohio ( population 20,000), yet much occurs as we watch the drama of ordinary, small-town folks unfold over a nine-month period. Shot vérité style, without narration, Ross follows a judge running for re-election, observes the nuances of the local country fair, visits a retirement center and a barber shop, tracks a young girl's relationship with her boyfriend, follows the local football team, and documents father-and-son dynamics, an arrest and conviction of a parole violator, and Hallowe'en night--in short, all the everyday ordinariness of life in a middle-American small town.


Back of a stop sign with a field in the background
From Bill Ross' 45365.

Director Aron Gaudet's The Way We Get By picked up the Honorable Mention Jury Award for its revelation of how a group of senior citizens have transformed their lives by greeting nearly one million US troops at a tiny airport in Maine every day, around the clock, for the last six years. Look for the film on PBS' P.O.V. in November 2009.


Two older white men and an older white woman sitting in an airport
From Aron Gaudet's The Way We Get By.

The Audience Award in the Emerging Visions category went to Jennifer Steinman's Motherland, the story of six grieving mothers who journey to Africa to test the theory that "giving is healing."

And finally, the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Geralyn Pezanoski's Mine, an intimate study of the rescue of thousands of Katrina pets and subsequent custody battles over several of these pets. This film deserves to be picked up and seen by a wider audience as it explores racism, classicism and the concept of pet ownership and pets as property.

Mine tells the story of several New Orleans pet owners searching for their pets and discovering that although they'd been rescued, they're adopted by a new family who now considered the pet "theirs." Custody battles ensue and it's up to the audience to decide if the pets are better off with their new families in nice homes, or returned to their owners, some of whom may not have cared for them as well as the new owners. What is best for the dogs and what defines a "rightful owner" is a question Pezanoski explores through stories of lost and found, then lost again.


An older black man in slacks and a jacket stands in a unkept yard
From Geralyn Pezanoski's Mine.

Several films were fresh off the Sundance screens, including Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public and Yes Men Fix The World, directed by Andi Bichibaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr. Spike Lee also screened Passing Strange, which captured the last public performances of Stew and Heidi Rosenwald's piece of fantastic rock theater of the same name.

Two docs that played to sold-out venues were Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer's wincingly funny pursuit of the reclusive Jack Rebney, the angriest Winnebago salesman-turned-cultural phenomenon. Following those same lines was Best Worst Movie, a doc on Troll Two, which was voted the worst movie ever by Rotten Tomatoes. Best Worst Movie is director Michael Paul Stephenson's story of how his film Troll 2 went on to build a celebrated cult following 18 years later.

Saint Misbehavin', director Michelle Esrick's in-depth study of the notorious '60s icon Wavy Gravy, proves that bio-pics don't have to be formulaic, as she tells the story through Gravy's own words, reflections of his many countercultural friends and fans, and rare archival footage. This being Austin, whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Weird," the Texas capital was the perfect setting for Gravy, who reportedly showed up at the after-party with a fish on a leash and free red rubber noses for everyone.

Jennifer Kroot's It Came from Kuchar was a film buff's delight and a poetic salute to the hilarious Kuchar brothers, masters of the underground art of low (no?) budget filmmaking who influenced generations of filmmakers, including John Waters.

Sunshine, Karen Skloss' deeply touching story of two generations of single mothers--Skloss and her mother--will be airing on PBS in May 2010. Sunshine compares and contrasts the decisions each mother faced in keeping their children, or giving them up for adoption. Skloss reunites with her birth mother to explore the answer to the question of what makes a mother and what is in the best interest of the child.

While it didn't receive an award, Burma VJ, directed by Anders Østergaard, was this doc fan's film of note. Burma VJ tells the story of young Burmese video journalists who have risked their lives to film and release footage to the world showing the oppressive Burmese government as they crack down on thousands of protesting monks who took to the streets in a peaceful protest that ended with many of them beaten and several murdered. Burma VJ will screen in selected theaters in May through Oscilloscope Laboratories, then will air on HBO.

The official numbers aren't in, but according to several filmmakers I spoke with, several docs at this year's festival had already picked up distribution or had distribution deals in the works, which is further testament to Pierson's programming acumen.

Documentary caught up with Pierson post-fest for a look at how SXSW serves the interests of the doc community,

Documentary: Why is SXSW considered a vital stop of the festival circuit?

Janet Pierson: I believe it's earned its spot as an important fest because of the quality of work shown, because of the strength, enthusiasm and intelligence of the SXSW audiences, and because of the creative mix of press, industry, filmmakers and other creatives who all come to participate. It's a festival with a unique flavor that's also highly enjoyable. And even beyond its strength as a film festival, SXSW is important because of the opportunities for crossover and integration among the Film, Interactive and Music conferences and fests.

D: Who is the SXSW doc programmer?

JP: We don't have one specific doc programmer. I'm the producer of the overall program with the ultimate programming decisions. However, on the doc front, I worked very closely with Charlie Sotelo specifically, and a select group of other screeners. Lya Guerra was the sole programmer for the SX Global doc program.

D: How are the competition docs selected?

JP: Through discussion and comparison. For the most part, we're looking for strong world premieres without distribution. We're limited to eight. It's about quality and balance. However, it's important to note that there's not actually a real distinction in quality between docs in competition and in other sections. It may come more down to premiere status, when it was selected, and balance.

D:  How many docs were submitted and accepted?

JP: I believe 742 doc features were submitted directly, with 68 programmed.

D: What advice do you have for docmakers looking to get in to SXSW?

JP: There's no one answer. It's a highly competitive playing field, but we're always looking for films to fall in love with and champion. We're looking for docs that work in any number of ways. Ideally it's a marriage of great subject with excellent filmmaking. Originality is a real plus too.

D: How are the docs selected? What do you look for beyond good storytelling?

JP: We're absolutely looking for a range of interesting work. Personal, serious, funny, political, etc. There's good storytelling; there's also a compelling subject and interesting filmmaking.

D:  What trends have you noticed in submissions?

JP: This year there were a lot of films submitted having to do with food and farming, along with energy issues.  

D: I noticed that some of the docs already had distribution deals in place at the time of the screenings. Do you know how many got picked up as a result of SXSW?

JP: I don't have those specifics for you. I'm pretty sure The Least of These secured its various tiers of distribution after our acceptance, before the premiere. But I don't know that answer for the whole program. I know at least one doc has already secured distribution because of SXSW, but it's not up to me to announce yet. And I'm sure we'll be hearing good news from more in not too long. It's not generally an instantaneous thing at SXSW--as it is less and less elsewhere as well--but there were excellent launches last year, and we're expecting more good news.

D: Anything else you want to add about docs and SXSW?

JP: We love good docs! We're proud of their prominent position in our program. We're pleased with the great attention and reception they get from SXSW. We know it can be a very significant launching ground. It means a great deal to us that SXSW is a vital and creative destination for innovative and talented filmmakers, and of course, smart and enthusiastic moviegoers as well.

Filmmaker and former Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather is based in Austin, Texas.