For at least one young filmmaker, the thought of industry attention at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas, proved too much to handle. Three days into the fest, at the end of a program featuring student films from the University of Texas, a festival volunteer rushed out of the Dobie Theater — where local film hero Richard Linklater’s Slacker had its legendary first run — to call security. Inside, a director had instigated a fistfight with the projectionist over the screening’s faulty sound and framing. Witnesses to the altercation later said the frustrated student ran up the aisle, shouting, “The distributors are leaving, the distributors are leaving!”
The fifth annual South by Southwest kicked off on Friday the 13th under gray, drizzling Austin skies. Only 5 years old and born with a brand name, this younger sibling of the monstrous South by Southwest Music Festival has in recent years grown significantly not just in size but in national prominence. “You’re starting to see a lot of films that are getting their first attention here,” said Linklater, who cited the reception for In the Company of Men at last year’s SXSW, not its Sundance screenings, as a major factor in the film’s eventual distribution.
The fight at the Dobie is worth recounting mainly because it’s indicative of everything SXSW was not. Despite heightened expectations, the four days of panel discussions and eight days of screenings proved far from a frenzied, dog-eat-dog market. Instead, it had the air of a genial meet-and-greet, where regional filmmakers and acquisition reps from L.A. and New York put names with faces in a relatively stress-free environment. Informal gatherings sprung up at Austin’s four downtown theaters, in convention-center halls, at local barbecue joints, and in the varied and plentiful bars of this state capital/college town. And in between pints of Shiner Bock and sliced beef, there was still plenty of time to catch many of the festival’s 148 documentaries, features, shorts, experimental works and music videos screened in competition and out. (Prizes include lab time and a plaque.)
“It’s not an industry pressure cooker,” said Linklater, who was back in his hometown for a few days for a panel discussion and for the world premiere of his latest film, The Newton Boys, which came complete with klieg lights, Sandra Bullock and screaming fans. “It’s the kind of thing Texans don’t get a whole lot of,” Linklater said of the premiere, adding that attitude at SXSW is something equally rare. “I think it’s in the spirit that filmmakers go to see other people’s films. It’s good to see that kind of camaraderie.”
To a certain extent, this casual, supportive atmosphere stems from the festival’s roots within the homegrown, do-it-yourself ethic that first put Austin’s film community on the map. For Nancy Schafer, SXSW’s executive director, the fest wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the decadelong efforts of Linklater and others, through the Austin Film Society, to build a local scene. “It’s all owed to them, really,” explained Schafer. “Their vision is why there’s such an incredible film culture here. [The festival] is always going to be a regional thing in a sense. The growth of regional filmmaking all over the country, that’s what we’re about.”
Not that all growth is encouraged. On a Saturday-afternoon panel titled “Whither Alternative” — a sour pun, indeed — indie mavens like John Pierson and Robert Hawk tried to cool down the production fever that has resulted in what many see as a glut of independent films. They exhorted their audience to have patience, and to learn their craft before jump ing into their first feature. While there were many films at SXSW by directors who could have benefited by such advice, the festival had its share of engaging new work.
Screened in the feature competition, writer-director Julie Lynch’s feature debut, Remembering Sex, strikes a few preachy notes but is ultimately an unflinching, compassion ate look at three New York girlfriends who confront their various sexual histories when a male friend is diagnosed with AIDS. At the film’s emotional center, however, is Christine Harnos’ strong performance as Josie, an artist who’s unable to pull herself out of a downward spiral of hard drinking and one-night stands. After the film’s second screening, the unassuming Lynch took the theater’s capacity audience aback when she revealed that the story is partly autobiographical. “I used to drink a lot, I used to fuck a lot,” she told the crowd, adding that she wanted to express “what it’s like to be a promiscuous woman” whose behavior turns self-destructive. “It’s like rape,” said Lynch, “like raping yourself.”
On a lighter note was director Bob Byington’s second feature, the hilariously deadpan Olympia, which played out of competition. The film’s offbeat story begins when Olympia (Carmen Nogales), a soap-opera star in Mexico, heads north to follow her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympic javelin thrower. Once across the border, this intensely insular, driven woman sparks the ambition of a directionless loser (Jason Andrews) who becomes her coach. In addition to Andrews’ sublime performance, this 82-minute film is so packed with little human touches that it’s easy to overlook the unlikely circumstances that hold the two main characters together.
On the documentary front, which show cased some of the festival’s most effective experiences, director Ruth Leitman’s Alma led the pack. Taking the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens as her model, Leitman drops us into a sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing free fall as she records the complex relationship between a singer named Margie and her deeply eccentric mother, Alma. Although Alma initially comes off as a harmless character, a lovable Southern oddball, as the film progresses, intimations of sexual and physical abuse grow ever stronger until the family’s darkest secrets are laid bare.
Kyle Henry’s 52-minute crowd-pleasing doc, American Cowboy, is an intimate, engaging portrait of gay rodeo star Gene Mikulenka. While following the indefatigable Mikulenka for three months, Henry captures not only his coming to terms with grief (his favorite horse dies) and joy (he gets engaged), but the delicate negotiations that must go on between filmmaker and subject, especially one who’s still struggling with the process of coming out to his family. Directed by Tim Kirkman, Dear Jesse is a sharp, witty and moving personal essay in which the filmmaker tries to find some common ground between himself as a gay man and right-wing demagogue Jesse Helms. Beginning with the obvious — they were both raised in the same small town, and they’re both “obsessed with homosexual men” — Kirkman goes deeper as he attempts to broaden his sense of self while genuinely trying to understand Helms and his supporters.
Of these five films, only Dear Jesse came to SXSW with a distributor and only Dear Jesse left with one. Near the festival’s end, though, Nancy Schafer maintained that she had received calls from several distributors who were interested in showing some of the festival films to their colleagues back on the coasts. For the sake of Olympia, let’s hope so. It’s hard not to get caught up in the regional boosterism that underpins much of SXSW’s mission, and many filmmakers were happy for the chance to premiere their films for kindred audiences, away from the hype and agendas of festivals more intensely focused on the deal. But the question remains: How will these small, truly independent-minded films play in executive screening rooms hundreds of miles away?
And if the films and their makers do become the next Linklater (whose Newton Boys was produced by Twentieth Century Fox), what will become of the festival itself? What SXSW had going this year, a healthy balance between industry presence and indie spirit, may prove impossible in years to come. Maybe even undesirable. One only had to stick around until Wednesday, when the South by Southwest Music Festival got under way, to understand. Although screen ings continued on for another four days, the horde of lawyers, record-company execs, managers, hopeful artists et al. who descended on Austin literally swept the filmgoers away. The film festival didn’t peter out, so much as disappear.