The assortment of documentaries at SXSW this year was wildly eclectic. SXSW was, most often, their world premiere, and also a marketplace that may put them on the road to a wider public. Standouts for me among those that strive to be media that matters, and ones that I hope do find a screen in a theater near you, in alphabetical order:
12 O’Clock Boys. First timer Lotfy Nathan captures the story of a young African-American boy coming of age in Baltimore, enthralled by the rising culture of dirt-bike riding on Balmer’s mean streets. Young men ride on the back wheels, performing amazing and spectacularly dangerous acrobatics, taunting the police and doing circles around passing cars. Pug, the boy, is thrilled by the daring, the skill, and the anti-police club culture. Smart and beloved, he also lives in a world where he might not be wrong to believe that he needs to live for the moment. It’s a poignant and uncommented look at many kinds of talent being channeled in ways that suggest many share Pug’s sad insights into his options. The film also showcases a sport that stands every chance of being commercialized into reality shows, ESPN profiles, competitions and regularized sport.
Downloaded. Alex Winter’s VH1-made doc from MTV/VH1 news clips and news on the rise and fall of Napster. The main focus is on Shawn Fanning, a working-class kid who takes his computer genius to California and starts an unpredecented service that sweeps the Internet world. Although it ushers in the new distributed, post-mass media era, Napster itself becomes a victim. But not Shawn Fanning. What most impresses is the smarts and thoughtfulness of Fanning himself. Many other players including Sean Parker make an appearance, but it’s Fanning’s story. The director didn’t have to demonize the record industry; they do that themselves. This film is fascinating for anyone interested in innovation, business, the Internet, and music. It reminds us how much we all lost when a decentralized distribution service was killed at birth.
Getting Back to Abnormal. The veteran team of Paul Stekler, Andrew Kolker, Louis Alvarez and Peter Odabashian can take away your political cynicism. They bring you into political contests in ways that show you what’s behind the horse race, and also why politics matters. This movie features white Stacy Head and her extraordinary political operative Barbara, an African-American, in a race for city council seat in New Orleans. Stacy’s opponent is a black preacher, and every single issue in the campaign ends up being about race and poverty. The fears of the poor black population that a white conspiracy is driving them out aren’t exactly wrong. And neither is Stacy’s and Barbara’s exasperation with race-baiting. The team continues to demonstrate superb craftsmanship, producing some of the finest cinema verité in America. If you don’t see this before, look for it on public TV.
Medora. Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn (you know them from the odd and wonderful magazine Found) have made a winsome, sad, troubling film about a Rustbowl Indiana town, where manufacturing is dead, kids have family troubles and no good job options, and the whole town lives for its school, which is in danger of shutting down and being consolidated. Most remarkable is all the support the children get from the town, all of which is sadly not going to be enough. You can see this as the story of the end of the American dream, but you can also see enormous hope in the kids and love in their community. And the abandonment of Medora and its kids, along with so many other American towns, by politicians and policymakers should make you mad.
The Network. An engrossing, well-crafted documentary by Eve Orner (the producer of Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side) about Afghanistan’s commercial Tolo TV network, which has created the “Afghan Star” program, call-in shows, soaps, action-drama series, and Sesame Street for Afghanistan—some with US AID funds for shows intended both to entertain and shift cultural values. The executives frankly discuss the ethics of their funding choices and the role of media as social engineering. The shows spur a range of reactions within the network staff. A women’s call-in show, hosted by a conservative psychologist (“be nicer to your husband”) makes one feminist young woman outraged (“what kind of help is that?”) while others note that the show is exposing, for the first time, brutality toward women in ways that do not reward it. The show takes us from heroic launch through success to threats to the future of Tolo—and Afghanistan itself.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music. The life in music of Chris Strachwitz, founder and head of Arhoolie Records, mentor to Ry Cooder, discoverer of regional musicians to whom he gives a national presence and a legacy. Strachwitz is an immigrant from Silesia (once Germany, now Poland), who moved here fleeing Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II and has been hunting for authenticity and roots ever since. Folklorists, musicians, and music lovers are all grateful that his quest has benefited so many. Made by Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon, longtime members of the Berkeley tribe to which Strachwitz and filmmaker Les Blank belong.
Xmas without China. A Chinese-American, director Tom Xia, asks a Mom/Pop/Buddy/Sis California family to go a month without anything made in China—at Christmas. The stories of two families—one Chinese, one American—intertwine in a film that ends up being about identity as much as it is about stuff. The Americans reconsider what Christmas is about; Tom renegotiates his understanding of how to be a Chinese-American. Director Alicia Dwyer's film is funny, endearing, thought-provoking, and blessedly short. If you don’t see this before, look for it on public TV.
An Unreal Dream: the Michael Morton Story. Oscar nominee Al Reinert tells the story of a Texas man sentenced to life for his wife’s murder; after 25 years he is found innocent, due to the extended efforts of Innocence Project and a pro bono Texas lawyer. He undergoes a transformative spiritual experience in prison, and emerges without rancor or resentment. The loss of his life, wife, and relationship with their only child is painfully real. What he wants us to know, though, is that his story could be ours, unless we can reform the criminal justice system.