SXSW ’15: Docmakers explore the nature of fame

Celebrities escaping and exploiting the trappings of fame is a recurring theme among the 69 documentary features and 16 doc shorts screening at the 2015 SXSW film festival. (Pictured: Adrien Brody in Stone Barn Castle)
March 12, 2015

When programmers for the SXSW Film Festival finish sifting through thousands of submissions, Janet Pierson looks at the final documentary selections and invariably a trend pops out.

One year it was LGBT-themed films. Last year it was the environment. This year, the head of the annual Austin-based festival and conference’s film program noticed a trend toward documentary musings on the nature of celebrity.

“There were a couple of trends about food and the dark side of the Internet,” Pierson tells realscreen. “But the celebrity one really stuck out. It’s not just that we have a lot of celebrities, it’s about who is drawn to celebrity and how they use it. That was something I found myself thinking about a lot as I watched films.”

That theme is a big focus of the festival’s opening night movie, Brand: A Second Coming, which screens tomorrow night (March 13). Directed by Ondi Timoner – the two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for Dig! and We Live In Public – the film follows the British comedian Russell Brand as he leaves behind his life as a Hollywood star and reinvents himself as a political agitator. It’s the first doc to open the festival since Pierson took over seven years ago.

Another film about reinvention is director Sara Bordo’s A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, the story of a woman with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight who turns her online notoriety into a career as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying lobbyist.

In Stone Barn Castle (pictured), director Kevin Ford follows actor Adrien Brody as he realizes a lifelong dream to buy and renovate a country home. “There are real questions about what he’s doing for a magazine shoot, what he’s doing for real, what he’s doing for the town and for himself,” says Pierson. “It’s extremely rich in a very intimate, quiet way.”

Questions around the implications of celebrity also figure into Jeffrey Schwarz’s Tab Hunter Confidential, Michael LaHaie’s Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, Alex Gibney‘s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Adam Hootnick’s Son of the Congo, which follows NBA player Serge Ibaka as he returns to his childhood home in the Congo.

The trend is a fitting one for a festival that continually makes headlines for the star power its overlapping film, interactive and music strands are able to attract.

The film program is almost equally weighted to narrative and doc features. Despite programmers’ intention to reduce the films screening this year, the number actually grew. Out of 256 films, 150 are features – compared with 133 last year — and 69 of those are documentaries. There are also 16 doc shorts. Overall, submissions were up 13% over last year to 7,500.

“As we started programming, we just kept finding films that we really wanted to show,” says Pierson.  “We couldn’t help ourselves.”

Programmers also expanded the number of films screening in both the documentary and narrative feature competition categories from eight to 10.

Docs screening in competition this year include Timothy Wheeler’s Poached, about egg thieves that rob the nests of rare birds; Luke Meyer’s Breaking A Monster, about the pre-teen band Unlocking the Truth; and Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto’s Twinsters, which is about two strangers who think they might be twins separated at birth.

Although SXSW’s mandate is to cover a broad range of films, programmers keep an eye out for docs about culture, technology, media and music that will appeal to interactive conference and music festival attendees. Docs can be found in the Documentary Spotlight, Visions, SXGlobal, Festival Favorites and music-centric 24 Beats Per Second programs.

A highlight from the latter is late documentarian Les Blank’s unreleased 1974 film A Poem Is A Naked Person, about musician Leon Russell and shot while the director was living in Russell’s recording studio compound on Grand Lake of the Cherokees in Oklahoma.

The film has only screened in non-profit institutions with Blank in attendance. Following his death two years ago, his son Harrod Blank reached an agreement with Russell to have the film remastered and distributed via Criterion and Janus Films.

As more celebs, brands and pop stars flood into Austin during the 10-day event, SXSW can be daunting for indie directors hoping their low-budget passion project will cut through the noise. Pierson is conscious of an element of backlash to the festival’s growth but ultimately advises filmmakers to embrace the craziness.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be prepared. It’s intense,” she says. “So, we tell people, don’t be shy. You have to take advantage of it. We also internally build in smaller events to help people find their tribe.”

SXSW Film does not have an industry office and does not track acquisition deals. As such, Pierson takes a wide view of success.

“When we think of what determines success for our event, we’re hoping that there are transformative events occurring,” she says. “A lot of times people will meet subsequent artistic or business partners here and, for us, that’s just as exciting as a particular film finding a way to connect with an audience through distribution.”

To foster connections between the film attendees and their interactive and music counterparts, there are daily happy hours, meet-ups, and film-specific lounges. For the first time, attendees with music badges can access the 24 Beats Per Second program and interactive badge holders can get into the films screening under the SXSports banner.

Although the conference keynote speakers are primarily of the Hollywood variety – Ryan Gosling, Sally Field and Amy Schumer – there are a handful of panels and workshops on shooting techniques, new technology and distribution methods that should appeal to docmakers.

Highlights include “Digital Domain”,which focuses on interactive documentaries and technology.

IDFA DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen is presenting two sessions. “New Frontiers for VR and Interactive Non-Fiction” explores the “narrative potential (and risks) of falsified virtual memories” with virtual reality guru Robert Overweg. The second, “How to Play with VR, Physical Spaces and Ink”, looks at how VR needs to develop new storytelling rules.

Other sessions include a presentation about Neymar Jr., a Brazilian soccer star with 50 million social media followers and the first player to have his own YouTube channel; a discussion between execs at Condé Naste Entertainment and filmmakers Ondi Timoner and Topaz Adizes; and a presentation by the makers of an app designed to create “video selfies” using facial recognition technology.

There is also a filmmaking fundamentals session called “Tool-Kit for Crafting an Interactive Documentary”.

Below are links to this year’s Doc Panels. For the full SXSW Film schedule, visit the festival’s website.

Finding Big Power in the Small Moments (Workshop)

How New Technology is Changing War Zone Filmmaking (Panel)

Always Talk to Strangers: Telling True Stories (Panel)

Sound Designing Authenticity in Documentary (Workshop)

Web influence on the future of music documentaries (Panel)

Doc Distribution: Get up to speed with PBS Indies (Partnered Programming)

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