Monday, March 21, 2005

A Trip to South by Southwest

Yesterday, I returned home from a trip to South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. I unfortunately could not attend for the entire week, but for the few days I was there, I saw a lot of great films. Hopefully, these films will make it to theaters, TV, or DVD in the near future. Here’s a rundown of what I saw:

I started the fest with a documentary called CRISIS IS OUR BRAND. A former president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, nicknamed “Goni”, seeking re-election hires former Clinton advisor James Carville's private political consulting firm to mastermind his campaign. The firm's political savvy gets “Gomi” elected with only 22% of the popular vote. The firm, however, backs the wrong horse, so to say. Within several months, the new president runs Bolivia into the ground, with mass rioting, bloodshed, and eventual presidential resignation and exile. The film is a frank look at American involvement (meddling?) in Latin American politics. I don't know if this will make it into the theaters, but it is ripe for TV like PBS’s Frontline series or perhaps HBO.

I saw several of documentaries, and I think my favorite of the entire trip was called YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME, chronicling the life of Roky Erickson, the charismatic lead singer of "The 13th Floor Elevators", a groundbreaking 1960s psychedelic band from Austin. Roky, considered an unsung legend in the eyes of most rock historians, has lived a turbulent life marked by drug use, diagnosed schizophrenia, and mental institution incarceration. The heart of the story, however, is the fight for “custody” of Roky, pitting his well-meaning but highly eccentric mother against his youngest brother. This was a very moving film. The director was in attendance, and while there was no distribution deal at that time, he was already talking about a DVD. Perhaps the biggest treat of the viewing was seeing Roky, himself. In fact, Roky sat directly behind me during the screening--which was very cool!

The first feature I saw was SOUTHERN BELLES, a light-hearted comedy about two Georgia girls named “Belle”, living in a rural trailer park. Figuring there is more to life outside their little town, the girls start dreaming of a new life in the big city—Atlanta. Their best-laid plans, however, are continuously interrupted by clueless boyfriends, crappy jobs, and small town inertia. The film was very humorous, with a nice story that, despite stock characters of rednecks and trailer park denizens, never drifts over the line into cliché. The film was buoyed by a good ensemble cast of relatively unknown actors

Although it was categorized as a documentary, CULTURE CLASH IN AMERICCA is really a “concert film” featuring the edgy comedy of the theatre troupe Culture Clash. Directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez), the doc is a filmed performance of the group’s titular play in front of a live audience. Pulling from thousands of interviews of Americans conducted by Culture Clash themselves, the group creates skits and dialogues that explore the rich diversity of American life, touching on such “flashpoint” issues as race, sexuality, and politics. The film was very funny. Culture Clash performs this play throughout the country in theaters; I’m glad they will now reach bigger audiences through this film.

Another musician documentary I saw was DERAILROADED: INSIDE THE MIND OF LARRY “WILD MAN” FISCHER. Through his association with Frank Zappa, Wild Man Fischer became a fixture on the L.A. underground music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Roky Erickson, above, Wild Man Fischer is plagued by schizophrenia. The film follows his ubiquitous 40-year career and documents the harrowing effects of his debilitating illness. I didn’t like this as much as the Erickson doc, but it was very interesting, nonetheless.

The final film I saw was an indie feature called STRAIGHT LINE. Written, directed, acted and edited by first-time filmmaker Sean Ackerman on a miniscule budget, Straight Line follows a young man, haunted by loss, as he drives from Montana to Panama to win back his girlfriend. As on most cinematic journeys, the young man learns more about himself and the world around him as the miles progress. The film had an interesting look, using three different formats—35 mm, 16mm, and digital—to tell the story. I always admire someone who has the grit and passion to get a film made. This is a very good first effort from Ackerman and hopefully we will see more work from him in the future.

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