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On The Scene at SXSW; Hernandez and Ochs Win Top Narrative and Doc Prizes

On The Scene at SXSW; Hernandez and Ochs Win Top Narrative and Doc Prizes

On The Scene at SXSW; Hernandez and Ochs Win Top Narrative and Doc Prizes

by Mike Jones

A bitter and blunt LM Kit Carson laid into the producers of “Hurricane
” at one of the many film panels at the recently concluded South by
Southwest film conference. Carson, “Streets”‘ exec. producer,
said the films’ three principle producers were unable to deliver the film
on time to MGM, thus forcing the numerous release date changes that took
the wind out of the film’s sails, which had come full steam out of 1997’s
Sundance with several awards under its belt. “Their heads got bigger than
their asses,” said Carson, at which point Gill Holland shot up from the
audience. “I’m one of the producers. If anyone wants to speak to me about
this, I’ll be outside.” Variety’s Emanuel Levy, the moderator of this
“Commercial Alternatives” panel, was astounded at the exchange. “You never
know who’s in the audience,” he exclaimed. Carson responded confidently,
“I knew Gill was in the audience.”

After the panel, spectators rushed from the room, pagers hummed and beeped,
cell phones clicked on, and for a moment SXSW blipped on the industry radar
a touch brighter than its famed music conference. It again registered
last night with an awards ceremony that honored Tamara Hernandez’ “Men
Cry Bullets
” as the Best Narrative Feature (Julien Nitzberg’s “Bury Me
Kern County
” was the runner-up), and Jacki Ochs’ “Letter’s About Love” as the Best Documentary Feature (Anne Makepeace’s “Baby It’s You” was the runner-up). In other categories, Greg Sax’ “28” took the prize for Experimental Short (Eric Henry’s “Wood Technology in the Design of Structures” was the runner-up), and Erica & Margee’s “Rick Lee” won the Music Video award (Victoria Williams and Vic Chestnut’s “God is Good” by John Pirozzi was the runner up. Finally, Craig Marsden’s “La Lecon” won the Narrative Short prize (Harri James’ “Tough Guy Pizza” was the runner up) and Kia Simon, Eve Conant and Jonathan Crosby’s “Looking for Sly” took the Documentary Short award (Aaron Lubarsky’s “Wayne Freedman’s Notebook” was the runner-up).

The panels were the story at this year’s SXSW, though none were more
buzz-worthy than Levy’s. The ever-present Harry Knowles, sporting an XXL
Saint Patrick’s Day shirt and hat on the conference’s last day, held court
in various corners of the Austin Convention Center in between his numerous
panels. At one moderated by The Texas Monthly’s Evan Smith, Knowles
discussed and sometimes sparred with the other panelists over how standard
journalistic practices and ethics have thinned in regard to some internet
content. Knowles recalled how Matt Drudge encouraged him to publish more dirt for more website hits. “I don’t want dirt, I want good movies,” said Knowles who soon after revealed that his Ain’t It Cool site will expand to other
news areas in a year — areas that, like the Drudge Report, will be colored
with Knowles own accented take on current events.

FILMMAKER Magazine and First Look Film Series‘ Mary Glucksman’s sobering statistic continued a tone that the majority of film panels adopted. 32 films from 1997’s Sundance took in an estimated $52 million at the box office, but only a small fraction of those films account for
$40 million of that figure (including October‘s “Lost Highway“, and
Miramax‘s “Chasing Amy“). The stat points to indie film’s much-
discussed problem — a supply of films that is outweighing theatrical
demand. The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers’ (AIVF) Ruby Lerner called on filmmakers, particularly
documentarians, to set realistic distribution goals by looking into other
options rather than a theatrical premiere. At a panel titled “Funding for
Documentaries”, Lerner quizzed Independent Television Service (ITVS)’s Lois Vossen on how the organization funds and exhibits work by programming it through various television markets; thus projects must be suitable for television (pubic and cable) in content and length. Vossen revealed that future programs will also involve
narrative funding and distribution as ITVS seeks to fill the shoes left by American Playhouse. However, the problem with many docs, as both Lerner and Vossen stated, is their length. Many docs cannot sustain a two-hour run time; filmmakers stretch the subject too thin in order to qualify their doc as a feature film. As most ITVS programs cover one-hour TV projects, these overlong, finished docs are rejected, despite their interesting subject and style.

[In a fiery aside, panelist Betsy A. McLane of the International
Documentary Association
said ITVS should demand that doc filmmakers at least
transfer their finished work to film. “Video goes away,” she said, “Film lasts
for 100 years. Filmmakers have a moral obligation to preserve their work
on film.
Otherwise, you’re failing in your mission as documentarians.”]

This problem more vividly surfaced in the doc and narrative feature
competition of SXSW. Length drew many films to hazardous start-and-stop
endings. Kyle Henry’s “American Cowboy,” following the last ride of a gay,
injured cowboy on the rodeo circuit, at times skillfully folded the
subjects boisterous personality neatly into the doc’s first person
perspective, but lost focus in the last half as the camera seemed to
aimlessly follow the final rides before the cowboy’s retirement; losing its
unique first-person POV. Tessa Blake’s ballad to her father, “Five Wives,
Three Secretaries and Me
” and Ruth Leitman’s song to “Alma” displayed even
more of a first-person accent taken by the SXSW doc program. The more
successful, and troubling, of these was “Reno Finds Her Mom” in which the
NY performance artist takes the camera along her frustrating search for her
real mother. Reno’s adoptive mother looks to be receiving the worst of the
film’s emotional blows. Reno accuses her mother of confusing her identity
and stunting her work. The film touches on important issues surrounding the
use of reluctant participants to further a point of idea. Reno’s real mother
refused to be on camera and began to have second thoughts about their
reunion when she learned of the project. A private investigator that Reno
considers hiring asks her if she wants to find her mom for herself or for
the doc. By the end, the answer isn’t completely clear, despite a touching
reunion of another sort at the film’s end — Reno’s softly unspoken
reconciliation with her adoptive mother who’s brought to tears in the pics
final moments.

The narrative competition was held together by a smart selection of
non-competitive features including Hilary Bougher’s low budget, New York
sci-fi “The Sticky Fingers of Time“, Lance Mungia’s Slamdance success
Six-String Samurai“, and Todd Verow’s “Little Shots of Happiness“.
Despite Julien Nitzberg’s “Bury Me in Kern Country” and Marcus Spiegel’s
The Farmhouse”, the non-comps framed an oftentimes dismal selection of
narrative competition features, including Andy Anderson’s “Detention” —
an insulting, preposterous story of a high school teacher who’s “mad as hell
and can’t take it anymore”. He drugs and kidnaps his class of juvenile
strips them, and puts them in cages in the middle of Texas where he makes them
study for food, clothing, and shelter. Remarkably, the film paints the teacher
as the hero — his perspective is that the media is responsible for
these children into misfits. It’s his job, therefore, to brainwash them
back to
the right side of the fence — through mental and physical torture. The
pains the film takes to color the teacher as the right-minded
philosopher-king and the students as reefer-maddened teens underscores the
excruciating flaw — there are no characters in this film, only single
dimensioned facades that might have easily bounced out of a Hollywood
developed script, right down to the gun-wielding psycho-kid who attempts
to rape a teacher. The film’s end is a bleak and pessimistic view of the
human spirit. Though hoping to show how all that society needs is a firm
kick in the pants — the film’s knee-jerk, Pavlovian answer ultimately makes
a narrow minded, nearly reprehensible film.

The two other festivals taking place during SXSW filled venues down
Austin’s famed 6th Street. Conduit, a “convergence/collision of cutting
edge digital technology”, showed Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s thrilling
if slightly over-long narrative “The Last Broadcast“, a murder mystery
guised in the form of a documentary. Shot entirely using digital camera and
desktop technology the piece is good example of filmmakers using the
restrictions of a video feel and look to further the plot. The story
follows the murder of two public access TV personalities during a broadcast
from the New Jersey pine barrens. Much of the narrative is about the
re-examination of the murder through the reconstruction of newly discoverd
video tape. The filmmakers uses this to build suspense and thicken plot
Currently the filmmakers are exploring distrib options as their screenings
prove their digital image can be successfully, beautifully, shown to big
screen audiences through digital projection. They recently had a successful
and profitable show in Doylestown, PA to a paying audience. The run grossed
$5,040 during the week, the filmmakers told indieWIRE’s Aaron Krach,
accounting for a 560% return on their initial investment. After the
Conduit ’98
screening the film will open for a week-long run in New York this Spring.
So far there are no plans to make an actual print. Weiler told Krach,
“We jokethat we are preserving the integrity of the project by staying digital!”

The hype surrounding the 30th Parallel Film Festival (the would-be alternative
to SXSW, formerly titled SXSAlt) fizzled to a slow moan as screening after
screening was canceled due to technical flaws, canceled venues, and no
fail-safes. Filmmakers told indieWIRE that they had disastrous screenings
and lost much of their audience due to the hour-long
delays. The fest’s premiere of “God, Sex, and Apple Pie” was delayed
several days. But the spawn of these “unofficial” events might be the best
thing to happen to SXSW this year. The competition among the various events
serves a much needed checks-and-balances system. The political animosity
between all of the film events in Austin, however, serves no purpose. Austin’s
film industry has grown large enough to support multiple film events
throughout the year. The continued bickering between the Austin Heart of
Film Festival (in October) and SXSW only hurts the filmmaker who oftentimes
gets caught in the middle — films and filmmakers that participate in one
event are shunned by Austin’s other film events.

But no event can top the conference’s successful flare and its ability to
mix mediums. Interactive, music, and film flow together in panels,
screenings and the well organized trade show. And as these industries
mingle, new ideas spark. The Austin Chronicle free weekly featured a
cover story about Austin’s interactive gaming industry explosion — the
creators of the best selling “Wing Commander” series are Austin based and
owe much of their success to cinematic ideas including point-of-view, lighting,
and character development. SXSW serves, at its best, as a conflux of vision
across the media spectrum. It is one of the few film events where it wouldn’t
be surprising to see famed soft-core porn director Radley Metzger having a
beer with digital storyteller Robert Lineham to discuss production design.

But SXSW’s flaw is its pride. Perhaps thinking that an invite is enough,
they don’t offer airfare or hotel accommodations to most festival filmmakers
and panelists, and have even charged conference registration fees to the
very panelists they advertise in their mailings. Some of the panelists
backed out at the last minute because they couldn’t afford to attend — a trend
that could slant the panel makeup to industry execs with corporate expense
accounts. However, this year’s team of staff and volunteers again created
a compelling enough event to open eyes, spark dialogue, and build local
industry. It’s here where the idea for the Fuel Tour took shape, where
fundraisers for the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund help pump money to
artists, and where lines wind around corners to see a film only advertised
in the festival program. SXSW has helped create fertile ground for a
local industry that hasn’t stopped growing since “Slacker“.

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