What happens to an avid festivalgoer’s dream deferred?
Most Austinites talking about SXSW being cancelled because of Coronavirus are wondering how it will affect businesses, bartenders, and the local economy. Or are talking how glad they are that drunken music fans won’t overrun Austin.
But not me. This loyal SXSW Film badge holder teeters on the edge of the high-risk groups, but nothing was going to keep me away from South By. Every year I have the thrill of stepping into an Alternate Universe Austin. I know my way around, but the destinations are different. People I haven’t seen in a year or a decade are waving hi, and I’m riding a BBC bulldog or getting a hand massage courtesy of “Good Omens.” But I come home every night to my very own pillow. Bliss.
Cute fabric mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Wet wipes? Check. Hospital-grade surface wipes? Check. Only the cute fabric mask was new to my arsenal, and frankly, I’d been kinda looking for an excuse to add this accessory to my music festival gear. SXSW is always a giant stew of germs from near and far, and no flu or norovirus or coronavirus was gonna get in the way of my goal of 30 screenings in nine days! Well, until it did. Thanks, Mayor Adler!
People are often curious about how I can see 25-30 films in such a short time. It is quite a logistical feat, involving careful choices about venues and timing, about how many chances there are to see each film I’m interested in. Sometimes I’m lucky and I’ve seen all of the films that get repeat screenings in the final days; sometimes I’m lucky and still have two or three films to see on the final days. The more the merrier, but it’s nice to be able to take it easy at the end after a week of rushing and queuing.
My tentative schedule for SXSW 2020 had 48 films listed, so I can take some comfort in knowing that I wouldn’t have seen 20 of them even if the city hadn’t canceled the festival. But which movies might have joined the ranks of my favorites of all time?
The Late Show
I’m always wary that one of the midnighters will turn out to be too much for me, so it’s odd that three of my all-time favorites were midnighters, and that they are the only ones I’ve seen more than once during the fest. Without SXSW, would I have ever known I needed to see a feminist Iranian horror movie, an artsy Croatian tragedy, or a Finnish heavy-metal comedy? Yet the midnighters Under the Shadow, Goran, and Heavy Trip are some of my favorite screenings, and lucky you! You can see them on Amazon Prime. You won’t leave the theater wondering if you were the one who screamed, and you won’t get to share your amazement with the other fest-goers, but you’ll enjoy them nonetheless.
Maybe this year’s foreign midnighter would have been Yummy, a Belgian horror comedy about plastic surgery and zombies, or would it have been PG (Psycho Goreman), a Canadian film about suburban children resurrecting and controlling an ancient alien overlord? All I can do is add them to my IMDB watchlist and see what happens after they eventually premiere later elsewhere.
The Daily Documentary Diet
But by definition, you can only see midnighters once a day, and I’m usually attending three or four screenings each day. I mostly focus on documentaries, because they’re the hardest to see outside a film festival. Beautiful places, unfamiliar cultures, quirky collectors, baffling elections, journalism trends: documentaries transport me, challenge my notions, help me see the world through other eyes.
I swear each and every year that I won’t see another film about competitions, but ten-year-old kids are reciting Koran by Heart competitively, adults are solving Wicker Kittens jigsaw puzzles in teams, and groomers turn dogs into works of art in Well Groomed. One of the documentary shorts for 2020 sounds like a test for a competition film, so maybe in 2021 or 2022, the filmmaker will be premiering a longer film about Quilt Fever and the 30,000 quilters who show up annually in Paducah, Kentucky.
Last year’s Ernie & Joe ,about two members of a mental-health police unit explored how they evolved to be able to police so differently. It was an inspiring change from The Blood is at the Doorstep the previous year, about the police shooting of a 14-year-old and his family’s reaction. My notes recommend it highly, a tough watch, but important to see how badly policing can go wrong without training in mental health issues. This year, Bulletproof might have filled this niche with its look at how schools are changing to try to protect children from gun violence.
Women’s topics often catch my attention. Vessel and Trapped offered insight into the fight for reproductive choice. The experiences of war shared by the women in On Her Shoulders and For Sama shook me. And one of my favorite documentaries is Scarlett Road, featuring an Australian sex worker who specializes in clients with disabilities who might otherwise not ever experience physical intimacy. This year’s strongest contender in this category was The Dilemma of Desire, about four women who are working towards reshaping how we understand women’s sexual desire and arousal.
It’s SXSW So There Is Music
Many documentaries picked for SXSW are pitched towards Music attendees, and they aren’t usually high priority for me. However, Tuba to Cuba was not only a good movie about New Orleans musicians traveling to Cuba, it finished with a bunch of the musicians leading us out of the Paramount Theater and down to Sixth Street, everyone smiling and clapping and dancing joyfully. You can see it now on Amazon Prime, but you’ll need to find your own band afterwards. Speaking of Cuba, Give Me Future was a splendid documentary about the logistics around a 2016 concert in Havana featuring Major Lazer and M.I.A., with some real insight into how information travels in a restricted society.
The 2020 was supposed to bring us Music films about Johnny Cash, Jose Feliciano, and Mojo Nixon, but I was most looking forward to Without Getting Killed or Caught, based on Susanna Clark’s diaries about Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
What You Might Be Missing
Some smaller narratives like Stuber, Wilderpeople, or Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing might slip past me if I didn’t have a schedule to fill. How sad would that be to miss such fun? Save Yourselves! might have been a cheery dystopia break from all the weighty films: A Brooklyn couple goes tech-free in the country and, surprise, aliens attack the planet.
And sometimes if you don’t see it at SXSW, your chance is gone. Here’s my note about a Belgian film called Black: “Extraordinary, especially since none of the actors had ever acted before and because the story is based on police files. It’s kind of Romeo and Juliet, but he’s in a Morrocan gang and she’s in a gang called Black Bronx that is Congolese immigrants. It has no North American distribution, and the purchasers of the French rights have chosen not to release it in theaters.”
So for right now, SXSW can keep my payment and apply it to next year’s badge. Because I’m going back to Alternate Universe Austin as soon as I can!