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SXSW '08 DOC NOTEBOOK | Sex, War, Bullfights and High School: SXSW Docs Run the Gamut

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 11, 2008 at 8:30AM

This year's South By Southwest Film Festival boasts an impressive range of subject matter among the films screening in the Documentary Competition. Last year the fest circuit was filled to capacity with Iraq war docs, so it's a refreshing change to see films on so many topics competing at this fest. "Sex Positive" is about Richard Berkowitz, a former gay S&M hustler turned AIDS activist, who spearheaded the safe sex movement in the gay community some 25 years ago. Back when AIDS was a new disease spreading like wildfire in the gay communities in cities like New York, San Francisco and London, Berkowitz was one of the few voices advocating safer sex practices like condom use.
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This year's South By Southwest Film Festival boasts an impressive range of subject matter among the films screening in the Documentary Competition. Last year the fest circuit was filled to capacity with Iraq war docs, so it's a refreshing change to see films on so many topics competing at this fest. "Sex Positive" is about Richard Berkowitz, a former gay S&M hustler turned AIDS activist, who spearheaded the safe sex movement in the gay community some 25 years ago. Back when AIDS was a new disease spreading like wildfire in the gay communities in cities like New York, San Francisco and London, Berkowitz was one of the few voices advocating safer sex practices like condom use.

At the time, Berkowitz's outspokenness on the rather taboo subject of the contribution of promiscuity to the spread of AIDS made him something of a pariah among his peers. Today, as sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS continue to spread among teens and young adults while sex ed programs are increasingly endangered, Berkowitz's message about safer sex is still relevant in the gay community and beyond. Berkowitz is an intriguing subject for a documentary film, but the film itself would have benefited from having a stronger narrative arc underlying its presentation.

A scene from "Sex Positive." Photo provided by the festival

The film only runs 76 minutes, but as it meanders along, it starts to feel a little long. I'd have liked to see director Daryl Wein do more to tie in Berkowitz's activism in the 1980s and 1990s to its relevance to sex education and promiscuity today. The film also uses a fair amount of rather grainy archival footage, as well as some cringe-worthy video and photographs of Berkowitz engaging in S&M play with his customers that just feels gratutiously there for the shock value. What does it really add to the point of the film to see a naked Berkowitz having sex with a client? If anything, the inclusion of those scenes just serves to make the film less marketable, especiallly for any kind of television deal.

I thought I'd find "The Matador" a challenge to watch, as I generally consider bullfighting to be a barbaric sport. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engaged by the film, which follows David Fandila (el Fandi), a young matador, as he attempts to complete 100 corridas (bullfights) in a single year -- a feat previously obtained by only 12 other people ever. The bullfights are hard to watch; seeing the bulls stabbed repeatedly until they're weakened and bleeding, so the matador can move in for the killing thrust with a sword, isn't easy to watch. However, I did gain a new perspective on the idea of bullfighting when one of the subjects noted that animals are bred to be killed for food all the time, and slaughtered in meat factories, and that at least in bullfighting the animals have a chance to fight for their lives. Fandila is charming and engaging, and in spite of my general dislike for watching an animal be taunted and stabbed, I left the film with both a better understanding of the history of bullfighting and why it's considered important in Spain, and an appreciation for the courage and grace Fandila shows in the ring under pressure.

There is one film in the documentary competition that's related to the war: "Bulletproof Salesman" follows Fidelis Cloer, a German man who sells custom bullet-proof vehicles -- a business that the war in Iraq has caused a great need for. The film is primarily interesting because of Cloer, whose personality rather ends up driving the film; though he's certainly not the first person to make money off of a war, his cavalier attitude toward casualties of war comes across at times as insensitive and even shocking.

The film is called "Bulletproof Salesman" and not "How to Keep Your Car From Getting Blown Up in Iraq," so you do go into the film expecting the focus to be on the man behind selling the vehicles, but if there's a larger political statement underlying the focus of the film, it's not entirely evident. The film employs the use of cartoonish word overlays throughout that can be a little distracting, but they also set the tone that this is going to be a somewhat light-hearted take rather that a serious dissection of the political issues under the surface.

"Frontrunners," directed by Caroline Suh, follows four students at New York City's highly competitive Stuyvesant High School as they run for the office of Student Union President. We meet the four candidates and their running mates and see them run their various campaigns through a primary that narrows the four candidates down to two, the televised debate between the two frontrunning candidates, and the competition for the coveted endorsement of the school's student newspaper.

It's an interesting look at the political process within the microcosm of a high school, but there's a bit too much time spent on extraneous conversations with students at Stuyvesant about issues like which colleges the students there think are important to get into that could have been spent on getting to know and care more about the main characters. Unlike the very polished "American Teen," which just came off Sundance and also screened at SXSW (though not in the competition slate), "Frontrunners" misses some opportunities to really delve into the lives and personalities of the candidates. Whereas in "American Teen" the audience really gets to know and care about each of the students director Nanette Burstein focuses on through their senior year in high school, "Frontrunners" stays more on the surface of the students' lives, giving most of its time to shots of the candidates handing out fliers and being interviewed about their postions on issues instead of really taking viewers into their lives.

At the same time, the film only skims the surface of voter apathy permeating the school; of the 3,200 members of the Stuyvesant student body, only about 600 or so actually vote. Likewise, Suh briefly skips over issues of race and gender in politics that, given the current situation with the Democratic nominees for president, would have been timely issues to address in great depth. The film was a crowd-pleaser at the screening I attended, and I liked it overall, but would have liked to have seen a little more narrative style to the film's structure.

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch





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