Previously, FDL Movie Night Preview: Audience Favorites at SXSW

SXSW in Austin, Texas began as a local music festival. Since then it’s grown into a massive, corporate-sponsored behemoth with multiple arms including an interactive conference and a film festival in addition to the original music. Tonight, we’ll talk on FDL Movie Night about film.

Banner: Vessel Landing at a march in Austin

Director Diana Whitten (right) and Dr. Rebecca Gomperts (not pictured) marched through downtown Austin, Texas to support Vessel and women’s abortion access.

I hope some of you reading this made it to this year’s film festival, and if you did you’ll join me in the comments below. There’s so much going on that you can’t even see a fraction of the work (here’s a complete list of what screened at SXSW 2014). I met one enthusiastic SXSW volunteer who said she managed to see about 18 movies every year on top of her volunteer work to get her film badge. But I didn’t manage even a fraction of that.

Here on Firedoglake Arts I’ve already reviewed The Internet’s Own Boy (the Aaron Swartz documentary), Above All Else (a moving documentary about the Tar Sands blockade), and the lyrical story of jungle and urban life that is Song From The ForestLast week on Cartoon Friday, I also touched on two outstanding animated shorts. Here are a few of the audience favorites or other standout films I caught, and what I thought about them.

I hope you’ll join me in comments with questions or comments about these movies, or that you’ll let me know about what you’re watching. New movies, favorite shows, upcoming projects that excite you — anything media related is on topic tonight.

Cesar Chavez

A lot of biopics seem to fall prey to a few flaws — usually involving trying to cram an actual human life into the Hollywood “three act” formula. The events are necessarily condensed — director Diego Luna is already dreaming of a director’s cut, sequel or extended DVD — but this movie mostly avoids these mistakes. Cesar Chavez begins at the start of the labor organizer’s historic grape pickers strike and carries that through to victory. A side-story about the cost of activism, as Chavez becomes estranged from his oldest son, emphasizes the human element and the cost of making a better world. Luna spent hours speaking with Chavez’s widow, and at a press conference for the film Rosario Dawson cried as she sat next to organizer Dolores Huerta, who she plays in the film and spoke of dedicating her performance to her deceased grandmother, a garment worker labor organizer. There’s so much passion in this film. It opens later this month after four years of struggle for funding and the cast and crew hope it will prove the importance of these kinds of stories to Hollywood.

Born to Fly

The Streb Extreme Action Company isled by Elizabeth Streb, a uniquely talented and passionate choreographer. Using Streb’s “Pop Action Technique,” her “action heroes” defy death by climbing, spinning, dancing with swinging steel I-beams and hurling themselves through the air. Born To Fly, the new documentary from director/producer Catherine Gund, follows Streb and Company as they work toward their most audacious performance: a full day of events to celebrate the London Olympics that culminated with her dancers dangling hundreds of feet in the air from The London Eye. In the film, Gund interviews a former Streb dancer DeeAnn Nelson who broke her back while performing a relatively routine move in one of the shows. And yet she still looks back on the experience of working with the Extreme Action Company as the high point of her life. The Extreme Action Company explores universal human truths: the dream of flight, and the reality of falling.

Vessel

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts began as a ships doctor aboard Greenpeace vessels but soon realized she could target an issue even more personal to women — abortion. Because she’s from the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, if she took a ship into international waters she could help women get abortions even if they were illegal in her home country. Her organization — Women On Waves — drew much-needed attention to the often silent need for abortion in repressed countries. Vessel shows her amazing bravery in standing up to crowds of angry, often violent acting men and women that sometimes tower over her small frame. It also follows the development of the work from (much-needed) publicity stunt to their current work — mailing the abortion pill misoprostil to women worldwide. The film combines live footage with simple but touching animations and is probably the only documentary ever to show viewers how to self-administer an abortion using World Health Organization approved methods. That it premiered in Texas — where abortion is newly restricted — and the director and subject marched to support women’s access — just further proves how much this beautiful and heart-wrenching film deserved to win both an audience award and a Special Jury Prize for Political Bravery.

Before I Disappear

Before I Disappear is about a suicidal man being saved by a phone call from his estranged sister who asks him to pick up her daughter because of an emergency. It’s based on the Oscar-winning short film Curfew. There’s some effective black humor in this, and a certain appealing symmetry in the story — Shawn Christensen’s Richie (he also directs), a suicidal junkie, touches a better world while his sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum, emotionally invested in the role), finds herself and her daughter dipping into the seedy world he comes from. But the film is flawed — for all the clever camera tricks, you’ve seen ‘down on his luck man redeemed by precocious kid’ stories before. The soundtrack is sometimes so obtrusive it covers up the dialogue — particularly in scenes with Ron Perlman, which seems like some kind of crime.

Yakona

The San Marcos River is one of the area’s of longest continuous human habitation in North America. Yakona takes us down that river and through it’s history. It opens and closes with meditative shots of some of the waters tiniest life forms, then combines documentary footage of animals and real events and places with re-enactments of conflicts between indigenous people and white settlers. It’s utterly lacking in narrative, instead trying to present a portrait of a place and how humans have coexisted with it. As a movie, it reminded me most of Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi in terms of form while moving at a much slower, languid pace. I predict that this film will make great background viewing at a lot of parties, or perhaps a perfect movie to kick back with a couple glasses of wine (or your favorite vices) and let your mind drift. An extended sequence of a turtle capturing a seabird has stuck with me ever since.

Exists

If you’re a horror buff you’ve probably seen a lot of found footage films sine The Blair Witch Project pioneered the form. Now director Eduardo Sánchez returns to the form with Exists, which combines bigfoot with the found footage genre. Given that bigfoot only exists through grainy, half-seen photographs it would seem like a natural fit, which is why it’s so surprising it’s taken this long to make what FEARNET called ‘found bigfootage.’ I went into this film expecting cheese and came away stunned at the continued scares from both sasquatch and this type of horror film. There’s really nothing original about the plotting of this story — although setting the film in fire-scarred Bastrop, Texas is certainly a visual twist. A car full of kids sneak into their uncle’s cabin to film extreme mountain biking tricks into the nearby river and, secretly, to hunt for bigfoot. But then bigfoot find them — for reasons that are also predictable. But the monsters have a real, intense physical weight in this film. When they snatch or club a hapless victim, we see the kill from a low angle as the camera is dropped in order to assist a hurting friend. An incredible set piece late in the film further stretches the form.

Tell me what you’ve been watching lately!

Photo by Kit O’Connell, released under a Creative Commons license.