South by Southwest
or… Three Days, Ten Movies and a Deep Fried Brain
I get asked a lot about what it’s like to attend a big film festival. While there are many folks who love to attend them, most folks that would probably want to go, never brave them. One of my favorites is the infamous South by Southwest (or SXSW) that takes place in March in Austin. SXSW is really three festivals in one, with film sandwiched in between interactive and music. While music has always been the biggest and craziest part, interactive has come on strong over recent years and is now one of the largest of its kind in the world. Film, however has remained lower key – but still excellent. The festival showcases feature narratives, feature documentaries, a slew of short categories and even episodic, but I mostly love to go for the documentaries.
You might hear horror stories of standing in long lines and still not getting into films you want to see. That can happen here. There are three ways to get into the movies shown at the festival. Buy a badge – they are expensive but you’ll have the best shot of getting into most films and you’ll even be invited to many of the big parties with free drinks and celebrities in tow. You’ll also get discounted hotels through the festival, which is a huge bonus. The next option is a wrist band, which will get you access to films after the badge folks enter. If there are seats available after the wristbands, folks can purchase a ticket for $10 per movie.
My first film was a documentary called They Will Have to Kill Us First about musicians in Mali, Africa who were trying to bring music back to their country after Sharia Law made music illegal. While a little long-winded and in much need for some additional editing, seeing these kinds of struggles take place just to play music makes you appreciate the fact that even though a lot of our music in the U.S. is indeed bad, at least we have music.
After grabbing a quick food truck taco, it was time to stand in line to watch a new 35mm print of Road Warrior, with director George Miller doing a Q & A. Of course everyone in the theater thought that we’d actually be seeing the new Mad Max: Fury Road instead, but it was undeniably great to see this classic on a big screen at the Paramount Theater with rabid fans and the director in attendance. And to reward the audience, Miller showed us about 20 minutes of Fury Road, which absolutely blew everyone in the audience away.
On day two, I decided I would try to get in five films. Ambitious but doable. I started with a documentary that looks at many of the sides of the drug war in Mexico called Kingdom of Shadows. Powerful and poignant, it once again reminds you of how thankful we all should be live where we do.
Next I wanted to see what all of the buzz was about in regard to a film called Made in Japan about a Japanese country singer named Tomi Fujiyama who dreams of returning to the Grand Ole Opry after performing there in 1964. This lovable character shines on screen and the movie became one of the highlights of the festival for me. To improve on the experience, Tomi performed for us in the theater while the credits were rolling.
After a bowl of Kick Ass Fried Rice (that’s what it was called) from the food truck park down the street and I was ready for 7 Chinese Brothers, a narrative feature starring Jason Schwartzman as a loser who makes bad decisions in life while struggling to find himself. While the movie wasn’t as bad as its title, which had nothing to do with anything, it was one of the longest 76 minute experiences I can recall having. This was definitely my low point of the festival.
Trying to improve upon my last film, I headed to another feature narrative after a recommendation by a well-known critic. The Frontier tells the story of a young woman on the run from the law who finds herself at a remote hotel and party to another huge crime. While a slight improvement on my last film, it still wasn’t great as the acting was iffy and the script amateurish.
With two mediocre films in a row, I needed a whopper to finish my night. So I chose the opening film for the festival, Brand: A Second Coming, a documentary about comedian Russell Brand and how he went from a drug-addicted comedian, to a sex-addicted comedian, to a celebrity-addicted comedian to a comedian who wants to leave a positive foot print on the planet. Honestly, I expected very little, but what I got blew me away. While I still consider Brand to be quite a lunatic, I left the theater inspired by his story and impressed with him as a person. I didn’t expect that and I rather enjoyed the feeling.
After a much needed sleep, I headed to the Austin Convention Center to take a look at the trade show and grab an SXXpress pass to get into what I thought might be a couple of crowded films later that day. The SXXpress is yet another badge perk in that it ensures you get a seat at whichever film you might be trying to attend. Upon getting to the theater for my first film of the day, Being Evel, I’m glad I had that assurance as it was mega-crowded. This documentary about the life of the famous Evil Knievel was a perfectly-made film that was as a flashy in its style as Knievel was in his stunts. As this flick was recently acquired by The History Channel, it will no doubt air on television very soon.
After another quick taco (yes I had a lot of tacos this week), I rushed off to stand in line for one of the highest profile pictures of the festival: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. This documentary, directed by The Kid Stays in Picture filmmaker Brett Morgan, gives us a look at the haunted life of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain with never-before-seen personal videos, interviews from friends and family, as well as some amazingly orchestrated animations. Yes it was depressing and exhausting, but it was also a mind-blowing look at one of our generation’s most influential lives as well as one of its greatest tragedies.
Now I have time for one more film. I’ve had some very good luck with documentaries thus far but not with narratives. I really wanted to see a good narrative before I left, and since they had just announced the winners of the festival, I decided to try my luck at the late screening of Krisha, the narrative that won big at the festival. Here, writer/director Trey Edward Shults, a Houston native, filmed a Thanksgiving-gone-wrong drama with his own family starring as his family. This very tough film is hilarious at times but switches to sobering quickly as you watch his aunt, played by his real aunt Krisha, spiral out of control. The film has a Werner Herzog style that overpowers its audience into submissiveness.
After 10 films my mind was a little numb, but overall I had a wonderful time in the Texas capital. If you do plan to go in the near future, let me leave you with a few suggestions. If you can afford it, get a badge. It’s definitely worth it if you are going to be there for more than a few days. And if you buy a badge, buy it early. The price goes up as you get closer to the festival. Stay downtown if you can. Booking your hotel through the festival is less expensive and you’ll save a lot on shuttle/taxi/Uber costs. Try your hardest to avoid the venues that are out of downtown. I know there are some good films showing there, but you need to really want to see them to justify driving anywhere. I had heard complaints from everyone that the shuttle service is horrible, and Uber for me was iffy. It is so much better to walk and miss the headaches associated with using vehicles. Another thing I like to do is miss the opening weekend. Most of the big, crazy audiences leave after the first three-four days and the festival becomes much more manageable. This year the film festival started on March 13 and I drove in on the 16th. Sure I missed the premiers of the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina and the Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck, but since those will be in normal theaters shortly, I didn’t really care that much.