SXSW Recap : Documentaries

Tim Basham at SXSW, 2005


From Sundance to Cannes, documentaries are the big buzz. The SXSW Film Festival was no exception.

Cowboy Del Amor SXSW 2005 Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature
True love, unrequited love, love at first site and love lost—you’ll find it all in “Cowboy Del Amor”, a documentary following the adventures of matchmaker Ivan Thompson.

“I introduce American men to Mexican women for marriage,” proclaims Thompson in this uniquely engaging film. What he does is only half as entertaining as what he says.

“I was married to an American woman for seventeen and a half years,” explains Thompson on why he took an interest in Mexican women. “She spoke perfect English and I could never understand her.”

As filmmaker Michele Ohayon introduces us to Thompson’s international cast of characters, we become anxious participants in his cupid crimes of passion, eagerly awaiting the outcome of every possible match. The results are surprising, particularly for the matchmaker.

Code 33
The successful television series “Cops” has always provided a voyeuristic look into police work. But after you’ve seen the first 20 junkies fall down, you’ve seen them all. So, as I watched the beginning of the police documentary “Code 33” in the new Alamo Drafthouse South I thought of asking our waitress for the remote. But right away, even before the first sip of my Shiner Bock pint, I could see that “Code 33” was running in a different speed than “Cops”.

In the beginning, we follow Miami police detectives as they investigate the rape of a young girl. The case grows, however, when they discover their suspect is actively pursuing more victims, always one step ahead of the police. As the media coverage increases, the patience of the city’s citizens runs short, and the filmmakers take full advantage of their incredible access with an intense, in-your-face look at a police force determined to catch their man.

The film doesn’t judge as much as it just reveals. We hear the thoughts and emotions of the forensic artist, the detectives and their families, the local reporters, the police chief, the general public and, in the end, a possible suspect. But we are never overwhelmed with too much information. In fact, I found myself wanting more. How about “Code 33 – 2”?

Troop 1500 SXSW 2005 Audience Award Runner-Up
When the warden of a Gatesville, Texas prison first heard of a proposal to have a girl scout troop in her unit she thought “Girl Scouts gone bad…you know, what happens when you don’t follow the Girl Scout motto.”

Fortunately, the real story of “Troop 1500” is much more uplifting, if at times heartbreaking.

Filmmakers Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein created a moving documentary about social worker Julia Cuba’s attempt to maintain family bonds by forming a Girl Scout Troop for girls whose mothers are prison inmates. The film is great at highlighting how one person’s crime impacts so many—in this case grandparents, fathers, siblings, mentors and of course the daughters whose futures are in the balance. The only thing missing was a “where are they now?” ending.

Giving It All Away
I don’t know if it’s because we’re all used to watching conflict on the screen, or because we crave it, but watching good people with no real problems in their lives doing good things becomes tedious, even boring—at least as a documentary. And that’s the problem with “Giving It All Away”, a New Zealand film about New Zealand philanthropist Sir Roy McKenzie.

The story of McKenzie’s father who built a successful chain of retail businesses throughout the country is interesting, especially with the historical footage. But when we follow the family through ski trips and mountain climbing, repeatedly, I start looking for my own climb—down the theater stairs and out the door. I don’t think I would have minded so much if it was a short piece on the evening news or on 20/20. But one hour and twenty-three minutes is about an hour too long.

Music Movies
There were numerous music-related documentaries at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Three of them particularly stood out.

Derailroaded
Any aficionado of the legendary Dr. Demento Show has heard the music of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. Just think of a desperate sounding voice repeatedly yelling, “My name is Larry!” to jog your memory. Both fans and the indifferent will enjoy the strange, strange story of Fischer’s life.

Starting as a street performer in Los Angeles, Fischer drew the attention of Frank Zappa and other performers from Weird Al Yankovic to Rosemary Clooney. But each brush with fame was sabotaged by Fischer’s demons of manic depression and schizophrenia that began as a child. He was even institutionalized by his own mother who refused to have contact with him after he was released. (His threats to kill her may have been a factor.)

Filmmakers Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin present a humorous and tragic portrait of Fischer who continues to battle his demons even today. Through old footage and conversations with those closest to him we see the admiration and the irritation he has inspired—the paranoid, angry old man and the sad, helpless little boy.

Beautiful Dreamer
Pages of encyclopedic proportions have been written about Brian Wilson since his rise to fame in the early 60’s as the “genius” behind The Beach Boys. All my life I had heard the stories of his refusal to leave his bedroom, of using drugs, and a whole lot about missing tapes.

In “Beautiful Dreamer” filmmaker David Leaf takes us through Wilson’s incredible career, including how the friction between he and his fellow Beach Boys led him to shelving the legendary “Smile” album. Thirty-seven years later, Leaf and his cameras stood witness to the creation (or re-creation, depending on your point of view) of Brian Wilson’s long lost masterpiece “Smile”.

“Beautiful Dreamer” is simply a beautiful story about a beautifully talented man who we never really knew or understood. Originally released for Showtime, the DVD will be released in the U.S., with additional footage, on May 24th, 2005.

Press On
Robert Randolph is a talented man, an anointed man from a New Jersey House of God church. He’s also considered one of the most talented pedal steel guitar players in the world, playing with the likes of Eric Clapton and Norah Jones. But before all that he played in the church, where filmmaker Gillian Grisman began filming her documentary “Press On”. Over about a years period, the film covers Randolph’s incredible rise to the point of being nominated, and performing, at the 2004 Grammy Awards.

Through interviews and jam sessions we learn of Randolph’s faith, and his temptations while growing up. Like one of his performances, the film builds with a good, solid backbeat until we all want to jump up and dance in the aisles.

Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party
Clint takes a look at Robert Brinkmann’s acclaimed new doco here, and calls it "verification that all you need to keep pupils on pixel is a captivating voice and artistic endeavour.A must-see movie experience".

- TIM BASHAM

Previous SXSW Reports
Moviehole at SXSW : Hooligans
Moviehole at SXSW : Layer Cake
Moviehole at SXSW : Gore, Wilsons, Grappell
Moviehole at SXSW : Who is Grace Lee?
Moviehole at SXSW : Deadroom delivers
Moviehole at SXSW : Warm-Up Lap
Moviehole at SXSW : Pre-Festival Report