Kudos to SXSW for an extremely strong documentary selection. A short film that merits special praise is Phil’s Camino, which follows an extraordinary man and his journey while living with cancer. I had the privilege of meeting him and interviewing co-director Annie O’Neal who was one of the pilgrims profiled in the 2013 documentary Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. That’s a subject for a separate future column.
Among the feature-length films, here are highlights from the many that impressed.
A triumph for Austin director Keith Maitland (winner of the grand jury, audience and Louis Black/Lone Star awards), this is an awesome accounting of the terrible events of a half-century ago when a lone shooter positioned near the top of the nearby University of Texas clock tower shot 49 people at random, killing 13, before being gunned down. It was a mass shooting heard around the world, the first of more such tragedies to follow. Maitland brilliantly blends archival footage with life-like animation — using digital rotoscoping — to recreate the terror of that awful day and combines this with the recollections and reflections of survivors — in particular those of undergrad Claire Wilson, whose boyfriend and unborn baby were killed. More in a forthcoming column on films dealing with gun violence in America.
Set on a communal goat farm in Oregon (there are also chickens, cats, a lame dog and a donkey), this is a remarkable raw and close-up look at the hopes and travails of rural life gleaned from over 500 hours of footage shot by director Christopher LaMarca. In striking cinema verité style we see that it’s bloody hard work in all seasons, day and night, but also with moments of great tenderness. Given the precarious finances of such operations, the film is also an immersive elegy for a way of life that struggles to survive.
In five chapters and an epilogue, director/producer/editor Laura Dunn presents an absorbing portrait of Wendell Berry, America’s preeminent rural philosopher. From his contemplative home base in Kentucky, in over 30 books — notably The Unsettling of America — and numerous talks, Berry has championed the virtues of simple living connected to nature versus the “expand or get out” commercial imperatives of an agribusiness-industrial complex with its debt traps, farm consolidations, depopulation effects and idolatry of the money economy. More than a lament for a lost rural America, his appeal calls for a restorative ethical approach to the land. The stunning cinematography by Lee Daniel (Richard Linklater’s veteran collaborator) earned a special jury award.
The audience award winner in the “festival favourites” category (having premiered at Sundance), writer-director Clay Tweel gives an exceptional insight into the challenges facing former New Orleans Saints football star Steve Gleason who, following his retirement from the NFL, was given the devastating diagnosis of ALS in 2011. He is determined that “it’s not going to crush my life even if it crushes my body.” With access to Steve’s video journals and with remarkable candour, the camera records his struggles, family relationships, and resolve to persevere by helping others.
Winner of a special jury award, director Matthew Ornstein’s only-in-America story profiles veteran African-American jazz pianist Daryl Davis who makes a chance connection that leads him into a series of amicable encounters with members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Indeed in changing the white supremacist beliefs of some KKK leaders (Davis has a collection of their cast-off robes and hoods), he argues that his singular approach to friendly persuasion works better than anti-racist “preaching to the choir.” That may be debatable at a time of growing racial tensions and numbers of hate groups, but it certainly is novel and noteworthy.
The audience favourite in the SXGlobal category, director and co-writer Simon Stadler probes the cultural clash facing the Ju’Hoansi bush people who have inhabited the Kalahari Desert of northern Namibia for 25,000 years. Restricted from traditional hunting, the former nomads are reduced to dancing for tourists for subsistence. Organized by a German NGO, a group of them goes on a strangely eye-opening trip to Germany and a tour of Namibia where they encounter other indigenous tribes. The intercultural experience is fascinating even if it hardly makes up for the lost freedom of their ancestors.
One of several Netflix docs to premiere at SXSW, veteran director Joe Berlinger was granted unprecedented access to record what happens during a five-day “Date with Destiny” event which takes place annually in Florida, organized by global self-improvement superstar Tony Robbins and his army of assistants. Several thousand shell out big bucks to attend, and among the curious and the seekers, a few are suicidal. There are some intense moments as Robbins works the room, often aggressively using “taboo words” (sensitive ears beware) to provoke personal breakthroughs. He’s not offering simplistic “positive thinking” or claiming guru-like healing powers. Still Robbins’s highly profitable practice of “practical psychology” at times resembles the potent group dynamic of a religious revival.
Director Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) examines the close relationship between 1970s Hollywood action star Burt Reynolds and his go-to stuntman Hal Needham, who hit the jackpot when allowed to direct his buddy (and housemate for 11 years) opposite Sally Field (the former “flying nun”) in the 1977 comical road trip caper Smokey and the Bandit that became an unexpected monster hit. In this affectionate look back at two legends of a bygone era, Needham is fondly remembered by his family while Reynolds, the bachelor who made some notoriously bad career moves, is shown aging gracefully and still giving acting lessons.
Canadian writer-director Daniel Cross has fashioned a stirring homage to the less celebrated pioneers of “blues” music that emerged among the poor black folk of the American south. Gathered in famous bayou haunts like Bentonia, Mississippi, these old-timers share tunes and memories, including of the racist barriers they faced. Among them is the amazing 81-year-old Bobby Rush who has been performing for six decades with some 326 recordings to his name. His spry presence playing the harmonica at the SXSW premiere was an added bonus of this terrific tribute to the original blues legends on their home ground.
Director Stephen Kijak takes the viewer on a wild musical ride in this Sundance award winner that follows the extreme highs and lows of the heavy metal rock band X Japan whose extravagantly theatrical shows became a giant cult phenomenon in that country as well as attracting legions of fans globally. At its charismatic centre is Yoshiki, a complex figure who lost his father and several bandmates to suicide, and who sometimes pushed himself to collapse in performance. It’s an astonishing and often painful story from which Yoshiki is a fortunate survivor. Indeed following the screening he wowed the SXSW crowd in Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre with a moving piano concert, accompanied by his string quartet, in poignant contrast to the manic energy of X Japan’s metal heyday.
Helmed by Tower director Keith Maitland, this is a much happier Austin story about the four decades arc of what has become the longest running music show in television history and the city’s greatest export. Under longtime producer Terry Lickona, Austin City Limits has been an incubator of country-rock-pop styles and a showcase for the talents of a string of legendary musical acts from Willie Nelson to Wilco. Compellingly combining concert and behind-the-scenes footage, here is cinematic confirmation of Austin’s reputation as the best music town in the world.
Other excellent American music-themed docs included the “24 Beats per Second” audience award winner Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke (with cinematography by Lee Daniel), and two focused on musicians who backed up some of the rock and blues scene’s biggest acts: Hired Gun, and Sideman-Long Road to Glory.
I would be remiss not to mention a half-dozen other documentaries with strong elements:
Mr. Gaga (Israel), audience award winner in the documentary spotlight category, which profiles the life and influential career of renowned modern-dance choreographer Ohad Naharin.
Best and Most Beautiful Things (U.S.) refers to what, in Helen Keller’s words, “can only be touched by the heart,” exploring the boundary-pushing hopes and dreams of Michelle, a legally blind but spirited young woman.
My Beautiful Broken Brain (U.K.), a Netflix production about the remarkable recovery from a near-fatal hemorrhagic stroke of a precocious young woman, Lotje Sodderland.
Chicken People (U.S.) focuses on three contenders in the obsessive world of exotic chicken breeders competing to achieve the “American Standard of Perfection.”
Orange Sunshine (U.S.) tells the incredible true story of how a 1960s California group of hippie and surfing spiritual seekers — known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love — became the world’s largest supplier of LSD, hash and other opiates.
The Liberators (U.S.) recounts the dogged sleuthing of German art historian Willi Korte in tracing to a tiny Texas town a lost medieval treasure trove, valued at $350 million, taken from its hiding place in eastern Germany at the end of the Second World War by American soldier Joe Meador, a complex character whose story is almost as strange as that of the religious artifacts removal and partial return to their rightful owners. Like so much of historical fact, it’s too bizarre to be made up.