SXSW Report: Watching the winners

In the concluding installment of realscreen's three-part South By Southwest coverage, Adam Benzine looks at two of the festival's biggest hits - audience favorite Becoming Santa (pictured) and grand jury award-winner Dragonslayer.
March 21, 2011

If you’ve ever spotted a Santa Claus bouncing babies on his knee at a local shopping mall and wondered just who the guy behind the beard was, Jeff Myers’ Becoming Santa is the doc for you.

Myers’ film picked up the Spotlight Premiers Audience Award – given to a filmmaking newcomer – at SXSW in Austin last week, and follows a 40-something average Joe called Jack Sanderson.

Dispirited by the passing away of his parents, Sanderson decides to buy a red suit, bleach his hair and beard, and become a Santa Claus for a season – something which turns out to be much harder than expected.

Sanderson attends an official ‘Santa School’ in Denver, where he is taught by a slightly eccentric woman who has been training Santas for some 27 years. Beyond the amusement value these scenes provide, the school does help Sanderson and the other potential ‘Santees’ confront the stark reality of what becoming a Santa involves. Mess this up and you can crush the dreams of these small children, they are told.

From here the doc follows Sanderson throughout the festive season – first travelling to New Jersey to play Santa on a Polar Express train for some 1,400 kids, and from there turning on Christmas lights, working for a volunteer organization and taking part in a parade. Throughout these scenes, Sanderson’s self-deprecation and self-doubt makes for endearing footage.

Interspersing his personal story, the documentary tells the history of Father Christmas throughout different cultures, with talking heads that include numerous Santa experts, including a university’s professor of archaeology and religion, and the president and founder of ‘Santa America.’

The film also talks to a range of professional Santas – men who feel it has been their calling to become St. Nick – and looks at the legend’s effect on institutions such as the Post Office.

Becoming Santa is a great feel-good documentary, and the scenes in which Myers turns the camera to excited children – most of whom are giddy at being able to actually meet the legendary Father Christmas himself in person – are pure visual gold.

Much like Santa himself, the 90-minute doc could probably do with losing a little weight. However, only the most miserly humbug could deny the film’s popular appeal, which will undoubtedly grow stronger as we near the holiday season.

Becoming Santa was one of two great breakout hits at SXSW, the second of which was markedly different in look, feel and tone. Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer picked up the festival’s grand jury and best cinematography gongs in the Film Awards’ documentary feature category, catapulting it into the doc spotlight.

Backed by the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation, the film follows the life of professional skateboarder Josh ‘Skreech’ Sandoval and his girlfriend Leslie Brown, documenting the pair as they drift across America. The couple occasionally makes money, when Sandoval decides he wants to compete in a skateboarding contest, but mostly just indulges in smoking weed, living on the goodwill of other skaters.

On paper, such a synopsis sounds terminally dull, but as realized by Patterson and his fantastic cinematographer Eric Koretz, the film is never short of captivating. Much credit must go to Koretz, whose choice of equipment, lighting and timing gives the intimate scenes and honest conversations between the two young lovers much poignancy.

At times, the viewer feels as though they are watching a beautifully shot scripted feature akin to Lost in Translation or Before Sunset, rather than a documentary. In other moments, the erratic and staccato editing perfectly captures the chaos of the duo’s drug- and booze-fuelled party scene.

The director is also aided considerably by the charisma of Sandoval, a stoner possessed of a certain lady-killer charm. The adolescent young boarder cuts a Holden Caulfield-esque picture on screen, caught between the revelry of being a young minor celebrity and the looming responsibility of fatherhood and full-time employment.

Patterson presents Sandoval with an even hand. While he is often portrayed in an amusing and charming light, the director also has no qualms about showing his subject warts and all.

The skateboarder has a young son from a former relationship, who he rarely sees, and in one scene – while drunk and giddy – he tells his girlfriend, “Let’s take on a dog.” She shoots the notion down with a curt and cutting retort, the real meaning of which is clearly wasted on her inebriated boyfriend: “You can’t just ditch something if you take on a responsibility,” she says.

On another occasion, Sandoval, who has mostly been living out of other people’s pockets and crashing with tolerant hosts, complains that “everyone is so greedy” in the world. You get the picture.

Dragonslayer is a curious film which is sure to generate further buzz and discussion on the festival circuit. While frequently humorous, it is nevertheless tinged with a sense of sadness and longing that leaves the viewer with a mixture of emotions and a lot to reflect on. That, in itself, is a major accomplishment.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.