South By South West 2010


South By South West

12-21 March 2010

Austin, Texas, USA

SXSW website

South By Southwest (or the super-American SXSW to most people now) has risen to prominence through the 21st century, arguably eclipsing Sundance as the ritual gathering place of English-speaking indie film.

Where Sundance might still define indie as the studio subdivision releases of a Soderbergh, Linklater or even a Tarantino, SXSW is where the DIY tools come out. A supportive home of bedroom filmmakers and independently produced and released small movies, it’s built its stock in the last half decade on the ‘mumblecore’ spirit of honest poetic tales from the hipster streets.

But 2010 was a little different. It was the first year at which registrants for new media strand Interactive outnumbered those for the music strand of the festival, and the forward-moving digital thinkers bled into all film events. That the Film and Interactive conferences take place at the same time is of massive benefit to the former, challenging it to look for a viable creative and financial future for filmmaking and viewing. What’s more, the films presented were less of the hipster navel-gaze variety and substantially more of the socially aware type.

At SXSW, the film panels are not the usual trudge through self-promotion but offer something more practical as well as genuine debate. The most impressive was The Main Event, which explored how to turn your one-off screening into an amazing event. Going beyond the ‘cinema vs online’ debate, it celebrated the virtues of a real-world screening, but advocated doing it yourself rather than using third parties like distributors or online aggregators. Challenging the obsession with a standard art-house cinema release, it suggested ways of building your own audience through perfectly organised multi-platform events: every screening should be your own little festival, and you should make use of the growing number of alternative non-theatrical or semi-theatrical exhibition venues.

I also enjoyed the beautifully named Nobody Wants to Watch Your Film: Realities of Online Film Distribution, which explored the options for online distribution and was amusingly negative in parts (read a transcript). Especially interesting was YouTube’s new rental service, where people can pay to rent films, which will generate (a bit of) revenue for filmmakers. Not for the purists, but a way to get audiences.

Many of the films screen at the Alamo cinemas, which are probably the best in the world. You can get food during the movie served to you by waiters! They show strange 60s freak-out videos before the main film and the occasional bootleg McDonalds advert! Amazing.

The deserved doc prize-winner was the lovely Marwencol, the story of a man who built a miniature World War II town in his garden after he was beaten nearly to death by a gang. It’s a mind-blowing show of beauty. Mark, the man in question, takes us into his world, which isn’t mere quirky fantasy, but something more profound and very real. Mark is an outsider artist, but he’s also a man dealing with trauma and for that is instantly sympathetic. He makes great pictures, tells great stories and pulls at your heart.

I also fell in love with A Different Path, Monteith McCollum’s visual essay on car hate, which depicted the actions of bike activists and elderly protestors, combined with stop-motion animation and jazz. A wandering and circular film, it condemns the road-building culture of the US by giving voice to those smaller people who are left out, and whose lifestyles are too idiosyncratic to fit into the bureaucratic boxes of urban American culture.

Life 2.0 was an unsettling documentary on the dangers of Second Life. There’s been a glut of over-optimistic Second Life docs in the last two years but thankfully this one was a warning shot, not a celebration. Telling the stories of three people with Second Life avatars that all end badly (sorry for the spoiler), the film makes the perils of fantasy life very clear. Relationships wither, and the loneliness of days spent alone in front of a screen is sympathetically described. For anyone tempted to paint themselves blue and retreat to a forest, this film is a tap on the shoulder and a sighed bit of advice about running away from real life.

SXSW especially loves its music films. There was Ride Rise Roar, an account of David Byrne’s recent stage show and its experimental dance scenes, in which Byrne is the usual charismatic enigma. And it was especially lovely to see Strange Powers, about the majestic Magnetic Fields. Shot over 10 years, the film shows singer Stephen Merritt as a control freak, an outsider, who spends his days writing epic indie pop love songs in gay bars across New York and latterly LA. Merritt remains unfathomable to the end, but even this tiny insight is greater than anyone has ever been able to get on screen before. An independently produced labour of love about the need to create, it’s so very SXSW.

Charlie Phillips