SXSW 2014 Final Roundup

Friday, March 14, was my last day at SXSW. I wish I could have stayed until Sunday morning, so that I could have caught the Saturday screenings of all of the Audience Award Winners announced that day (the ones I hadn’t previously seen, anyway), but a week in Austin was what I had planned. After the 4-films-a-day marathons of Wednesday and Thursday, 3 films were all I could handle on Friday, and I (briefly) review them, below.

Before the reviews, though, I just want to sing the praises of SXSW. Austin should be very proud to host such a wonderful and diverse 9-day event (Interactive! Film! Music!). I only attended some of the interactive media panels (although I spent a lot of time in the trade show), and none of the music events, but it was impossible to ignore the energy and vibrancy that the combination of different media brought to the festival. What’s so great, too, is how many artists attend the screenings. Rare were the films that didn’t have a Q&A afterwards with at least the director, if not the director and the stars (and other crew).

If I have one criticism – and it is minor – it is over the separation of the films into curated programs. It makes sense to separate narratives and documentaries, shorts and features (and music videos and episodic TV pilots), but the other categories merely serve to confuse, especially since the catalog that one gets with registration does not list the films alphabetically, so that if you have a slow mobile connection at any given moment and are trying to look up information about a film, you have to know which program it’s a part of in order to find it in the catalog. I met no single attendee of the festival who cared about the category into which the film they were watching had been placed. Narrative or documentary (and shorts, etc.) – that was the concern.

Also, the distribution of audience awards across the different categories, rather than just one award for narrative features and one for documentary features, reduces the value of each award. If many people get prizes, then the individual prizes mean that much less. I’d also be curious to know how the choice to include some films (and not others) in the Jury competition was made (and why DamNation, according to its directors at the Q&A, was left out of the documentary competition).

Overall, though, it’s a brilliantly managed festival, and everyone should attend at least once.

Last Hijack

Last Hijack (Tommy Pallotta/Famke Wolding, 2014)

This is an interesting hybrid of documentary footage and animation, which, in the beginning, had me unaware that I was watching a non-fiction film. Something about the way the directors followed their subjects made me assume that I was watching staged scenes of non-actors in a narrative about Somali pirates. But then, as the film went on, I realized that these were real people, playing themselves (the on-camera interviews helped, obviously). It may seem like I am particularly clueless, but part of the power of this film is the way it blends different genres. It’s a look at the life of an ordinary Somali who decides on a life of piracy (Deborah Young wrote, in The Hollywood Reporter, that it was “like the backstory to Captain Phillips“), and the directors use whatever techniques they feel will best serve their story at that particular moment. There are talking-head interviews; there are animated sequences (for flashbacks and acts of actual piracy); and there are scenes that look as if they were set up for the camera. The whole is quite effective at illuminating the reasons why a young Somali would choose to be a pirate. There are problems in the storytelling – the ending is a little too opaque for a film called Last Hijack – but overall it’s a film well worth watching.

Vessel

Vessel (Diana Whitten, 2013)

This is one of the few screenings I attended where the standing ovation at the end was merited (fortunately, there weren’t that many ovations at SXSW, which is good, because most ovations are unearned). Not because the filmmaking was so extraordinary – it’s a messy movie, by a first-time director – but because the filmmaking was brave and challenging and powerful. I am happy that the SXSW Jury granted it a “special jury prize for political courage.”

Vessel tells the story of Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts and the international abortion-services organization she founded, Women on Waves, which offers abortions to women in countries where it is illegal by taking them 12 miles offshore, into international waters (where the laws of the ship’s home country apply), and giving them the abortion pill. It follows Dr. Gomperts and her crew from the organization’s inception and unsuccessful early voyages through their current growth and expansion (which now includes the online service Women on Web). Protests greet them everywhere they go, from Ireland to Poland to Portugal to Ecuador to Morocco. One occasionally fears for the safety of Gomperts (and the filmmakers), but not as much as one fears for the safety of the women they seek to serve.

What I particularly liked about the movie is how it keeps its focus on the needs of women – Whitten frequently puts letters and emails to the organization from desperate women up on the screen – rather than on the arguments for and against abortion. To Whitten and Gomperts, access to abortion is, as Gomperts says, a “reduction of suffering” (unwanted children lead to unhappiness and misery for them and their mothers), and so they spend the film telling us of all the dangers (and death) that women face when abortion is illegal, rather than arguing about morality (then again, granting women power over their own bodies is, in my opinion, moral). I think it’s a most effective technique, and a film that all should see.

Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

The only other Jodorowsky film I’ve seen is Santa Sangre, and boy, was that a trip! It was about an armless mother who dominates her son by forcing him to act as her arms for her, often murderously. It was extremely bloody and disturbing, and I’m still not sure to this day if I liked it, but it was deeply memorable (I often recommend it), which is what we want art to be, no?

This new film – Jodorowsky’s first since 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, is bizarre yet majestically beautiful, and compared to Santa Sangre, it is a model of filmmaking restraint. Of course, if you’ve never seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll marvel at that description (and immediately rent or buy Santa Sangre, I hope, to see how The Dance of Reality could be called “restrained”). Billed as an autobiographical film about Jodorowsky’s childhood in Chile, The Dance of Reality is a magical-realist coming-of-age fable with a twist: it’s not the boy (young Alejandro) who grows up, but the father, Jaime (played by the marvelous Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s son). In order for Alejandro to become a man, first the tyrannical father must die and be reborn as a kindler and gentler soul, able to appreciate the ways in which his son is different, and to celebrate that difference.

Filled with striking images and fantastical sequences, the film might turn off those looking for strict narrative coherence, although it is fairly linear in its plot development. I recommend that you stick around for the full journey, as it will surprise you and mark you as only a truly unique and inspired work of art can do. And now I have to go off and watch some more films by Jodorowsky, as two is not enough.

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