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by Indiewire
March 14, 2006 5:25 AM
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DISPATCH FROM SXSW: Film Blogs and Politics In Focus

Monday was essentially blogger day at the concurrent film and interactive conferences at SXSW '06, with a panel about film blogging, an evening party for bloggers and the presentation of the Bloggies honoring the best in online weblogs. The two concurrent SXSW conferences precede the annual music event and both have drawn large crowds of film and interactive attendees to the Austin Convention Center. While both events are taking place just across the hall from each other in the many meeting rooms of ACC, there doesn't seem to be a lot of mingling among attendees of the separate film and interactive conferences.

This afternoon, filmmakers eyeing traditional distribution packed a panel discussion about theatrical acquisitions, while down the hall many people trying to make sense of the impact of new media and technology gathered to ponder the role of blogs. At the film blogging discussion, panelists disputed the use of the term 'blog' itself and wondered how filmmakers might better use the Internet to fuel alternative forms of distribution, rather then relying entirely on models that offer increasingly rare routes for their work.

For Chicago-based filmmaker and film blogging panelist Joe Swanberg, co-director of the SXSW '06 competition entry "LOL" (as well as last year's SXSW film, "Kissing On The Mouth"), the Internet is a key element of his film and the filmmaker relied on the web in the making of his movie, a film about addiction to technology and the damage that can be caused to interpersonal relationships. Making his movie for just a few thousand dollars, Swanberg is cultivating an audience for his films through his website and began keeping an online journal (or blog) about his movie from the moment he came up with the idea for the film.

"We want to eliminate the hurdles that most film fans have to jump through in order to see small movies," Swanberg wrote last month on his blog, "There's no reason in 2006 why anyone should have to wait more than 3 days (about the time it takes to mail a DVD) to see a movie they are curious about. They should be able to acquire it through legal or illegal means ASAP. That's our motto for 'LOL'. If you can't get your hands on the movie in 3 days or less, we are doing something wrong."

David Poland, editor and publisher of the Hollywood industry website Movie City News, emphasized that the movie business today is becoming more and more niche -- enabling filmmakers like Swanberg to carve out an audience through his website. "I don't need much to survive in a niche world," explained Joe Swanberg, who gained attention for his film at SXSW last year when blogger Karina Longworth of Cinematical wrote about it on her site. That website, part of a network of blogs created by Jason Calacanis, was acquired by American Online last year and its becoming an alternative media outlet for information and commentary on a range of niche interests.

Blogs are crucial to independent filmmakers, particularly those making documentaries, explained director Doug Block, at SXSW with his latest film, "51 Birch Street." Block is no stranger to the Internet, having made the film "Home Page" and as creator of the online community for doc filmmakers, The D-Word." Block explained that indies must embrace blogs as a way to create interest for their works, rather than relying on traditional media, like daily newspapers and film critics.

"Its not about competing with The New York Times," explained Cinematical's Longworth, "Its about creating a new model for information."

The new models have certainly ruffled the feathers of the media establishment. At a one-on-one session Saturday at SXSW, Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart called his own publication, "An island of civility in the midst of blogdom." Today at the blogging panel, David Poland from MCN worried that by branding sites like his a blog, members of the traditional media are diminishing the sites. "We aren't a personal weblog," Poland explained, "I take great offense to that term."

Franken Speaking

Just steps away from the Texas statehouse, where last year Democratic legislators felt compelled to cross the state line to try and thwart a plan by the Republican majority aimed at Congressional redistricting, well-known liberal figure Al Franken was in the spotlight, on screen at the Paramount Theater in Austin in the world premiere verite doc, "Al Franken: God Spoke," Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus. The film is an entertaining portrait of Franken, who worked on TV's "Saturday Night Live" as a writer and performer and today takes on the conservative establishment through books like "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" and his radio show on Air America. The film is a collaboration with producer Frazer Pennebaker and executive producer D.A. Pennebaker.

"Al can say the worst things to someone and they will laugh, that's not hard to film," the directors commented following the screening, "He's just a little larger then life, and that's just the person he happens to be." The directing duo revealed that they originally began doing a doc on the Rev. Al Sharpton and his campaign, but then someone within his camp began doing the same thing and they were soon attracted to Franken after hearing about his public spat with conservative Fox News commentator, Bill O'Reilly.

Chatting with Henry Rollins

Politics also came into focus during the "Conversation with Henry Rollins," a one-on-one chat with the veteran punk icon and Black Flag frontman-turned television talk show personality, Henry Rollins. Esquire's Andy Langer moderated the afternoon chat at the SXSW Film Conference. Rollins hosts the IFC series, "The Henry Rollins Show," a weekly series returning April 1st. Although Rollins deplores the policies of the Bush Administration, which he discussed openly during the packed session in Austin, he acknowledged that oppressive regimes can be a catalyst for the creation of good art. But he said that he didn't see art as the primary mode for change, instead chiding the media for going easy on the current administration.

Henry Rollins (left), chatting during an SXSW session. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

"Music isn't the vehicle for change. If that were true, then Hendrix would've done it with his version of the [U.S.] national anthem. What does change things is people voting. [And] if some of you are media out there, I wish you'd get a little backbone and start challenging these motherfuckers."

Rollins also laid out his approach for his show, trying to distinguish how he will interview celebrities and filmmakers. "I want to talk to Don Cheadle more about Rwanda than his career (Cheadle starred in last year's "Hotel Rwanda"), or talk to Philip Seymour Hoffman about Truman Capote the writer."

I also think it's important to talk to Penelope Cruz," Rollins added, "About her foreign-language [movie] career as opposed to her pretty boyfriend."

Get the latest photos from SXSW in indieWIRE's iPOP section from SXSW '06.]

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