Don’t take this the wrong way. It might seem like a downer that I can’t claim to have seen a documentary that I deeply, passionately loved at this year’s SXSW festival, which ended this week. (The music portion continues through the weekend.) I saw several really good docs that I’ll be writing more about in the coming months but there was no single film that truly blew me away.
Instead, what most impressed me about the festival was the ridiculously diverse selection of top-notch material. In addition to listening to some great panels, I saw a fantastic television pilot, Outcast, about demon worship, a really engaging Greek feature called Suntan, and a bunch of documentaries that were well worth seeing—The Seer, Cameraperson, Beware the Slenderman, Bandit and Tower.
Cameraperson, a memoir documentary by longtime director of photography Kirsten Johnson (Citizenfour, 1971, This Film is Not Rated, Derrida, Lioness, Darfur Now, etc.), really stood out. It’s mandatory viewing for pretty much everyone in the documentary world; Young filmmakers will learn so much from Johnson’s behind-the-scenes vignettes that immerse you into the reality of making a documentary; veteran filmmakers will want to see it because I’m sure they know Johnson well and will enjoy seeing her personal take on her work and life; and fans of documentary will want to see Cameraperson because of the reasons listed above as well as the chance to revisit some of their favorite docs from the long list of Johnson’s impressive credits.
Maybe I was a little disappointed by The Seer. The film is a very beautiful, adoring tribute to the writing of Wendell Berry and the life of the farmer. But director Laura Dunn forgoes one of the very principles Berry stands for, letting what’s good stand up for itself. She doesn’t let the audience find its way, instead putting Berry on a pedestal. Hey, I dig the guy, too. But the old show-don’t-tell maxim applies here.
Both Slenderman and Bandit achieved what I’d hoped for as I wrote in my preview of the festival—great access, compelling footage, and strong storytelling—and Tower, the grand jury prize for best documentary of the festival, was such a filmmaking and technical marvel, it would seem churlish to quibble about the fact it could achieve the same impact if you lopped off 20 minutes from the ending.
I came into these movies, except for Cameraperson, with high expectations. But what I expected nothing from was a screening of Vimeo “staff picks” of shorts that I stumbled into. Among the films shown was an MTV Other web series, No Seasons, that did indeed blow me away. You can watch it here.
In this first episode, a kid, Julian Yuri Rodriguez, who seems straight out of Larry Clark’s Kids (but 20 years later so, yikes, he could actually be the child of one of those “kids”)—the kind of cocky punk you kind of hate but he’s so charming and slightly weird, you can’t help but be entranced—tells stories that we’re given the choice to believe or not. And then they’re reenacted. It’s fast and funny and visceral and it’s what I mention when anyone asks me what was my favorite thing I saw at SXSW this year. It ain’t Shakespeare; just a fun, six-minute short from a web series. See what I mean by diverse?