Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris stands onstage amid the rococo splendor of Austin’s historic Paramount Theater. It’s opening weekend of the 2001 South by Southwest film festival, and Spheeris is introducing her brilliant new documentary, We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll, about the monster rock tour Ozzfest, to a full house. Regal in black from head to toe, she is clearly tickled pink by the raucous reception. “Austin is so cool!” she crows into the mike with a grin, “L.A. sucks, y’know?”
It’s true — Austin is a cool town, and SXSW is a great film festival, in large part for how little it resembles any L.A. scene of industry entitlement or desperation. Attendance has more than quadrupled in the eight years since its inception, and lately it’s mentioned in the same breath as Sundance as the independent festival that counts — but SXSW is less pretender to Sundance than antidote, an easy congregation of young and old (mostly young) filmmakers and fans who come together without the pressure (or at least as much pressure) of securing distribution to eat, drink, watch a bunch of movies and shoot the cinematic shit.
“I love Sundance,” says festival director Louis Black, in dress shirt and slacks and remarkably placid, “And I don’t want to be Sundance. We’re really about filmmakers hanging out with filmmakers.”
Indeed, by all appearances, SXSW is geared less toward climbing a ladder than luring idols to town. There were the requisite panels on how to land distribution or work festivals, but the big attractions turned out to be Texas son Rip Torn rambling on about a violent run-in with Dennis Hopper, circa Easy Rider; exploitation grande dame Doris Wishman enjoying a mini-retrospective of her films and plugging her upcoming release, Dildo Heaven; and Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, subject of the 1999 documentary American Movie, exhorting attendees to do their own thing since “you never know when God will strike you down.” Later that evening, a screening of Borchardt’s horror film Coven would devolve during the Q&A into a back-and-forth between the drunken filmmaker and the audience about, among other things, butt-fucking Kathie Lee Gifford.
Seventy-six features and 81 shorts screened over eight days, among them an outstanding slate of documentary work, including Alan Berliner’s clever rumination on names, The Sweetest Sound, and the documentary jury-prize runner-up and audience-award winner, Okie Noodling, in which director Brad Beesley documents an age-old method of catfish fishing — noodling — that involves risking dangerous encounters with snakes, turtles and beavers in order to plunge oneself underwater and use the hand as bait. “You stick your hand down there,” drawls one noodler, “and nine times out of 10, they’re gonna bite it.”
Although the film’s first few minutes give the dire impression that Beesley’s out for a cheap-shot spree at the expense of his fellow Okies, it quickly becomes a movie about falling in love — with people fiercely dedicated to their hobby (and fiercely secretive about their favorite fishing spots), with the strange beauty of silty rivers and monstrous green fish and, ultimately, with a sport that involves meeting your prey one-on-one and grappling with it hand-to-mouth. “When I started, I wanted these guys to be hicks,” said Beesley after the film’s premiere, attended by the noodlers themselves, “now I’m going to go cut in on their holes.”
Festivals are a natural home to documentary work that’s less welcome in theaters, but the strong programming at SXSW is also part of an attitude that encourages filmmakers to hone their skills rather than shoot for narrative flash right out of the gate. “For the kind of relatively new filmmakers we support,” says Black, “I think it’s easier to make a good documentary. I think with most good fiction films, the director’s on his second or third or fourth before he figures it out.”
There are always exceptions. The first time Vancouver comic-strip artist Blaine Thurier attempted any filmmaking was when he picked up a DV camera to shoot the first scene of his narrative-feature jury-prize winner, Low Self Esteem Girl. A deceptively crude treatise on the vagaries of good versus evil — embodied by a party girl who becomes involved with a young-Christian group — the film has the look of someone exploring a medium. Thurier shoves his camera into his characters’ faces, spies on them from afar and whips from talking head to talking head with a furiously inquisitive energy. It’s raw, but Thurier’s dialogue is startlingly sophisticated and his non-professional actors are remarkable — the effect is of powerful talent in the rough.
Thurier made the most of his festival experience — his band, the New Pornographers, not only played the overlapping SXSW music festival, but Kinks front man Ray Davies sat in with them for a song. Like Beesley, Thurier has been hearing from distributors since winning his award — but like Beesley, he’s only cautiously excited. “They’re just doing their job,” says Thurier, all too pragmatically, adding that he can’t imagine a distributor knowing what to do with the film. “The cool thing,” he says, “was coming here and winning the prize.”