SXSW: Lots of Docs, But (Sadly) No Time for ‘Office Space’

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Anne del CastilloPOV staffer Anne del Castillo just returned from Austin, Texas, where she attended the South By Southwest Film Festival. She reports back on the films she saw and the films she’s sad she missed.

Maybe it’s age, but I’m finding that each year, it takes me a little longer to recover from SXSW. After 15 years, the festival is still going strong, with near-round-the-clock screenings, panels and parties. There’s always so much to do and so little time, and because the programming is so strong, it often occurs to me that I’d like to be in multiple places at one time.

In my efforts to feel less torn, I focused my attention on the doc slate, foregoing things like the 10th anniversary screening of Mike Judge’s Office Space (which I still kind of regret since that is one of my all-time favorite films.) Following are some impressions of just a few of the films I had a chance to see during my three days in Austin.

Pulling John by Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian

In addition to Tom Roston’s wonderful and accurate write-up about the music in the film, the fact that it was about arm wrestling was an immediate draw for me. Not because I’m an arm wrestler (the thought alone sends me into hysterical laughter) nor a big fan (who knew it had such a following), but precisely because it’s one of those sports you never really knew was a sport. It turns out, according to the film, that arm wrestling was one of the highest rated sports on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. But more than a collection of interesting factoids, Pulling John is a thoroughly engaging portrait of world champion John Brzenk who is fighting to keep his title after 25 years. The film goes beyond the standard bio-pic and offers a thrilling drama that ensues when two younger wrestlers — Travis Bagent of West Virginia and Alexy Voevoda of Russia — seek to defeat the legend. All three are larger than life — literally — but the filmmakers succeed in capturing their depth and passion that allows the audience to really connect with the individual characters. (On the point about them being big guys, I had a chance to meet Brzenk after the screening and his hand seemed to swallow mine whole when we shook hands. I was surprised to find them very soft and warm, not calloused and worn from all that wrestling.)

The Last Beekeeper by Jeremy Simmons

News of the disappearance of the bee colonies last year caught everyone by surprise, and I’d been waiting to see a doc about it. The Last Beekeeper focuses on three commercial beekeepers from South Carolina, Montana and Washington, respectively, as they prepare to take their hives to California for the annual almond pollination. The film does examine possible causes for the Colony Collapse Disorder, such as Asian mites, but it also seems to suggest that the obsessive nature of the beekeepers may be partly to blame. While some of the characters are willing to alienate their partners and mortgage their families’ lives for the sake of beekeeping, it’s hard not to wonder whether their obsessive care-taking may be smothering their colonies. As one of the bee-brokers puts it, “At some point, you just gotta let bees be bees.”
A scene from Letters to the President

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a scene from Letters to the President

Letters to the President by Petr Lom

In the introduction to the film, the SXSW staffer noted that Petr Lom was the only foreign journalist allowed to follow President Ahmadinejad and thus we were “fortunate” to be able to have this inside look at Iran. I suppose that’s one way to look at it, although it really just made me wonder what we would be looking at and how “inside” we would really get. The film follows Ahmadinejad as he travels throughout the country, mainly to the more rural areas, where large throngs of people gather to greet him. The crew takes a few detours from the entourage to speak with people, who generally seem guarded, with the exception, not surprisingly, of the young people in Tehran. The suggested dynamic is clear: he’s popular among the poor, and suspect among the middle and upper classes. Rather than gaining any real insight to Iran, I thought of how you could take the same narrative and apply it to, say, Fujimori of Chile, or Marcos in the Philippines, where the line between populist and dictator is often blurred.

Sunshine by Karen Skloss
I’ve known Karen since I lived in Austin, and I remember talking with her about this project when she was first starting. At the time, it seemed like such an overwhelming undertaking: a personal doc about a young adopted woman embarking on a journey as a single mother while trying to reconnect with her own biological mother. But 10 years later, Karen has managed to create a beautiful story of an American family that continues to write its own history and establish its own structure. The film is a poignant reminder that we are the authors of our own history.

For as many films as I got to see, there were still more that wish I could have seen, including Rick Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which was scheduled against my panel. But then again, a true sign of a good time is that it always leaves you wanting. ‘Til next year…

Anne del Castillo
Anne del Castillo
Anne is POV's director of development and special projects; she has been active in the independent media arts and public television as a producer, programmer and fundraiser for over 12 years. She currently manages American Documentary's fundraising activities, content research and program licensing. Prior to joining the AmDoc staff in 2002, she was a production associate at American Masters in New York and then series coordinator for Frontline in Boston. In 1997, she moved to Austin, Texas, where she served as associate director of the Austin Film Society, and worked on numerous documentary and narrative film projects. She served as vice president of the board of Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and has been a panelist for numerous arts and media organizations.
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