SXSW ’16: Janet Pierson talks this year’s docs

As the 28th edition of South by Southwest kicks off in Texas, realscreen talks to SXSW Films head Janet Pierson about programming the doc feature competition, and this year's high-profile entries.
March 10, 2016

When the 28th edition of South by Southwest (SXSW) kicks off in Austin, Texas, the city will once again spring to life with a sensory overload of media-related parties and conferences, music performances, interactive exhibits and, of course, film screenings.

The annual festival, which runs March 11 to 20, is the highest revenue-generating event for the Austin economy, and injected US$317.2 million in 2015, according to festival organizers.

Meanwhile, the event’s film festival component – SXSW Film – is expected to bring more than 76,000 people into theaters and conference rooms across the Texan capital. Selections were whittled down from a total of 7,236 submissions (1,013 documentaries), and this year’s features slate will host 89 world premieres from across 12 sections, including the Documentary Feature Competition, Headliners, 24 Beats Per Second and Documentary Spotlight.

To qualify for competition, SXSW seeks out filmmakers early in their career who are making documentaries that explore interesting and obscure subject matter. For this reason, SXSW’s film head Janet Pierson (pictured, below) tells realscreen that her team had to “think hard” about programming a film from Brazilian director Marco Del Fiol on artist Marina Abramovic, also the subject of Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s acclaimed 2012 doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

Del Fiol’s The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil finds the renowned Serbian performance artist traveling through Brazil in search of personal healing and inspiration through spirituality. The film was ultimately included in competition due to its unusual nature and the relative anonymity in the U.S. of the director, Pierson explains.

janet pierson, head of  sxsw films

Janet Pierson, head of SXSW Films

While every festival has a different set of criteria for competition, she says that SXSW’s Documentary Feature Competition does not “allow any films that were made with a broadcasting entity that [they are] aware of, like an HBO or CMT.” As such, films developed alongside a broadcasting partner – including Marina Zenovich‘s Fantastic Lies (ESPN), Jesse Moss’ The Bandit (CMT) and Nicole Lucas Haimes’ Chicken People (CMT) – instead appear in the Documentary Spotlight category.

When piecing together the festival’s final lineup, Pierson says her team is programming with an understanding that SXSW is positioned to curate some of the more creative documentary selections on the festival circuit.

“As we’re looking for documentaries, we’re interested in filmmakers who have a point of view, we’re interested in films that have a cinematic quality, we’re looking for subjects that are compelling, but we tend to be more character-driven,” she explains, adding, “We tend to have a sensibility or bias toward the world discovered through the intimate.”

One of the high-profile doc events heading to Austin, Pierson says, is Joe Berlinger‘s highly anticipated Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, in which unprecedented access is granted to Robbins’ annual “Date with Destiny” seminar. The film will screen as the sole documentary in the Headliners category – a group consisting of such narrative films as Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some and  Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition. Following its world premiere at SXSW on March 14, Guru – which was produced by SVOD platform Netflix, Radical Media and Third Eye Motion Picture Company – will stream to Netflix subscribers worldwide on July 15.

The screening will be preceded a day earlier by a conversation with Berlinger and Miss Sharon Jones! director Barbara Kopple, in which the filmmakers are to discuss their creative processes and cinéma vérité roots.

tony-robbins -i am-not-your-guru-

Joe Berlinger’s Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

“Certainly it’s [a film] we’re all extremely excited about,” Pierson says of Guru (right). “He really takes us inside an experience where we all really felt like we were there and were changed and moved by it.”

And while the motivational speaker at the center of the film may be a polarizing figure in pop culture circles, Pierson hails Berlinger’s doc as being “so visceral, it’s so present. I give Joe a lot of props for that – that’s hard to do.”

Elsewhere in Austin, conference panels will bring together a diverse slate of leading industry producers designed to provide creatives with further insight into the business.

Most notable among this year’s schedule is a conversation on race in America, featuring filmmaker Henry Louis Gates and director Ken Burns – who is at work on a four-hour doc about baseball great Jackie Robinson – during a panel for the innovation-focused SXgood program. Burns and Gates will explore how race is part of the American fabric and how it influences politics and policies.

Additionally, the SXSW Films Conference will host Field of Vision co-founder Charlotte Cook, and Kahane Cooperman, showrunner for Amazon’s new docuseries The New Yorker Presents, on the short-form panel ‘The Big Short.’ Moderated by Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson, filmmakers, curators and producers will discuss the budding landscape and the best methods to get shorts made and seen.

“We’re very excited about that because it’s the explosion of these really high-quality media-based short doc environments,” Pierson explains. “We’ve just been watching all these different outlets emerge and it’s really been giving quality filmmakers a chance to work and work well.”

Pierson also notes that standouts from Sundance will also be screening under the Festival Favorites banner, including Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Richard Louis Black and Karen Bernstein‘s Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, Clay Tweel’s Gleason, and Kim A.Snyder’s Newtown.

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