After a cancellation in 2020 and a virtual event last year, SXSW will kick off its first in-person festival since 2019 on Friday (March 11).
Despite the pandemic interrupting in-person festival events the last couple of years, organizers say the film programming has remained consistent, without any overt changes to the festival’s sensibility when it comes to the projects it selects to screen.
Janet Pierson, SXSW director of film, tells Realscreen that she has noticed repeatedly in submissions to the festival that filmmakers typically tackle and reflect timely stories and global situations in the news. While the festival’s line-up does include some straight-ahead portraits and biographical documentaries, Pierson adds that, traditionally, the sensibility of SXSW has been to include films that come at major subjects in a different manner than tackling them head on.
“I used to say we look for the universal through the intimate, through the personal. And I think we still do that,” Pierson says.
One example that she notes for this year is the Australian documentary Clean, about a cleaning company that deals with trauma sites such as crime scenes, drug labs, or suicides. She says the film covers difficult and universal subjects in a surprising way, adding that many of this year’s films in the festival’s 24 Beats Per Second music program, especially documentaries, often cover other universal topics, besides the artists at the center of these docs.
Consulting film programmer Jim Kolmar cites one of the 24 Beats films this year, Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, as an example of this, as it’s both an engaging film about the British funk band Cymande and a film about erasure and immigration.
“I always quite like the Trojan Horse idea, where you’re kind of sneaking in these complex ideas,” Kolmar tells Realscreen. “It’s superficially very digestible and accessible, but actually the idea of intersectionality doesn’t have to be broadcast in a really overt way: it just occurs through the process of telling the story about a particular person.”
“I don’t think there are more films doing it necessarily, but it feels more apparent to me this year.”
Here is more of Realscreen‘s discussion with Pierson and Kolmar regarding this year’s SXSW doc line-up.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
What kind of goals did you have in mind when crafting this year’s SXSW line-up?
Janet Pierson: We always have open submissions, so we’re excited to see what comes in. Then we look at all of it, and we’re looking to build the program through our sections. So we have eight or 10 films in the doc competition, depending on the year, [within] Doc Spotlight, Visions, 24 Beats, Global, Festival Favorites, and Episodic. We have more sections than that, but those are the ones that include documentaries. Then in each section we want a range of films, scale, voice, inclusive nature in terms of who’s telling the story, who’s the story about, and that there’s also an emotional tonality to it. So we’re looking at that from every angle for every slot.
Jim Kolmar: It’s really a balancing act. It’s hard to really see the balance of the program until you get nearer to the endgame, where things start to coalesce. In terms of having an agenda going into it, I think that it’s always about balance.
Which documentaries at this year’s festival feel particularly timely and relevant?
JP: Let’s start with Mama Bears, because we’re in Texas, which has just passed this draconian, anti-trans [directive] — it’s terrible. Mama Bears is about women from Evangelistic religious backgrounds who leave their families and their cultures behind to support their trans children. They’ve had to form their own network nationally to support the kids’ needs. So it’s very, very timely, and a moving film even if it wasn’t.
JK: Split at the Root is another one that I think is relevant. It’s certainly about immigration and the Zero Tolerance Policy, but there’s a lot of films across the whole program that deal with these things. Still Working 9 to 5 (pictured) is talking about workplace inequality, gender imbalance, and pay imbalance. We don’t have an agenda, but these themes bubble up and it’s interesting how we can’t predict the tide of the news.
JP: Even We Feed People, which [is about] Chef Andrés and World Central Kitchen, and he’s in Ukraine right now.
Are there any films you’re excited about in this year’s program that take a formalist, experimental or surprising approach?
JP: Self-Portrait is, I don’t want to say experimental, but it’s more kind of a pure cinema mode. We loved it so much. It was assembled from surveillance footage around the world; it’s just this incredible immersion, and it’s so elegantly assembled and put together. It has to do with movement and place, and it’s provocative. I connected to it so deeply.
JK: I would say that it’s experimental with a small ‘e.’ It’s not wildly inaccessible. Formally, it’s unlike anything else we have in the program. It’s taking a lot of risks, but there’s something really beautiful and poetic about it. And it’s thematically resonant, there’s a lot going on in that film.
Who are some emerging filmmakers that you’re excited about including in the line-up?
JK: I’m really a fan of What We Leave Behind by a Texas filmmaker, Iliana Sosa. She’s been involved in other films, but this is her directorial debut. I think people are really going to connect with that film, so I definitely think she’s a filmmaker to watch. She’s local, and we’re always interested in Texas filmmakers.
JP: Your Friend, Memphis is a beautifully done film. In our doc competition, which is eight films, five of them are first-time feature directors.
Are there common or dominant themes running throughout the films included in SXSW this year?
JP: Personal activism, taking on a social issue. Documentaries tend to be focused on individuals or subjects, but in this case, there are a lot of individuals taking on social issues to try to improve them.
JK: I think it’s that thing of tackling a theme in a very broad way, or approaching it through the prism of particular characters, especially strong characters. And I think we have both those things present in our program, but the character-driven approach to addressing the particular themes and areas of social interest, I think that’s particularly strong this year.