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Growing Pains: Inside the SXSW Film Awards

Growing Pains: Inside the SXSW Film Awards

Tonight's SXSW Film Awards began with a speech, apparently conceived at the last minute, by SXSW co-founder and Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black. With negative buzz building against the festival's overcrowded screenings (lines routinely circled blocks, and at some highly-anticipated screenings in small venues, reportedly only a small number of paying customers made it in the door after press and VIPs snagged their seats), Black gave some much-needed perspective on SXSW's history, both distant and recent.

Founded as a "little regional music event" in the hopes that it might draw bands from a handful of neighboring states, Black said, "by the third year, we were international." With the music festival a success, "after seven years we decided to start this cute little film festival." But the SXSW team again thought too small.

"We weren't paying attention, but suddenly Austin had a nationally known film community," Black said, citing big, local names like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge as members. "In the old days, we used to all have parties together. Now, we're too busy to even have parties."

According to Black, when overcrowding emerged as the major issue of SXSW 2010 during its first weekend, the festival was once again unprepared for thier growth spurt, and though they couldn't immediately solve the problem of too much demand for a limited supply of seats, they took instant steps to stop the bleeding. "When we sold out the Paramount Theater on badges alone, we immediately took film badges off sale. And started to worry."

It remains to be seen whether or not SXSW Film will be able to solve their scaling problem by next year's festival. And in this distribution climate, it's by no means guaranteed that even the most in-demand films screened here will ever be seen by a mass audience. But tonight's the grand prize winners sure as hell deserve to be.

I came to the SXSW Film Festival this year at the invitation of the film festival, to serve on its Documentary Feature jury. At tonight's awards ceremony, I was proud to present our Grand Jury Prize to Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg's documentary on Mark Hogencamp, an artist/alcoholic left with brain damage after a bar brawl, who deals with his disability by creating and photographing a 1/6th scale WWII-era Belgian town in his backyard, populated by Barbie-doll surrogates for himself and other members of his real world.

Marwencol stood out from the competition pack for a number of reasons, but

s I noted at the ceremony, for me the most refreshing thing about it was that it seems to fuse several different strands of contemporary non-fiction filmmaking that rarely seem to coexist within the same film. It's a film about social issues (mental disability, alcoholism, sexual identity) that presents itself in an extraordinarily personal way, with Hogencamp's story unfolding so organically that it seems as though the subject is talking directly to the viewer, slowly revealing more of himself as one would with a strander-turned confidante, as they slowly earn our trust. It's both "relevant" and "personal" -- two buzz words that are often bandied about, but Marwencol earns them. I was so glad my fellow jurors agreed that this was the finest film in competition. Had they not, I would have fought them over it.

To get a sense of Hogancamp's incredible work, check out his website--particularly, this post, in which the artist first introduces Malmberg's film into his fantasy world.

Though I had nothing to do with it, I was equally pleased to see the Narrative Feature grand prize go to Tiny Furniture, an autobiographical drama written/directed/starring 23 year-old Lena Dunham. I'll write more extensively about Tiny Furniture over the next few days, but here's a teaser of Dunham's inimitable sense of humor. Accepting the award, she blurted, "This is a movie about a girl with a potbelly whinging. I can't believe you'd respond to it in that way." Her work captures this contradictory kind of confidence beautifully: self-deprecation almost coming full circle towards bragging, the auto-critique defense mechanism wielded as a weapon.


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