One of the films I was most interested in seeing at the South by Southwest film festival was a documentary called "They Killed Sister Dorothy," about the murder of Sister Dorothy Strang, a social and environmental activist, in Brazil. Daniel Junge's film won both the grand jury prize at the doc audience award at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival. Sister Dorothy, who had lived and worked as a missionary in Brazil since the 1960s, was involved in a sustainable living project in the Amazonian rain forest that was designed to set aside rain forest lands for poor farmers, allowing them to work the land in sustainable ways without destroying the biodiversity of the region.
Her work put her in direct conflict with the region's ranchers, who claim they own the land in question, and who wanted to deforest the land and turn it into pasture for more profitable cattle ranching. Sister Dorothy, age 72, was confronted by some ranch workers in the forest, shot six times, and left to die. Her family came to Brazil seeking justice, and the documentary follows the trials of the gunmen, the middleman, and the rancher accused of masterminding her murder in order to undermine the government-supported sustainable living project she spearheaded there.
The filmmakers skillfully weave the narrative of the story, moving back-and-forth between Sister Dorothy's history as a missionary and activist, the politics of ranching and deforestation in the region, and the trials. It's an excellent piece of filmmaking.
I kept hearing a lot of buzz around and about Austin about this little documentary called "Some Assembly Required," so I was excited to finally get to check it out for myself. The film follows several teams of students from across the country vying in a competition to design a new toy. The film's young subjects come from very diverse backgrounds and different parts of the county. The teams range from a Girl Scout troop from Washington DC, to two groups from a public school in Harlem School, and a group from a private prep school. "Some Assembly Required" does just about everything right; the editing is tight, the use of music augments rather than distracts, there's a nice underlying narrative arc, and we get to know each of the teams so well that we have emotional involvement in whether they win or lose.
The film is broken down into linear chunks separated by clever interstitials, each of which features a toy. The kids in the film are great, full of enthusiasm for their projects, and reacting and interacting with each other in endlessly entertaining ways. I was impressed, too, with some of the games they came up with. I can see my own kids liking many of them.
Josh Koury's "We Are Wizards," the Harry Potter fan documentary, doesn't really have a narrative structure at all, and it's not as much about fans of the boy wizard book series as you might think from the title. The film is largely about several so-called "wizard rock" bands -- groups that write and play music that's in some way related to the world of Harry Potter. We meet the members of Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and a guy named "Whompy," who sings from the perspective of the infamous Whomping Willow at Hogwarts. We also get to know two young brothers, ages four and seven, who have their very own punk-ish rock band called the Hungarian Horntails (named after a type of dragon in the book series). The boys, mostly led by older brother Darius, write and play songs they call "dragon rock."
We also meet the people behind websites The Leaky Cauldon and The Daily Prophet, a guy who recorded his won CD narrating an alternate version of the first story, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," and a woman who opposes Harry Potter in its entirety and wants to see the series banned for leading children into witchcraft and the occult.
If you're going to see "We Are Wizards" hoping to see something akin to at Star Trek convention, with fans running around dressed like the characters, you might be a bit disappointed, as the film primarily focuses on the bands and the history of Harry Potter fandom from the perspective of the people who run a couple of the major fan sites. There's a good deal in there as well with the guy who recorded the alternate narration of the story that doesn't seem to go anywhere other than to further illustrate Warner Brothers' attempt to shut down fan efforts. Fans of the bands, though, are going to love it. While I wouldn't call their music high art, it's certainly entertaining, and they're all having a lot of fun writing songs about the boy wizard.
The second of two war-related docs in the documentary competition, "Full Battle Rattle," is, unfortunately, the one film in the doc competition I wasn't able to catch due to conflicts with my fest screening schedule. The film, which was given a special award by the doc jury, is about a "virtual Iraq" constructed by the US military in the Mojave desert in California. Army units training for deployment to Iraq spend two weeks in the fake town preparing for what the real situation will be like when they get to Iraq. The town is populated by hundreds of role-players taking on the roles of Iraqi civilians, and the film follows one battalion through their three weeks in the simulation as they learn how to stop an insurgency and prevent the mock town from falling into all-out civil war. I heard many good things about this film around and about the fest, and hope to get my hands on a screener so I can give it a full review.
Overall, the docs competition at South by Southwest this year was strong, and the programmers filled the slate with some diverse and excellent films. Most of the docs in competition at the fest will probably face the same issue many documentaries face -- they tend to play well on the fest circuit, but their commercial viability for wider distribution is a challenge. The past year has seen a lot of excellent docs falling by the wayside outside the fest circuit; those that have gotten distribution haven't seen impressive returns at the box office, which could set the stage for a year in which we see many great docs play well on the fest circuit, only to not be seen by a wider audience. I'm hopeful that, for at least some of the documentaries I saw at South by Southwest, this won't prove to be the case, and that they'll have a shot to be seen outside of the fests.