SXSW 2008 Film Festival wrapped up this weekend, leaving in its wake a single tattered, oh so earnest, snapshot of Indie filmmaking. If Sundance is the official word on the state of indie filmmaking, SXSW is what you'll learn going to your local bar. Getting down with SXSW is what it takes to get your ear close to the American independent film underground. Here's a look at the Top 5 Key Trends that emerged from this year's diverse group of fiction features and documentaries. 1. Mumblecore is here to stay.
Sort of. The relationship genre for the Facebook generation, 'mumblecore' movies are about kids who can rarely say what they mean, mean what they say, or, even, enunciate properly while they are (not) saying it. The name is somewhat derogatory but it points nonetheless to the real problems of a generation that has lost faith in love but remains romantic at heart. One of the more intriguing entries is Joe Swanberg's NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS which requires no shaping narrative to step inside the lives of a young couple facing a long distance relationship.
Basically, the film presents a series of random snapshots of recognizable relationship moments: insatiable passion, half-hearted compromise, bickering, disappointment, excitement—the whole darn grab bag. NATURAL CAUSES, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY and THE LOST COAST all give their own spin to the genre: the first plays it for comedy; the second weaves in questions of race, class and urban gentrification; and the last delves into problems of friendship and sexual identity. All in all, the extremes of the titles, from the clinically quotidian NATURAL CAUSES to the elegiac THE LOST COAST, point to a generation firmly caught between the yearning for the grand gesture and the limitations of the emoticon. 2. The mockumentary is back with a difference. This genre comes and goes and Christopher Guest has already perfected its comic potential, and so, for that matter, have Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais with THE OFFICE (and franchises).
The two mockumentaries at this year's fest stand out for their determination to let the viewer fret over their status. Indeed, A NECASSARY DEATH, seemingly the story of a student film project looking for the perfect suicidal subject to follow up to the moment of the deed, holds onto its non-fiction status until the end when it pulls the rug out from under the viewer. WOODPECKER falls closer to Guest's terrain, playing out as a tenderhearted bird-watching comedy. However, the film's interview subjects are real residents of Brinkley, Arkansas who the filmmaker interviewed for their thoughts on the bird-watching craze that engulfed the town when reported sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, began to circulate. In both cases, the films are invested in presenting themselves as reliable, credible documentaries, leaving the audience to sift through the meaning upturned when their fiction roots are laid bare.
Maybe, the are not even mockumentaries proper in that they are not as interested in having fun with the faux documentary genre as they are in messing with audiences expectations, by being, quite simply, fake documentaries. 3. Hats Off To The Auteurs Of Yesterday Remember in the early 90s when every Indie feature was stylistically 6 degrees from Tarantino? Things change. Filmmakers this year were paying their respects to the canon, both European and American. Generally, this was evinced by a turn to realism and naturalism in the majority of films, but on a film by film basis, a few called up the glorious filmmakers of the 50s and 60s, while still remaining their own inimitable selves.
In the short competition, Wholpin Award Winner GLORY AT SEA drew comparisons to Werner Herzog for both its ambitious, foolish, epic scope and the total commitment exhibited by its maker and his fearless crew. You have to read the whole review to get the full story on how this film became a SXSW legend. Herzog would be proud.
Shot on 16mm, Josh Safdie's THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED drew rave reviews and comparisons to Robert Bresson, a name that is not often bandied about when speaking of current films. Grand Jury Award winner WELLNESS loosely skirts the surface of the deep tracks left by SALESMAN, arguably the Maysles brothers' best work and certainly one damn bleak portrait of America. Equal parts bravado, delusion, hope and desperation, WELLNESS offers up the failed and failing American salesman as the most poignant of all figures. He is so, not because he has lost faith, but because he has to keep up the front, even when he no longer believes in either his product or himself.
4. Docs Love The Young - And The Old Since the success of previous SXSW entry SPELLBOUND, followed by MAD HOT BALLROOM, docs on American kids doing their thing have become a sort of documentary sub-genre. SXSW 2008 offers FRONTRUNNERS, the story of a high school election at New York's most prestigious public school.
However, YOUNG@HEART was the fest's feel-good documentary, a look at a senior's choir devoted to performing rock hits. The common thread here is that both teens and the elderly are totally shafted in most mainstream representations: the former are glorified as brain-dead, oversexed consumers, full of MSN speak and limited vision; and the latter are relegated to backdrop decoration, expected to provide occasional barbs and hilariously eccentric behavior. These docs do a lot to right that balance of perception, giving the young and old alike a humanizing look that is woefully lacking at the multiplex.
5. The War In Iraq: Documentary Wins Playing in the Premiere category was Kimberly Pierce's eagerly awaited STOP-LOSS, but anticipation quickly melted into yet another disappointing feature about the Iraq war. Fiction features on the subject are floundering, unable to move past the rather pat assertion that "war is hell" or bogged down by their blind dedication to their own even-handedness. I sort of wish this generation had a Samuel Fuller who could take the topic to town with no concern for moral or political messages and just let the situation's own complexities and unanswerables take center stage. But where fiction flounders, documentaries flourish, as was the case with SXSW doc highlight FULL BATTLE RATTLE, a look at a military training facility in the Mojave Desert that simulates war conditions for its trainees. Despite the fact that audiences may have an "Iraq fatigue" brought on by a saturated documentary slate on the subject, these films stand as an undeniably strong body of work: well crafted, informative, intelligent, and emotionally charged.
Daniel Lafleche is the COO of IPEX TV, the leading multiplatform B2B Film and Video online marketplace. Daniel has over 25 years experience in film distribution, combining film and video licensing with internet media. IPEX TV specializes in helping indie producers and film and video distributors take advantage of the web and reach out to international film license buyers. You can learn more at http://www.ipexview.com