Among the strong points of SXSW film programming are the quality of its documentary selections, several of which it has taken from the always impressive Sundance lineup. Like Sundance, and New York’s Tribeca festival from which I’ve just returned, SXSW gives equal attention to the expanding world of documentaries. Although they rarely reach mainstream theatres, more are becoming widely available online through digital streaming platforms such as Netflix which has emerged as an important production and distribution partner.
Here are some titles to watch for:
The winner of the Sundance audience award for U.S. documentary, this film directed by producer/cinematographer Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice) has been picked up by Netflix which ensures it global distribution — a very good thing in this era of Trumpist climate change denial — though the stunning underwater images are best appreciated on the big screen. The result of years of intensive work by a dedicated team of scientists, divers and photographers, incontrovertible evidence is presented of the severe impacts on the amazing ecosystems of ocean corals, which have suffered a 50 per cent loss globally over the past 30 years. The time-lapse sequences are remarkable, and proof that the health of the oceans is at stake. You won’t see a more informative or important film this year.
Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg have fashioned a compelling profile of former television personality and science educator Bill Nye, a student of renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan who now heads The Planetary Society, which he founded. Nye, a popular entertaining figure to a generation of students, has famously debated anti-evolutionists and climate change deniers. Nye is concerned that the anti-science movement is more powerful than ever, with views once considered marginal now held by those occupying high political office. While championing scientific endeavour, the film to its credit also acknowledges Nye’s critics.
Kiwi writer-director Annie Goldson gives a fascinating account of the web’s “most wanted man online.” Kim Schmitz (no relation!), who changed his surname to Dotcom after founding a lucrative global file-sharing empire (megaupload.com), stands accused of Internet piracy on a grand scale. After serving time for fraud in his native Germany Dotcom moved on, living large at palatial headquarters in New Zealand, which were spectacularly raided in a quasi-military assault by government agents in 2012. Wanted by the FBI, Dotcom has become embroiled in New Zealand politics while still fighting extradition to the U.S. The ongoing story of his notoriety is more bizarre than anything Hollywood could dream up.
Directors Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s powerful account of a four-day therapy session inside Folsom Prison was awarded the grand jury prize in the documentary competition for good reason. It is a prison documentary like no other, capturing the raw emotional intensity of the group encounters in which, guided by facilitators, male participants from the outside are paired with inmates serving long to life sentences for major crimes. Some of the deepest wounds rising to the surface come from the former. By showing the catharsis of these human interactions the film raises questions about the role of “correctional” institutions and the possibilities for psychological healing taking place behind bars.
This film directed by Erik Ljung also stands out among others dealing with police violence against minority individuals — in this case a schizophrenic unarmed 31-year-old Milwaukee black man, Dontre Hamilton, who was sleeping outside a Starbucks location when accosted by a police officer and fatally shot 14 times in April 2014. Hamilton was falsely alleged to be a homeless ex-convict but his close-knit family (present for the SXSW premiere) has been tireless in pursuing justice for him. Ljung is meticulous in exploring the protracted complications, including for the officer involved, of this notorious case that has sparked community outrage similar to that provoked by other police shootings. It opens with a quote from James Baldwin that also resonates through Raoul Peck’s acclaimed Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro: “Not everything that’s faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Awarded a special jury prize at Sundance, Jennifer Brea uses film to document how her life and that of fellow sufferers has been upended by the ravages of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), more commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a spectrum autoimmune disorder that can be severely disabling but has been too often misdiagnosed or dismissed as psychosomatic. Once an active doctoral student, Brea contracted ME at age 28. One million in the U.S. and 17 million globally are afflicted, 85 per cent of whom are women. Showing the effects in intimate, at times excruciating detail underlies an appeal for action given that ME has had less research funding than any other disease of such magnitude.
Directors Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen (Marwencol) tell the remarkable story of the tiny Tuscan village of Montichielo (population 136) that, in response to an April 1944 incident averting a massacre of partisans by fascists, has become “the town that plays itself.” In this “poor theatre,” aided by devoted longtime creators and participants, village residents perform roles in an annual summer play drawing on their reality. It’s a tradition that’s become more challenging to maintain in uncertain times as the village loses its young and the state’s fiscal crisis cuts arts funding. With tourism transforming the region, how will the “spettacolo” survive?
Given SXSW’s renowned musical component, the “24 beats per second” category is always a strong point of the film program. This Sundance selection directed by Austin Peters is a bracing behind-the-scenes account of the breakthrough electronic music concert held in central Havana on March 6, 2016, that pulses not only with the energy of the 400,000 in attendance but the aspirations of young Cubans in a time of transition. The performers were the well-travelled trio known as Major Lazer (Diplo, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire), who were determined to use an all-Cuban support crew. Following on the Obama administration’s reopening of relations with Cuba, everything about this event was exceptional. The film also delves into the extraordinary file-sharing network of “paquete,” developed by an enterprising 27-year-old, by which a wealth of external information and cultural programs reach the vast majority of Cubans without Internet access, bypassing the Communist state’s bureaucratic controls.
Pat Collins helms this docudrama relating the story of legendary Irish folk singer and musician Joe Heaney, who learned the a cappella singing (known as sean nós) of traditional Irish ballads in Gaelic at his father’s side in the hardscrabble Galway countryside. Heaney became the undisputed master of this repertoire even as he left Ireland for London and then North America, working briefly in Montreal before settling in New York City. His recordings are justly famous. The film is an artful blend of archival materials with dramatized recreations of key periods in Heaney’s life portrayed by three different actors and evocatively shot in black and white.
Directed by veteran British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, this is another musical hybrid inserting dramatic narrative into a verité documentary about the rock band Wolf Alice as it tours Britain. We get an engaging look at what it’s really like back stage, on stage, and on the road between gigs, including when a key band member is hospitalized with an injury before the final London concert. But that perspective is also filtered through a romance that develops between two fictional characters, a young woman, Estelle (Leah Harvey), and a roadie named Joe (James McArdle). There aren’t any outrageous antics or incidents. Instead what impresses is the human scale of the emotional notes.
Still another hybrid of documentary and drama is involved in writer-director Josh Greenbaum’s account of the incredible rise of a lowly Australian car mechanic, George Lazenby, to become a top London-based model who, despite having no acting experience, took on the iconic role of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. Then just as suddenly he turned down a huge sum and gave it all up. The film toggles between direct-to-camera narration by Lazenby, now 77, and actors portraying colourful episodes from his highly unusual life and career.
Pat Kondelis helms this disturbing story of a 2003 scandal that erupted at the Baptist Baylor University over its basketball team, one that rocked the world of American collegiate sports. At the centre was its controversial coach, Dave Bliss, who was forced to resign over ethical violations involving star player Patrick Dennehy, found murdered by ex-teammate Carlton Dotson. The film’s examination of the events and their aftermath reveals a system prone to corruption. While Bliss’s African-American assistant coach was banished, Bliss has made a redemptive comeback, hired as the basketball coach for Southwestern Christian University (from which he resigned in April after the film’s premiere).
This Netflix release directed by Brian Knappenberger originally premiered at Sundance with the longer subtitle “Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of a Free Press.” It still starts off with the infamous legal case brought by Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) against Gawker Media and unrepentant founder Nick Denton over the website’s 2012 posting of an embarrassing sex tape. When Bollea was awarded damages of $US115 million in 2016 it bankrupted and shut down Gawker. The film links this to Trump’s war on the media by accusing the eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, of underhanded funding of the case against Gawker (which had once outed him as gay). That Gawker trafficked in sensationalism and sleaze makes it a less than ideal paragon of press freedom. The material added since Sundance doubles down on broader more current political threats to investigative journalism and First Amendment rights. The film’s examination of the takeover of the respected Las Vegas Review-Journal by another billionaire Trump backer, Sheldon Adelson, resulting in the dismissal of its best reporters, proves especially effective in exposing that troubling trend.