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SXSW 2012: Culture from the Inside

SXSW FilmSome of my faves at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival were documentaries that track the evolution of a culture from the inside.

Two of them focused on the emergent practice of public data-hacking/dumping. Both Patrick Forbes’ "Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies" and Brian Knappenberger’s "We Are Legion" take on their subjects with journalistic curiosity and an eye for the oddball. Both are mostly B-roll with interviews, but they provide rich insight into processes.

Assange against the World

WikileaksIn "Wikileaks," Forbes got extended access not only to the infamous Julian Assange and his estranged sidekick Domscheit-Berg but also to the head editors at the London Guardian and the New York Times. The four of them separately recount the process of releasing the data and the analysis. It’s not just a story of secrets, lies, betrayal and psychopathy. (Assange appears to be a guy who defines himself by his enemies, who change constantly.) It’s also a story of cultural worlds colliding. The entrenched journalists are aghast at Assange’s fecklessness, but they’re also quite surprised at each others’ practices. Domscheit-Berg chronicles not only the collapse of his once-worshipful respect for Assange but also the birth of moral principles and ethical concerns in this uncharted area of massive data-sharing.

Forbes, who usually produces high-end documentaries for top-of-the-line British and European television (this film was made for Britain’s Channel 4 and is distributed internationally by the BBC), was thrilled to be showing his film in a sold-out theater to hundreds of enthusiastic SXSW attendees.

He launched the film project believing that this was an opportunity to look at power close up. “Documentarians, especially the better off ones, always seem to be making films about people poorer than them. How about making films about people who are richer and more powerful than ourselves? Looking and it and study it, and see how it’s actually being used.”

At the same time, he wasn’t interested in judgment: You have a duty to treat your subjects seriously, to take them seriously, and not just play ‘gotcha.’ They should tell their story, not yours.”

Anonymous in the World

We are Legion"We Are Legion" is a chronicle of how community and culture are created, once again demonstrating that creativity is a social, not an individual process. An academic and hacktivists, including some facing five years in prison, tell the story of the rise of Anonymous, from a bunch of cranky nihilists (aka pre-social geeks) to a political movement about challenging unaccountable power. They discover themselves as a community at the moment when they organize a protest (against Scientology) and find, to general surprise, other members of Anonymous at the rallies.The film doesn’t slight the complexities—the hacktivists routinely contradict themselves and indict others for doing what they do—but neither does it interview the “other side.” It’s a fascinating insiders’ story of the rise of a  meme, a movement, a culture.

Brian Knappenberger, a veteran journalistic documentarian for outlets such as PBS Frontline, National Geographic, Discovery and Bloomberg, said, “It’s a culture--they have their own language, their own history, their own code of ethics. They know no geopolitical boundaries, but they are a culture.”

He found easy access: “Almost everybody from all the factions within Anonyous wanted to tell their stories or convince me that their faction was the most important.” The factions in Anonymous, featured in the film, are also bickering with each other about the film itself now.

As a journalist, Knappenberger said, “I’m listening to their point of view, honestly listening and trying to figure out where they came from, without judging or being sensational about it. This is the birth of a culture, and it doesn’t matter if you hate or love ’em, it’s going on now.”

Kids, Chess and Public Schools

Brooklyn Castle"Brooklyn Castle," by Katie and Nelson Dellamaggiore, explores the meaning of a culture shaped around achievement in chess, in PS. 318. The school, which is full of kids eligible for free lunch, has a nationally rated chess team, and chess has become the identity of the school.  Chess has sent kids to colleges, and won them scholarships. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat stops being a cliché when you watch them go through tournaments. And then here’s what changes everything: PS. 318 has its funding yanked to send the kids to the tournaments. What happens then, and at what cost?

After "Waiting for Superman," we can use a film like this. The film is a powerful testimony to public schools, to the importance of their after-school programs, and to the way that kids given an opportunity can seize them. I can’t wait to see this film out and around, and I hope every teacher’s union celebrates it. And I hope viewers decide to volunteer to help run a club in a school in a neighborhood they don’t usually visit.

The filmmakers, like many at this festival, did this film with sweat equity (they’re professionals in film by day), and picked up foundation and private investor help on the way.  They’re working with the After School Alliance to do screenings for educators. They’re passionate about the issue, but Katie Dellamaggiore said their mantra was, “Lead with the story.”

Living in the Water

Bay of All SaintsThe audience-award winning "Bay of All Saints," by Annie Eastman, chronicles the rise and collapse of a poor people’s movement to channel redevelopment in a way that would both win them housing and also keep them together. Like many festival films, it’s an edit or two away from being really ready for audiences, but even so it’s engrossing. It starts in 2005, when the Brazilian government has taken World Bank funds to relocate the poor living on Salvador da Bahia’s tidal flats and restore the bay. Over the next six years, through the eyes of several female-headed households, we watch the issues that roil the community and the lives of the women and children who live a precarious existence over the water.

Eastman had lived and worked in a slum before starting the film. Without film training, she picked up some skills working on others’ films, including They Killed Sister Dorothy. She’s now building a network of NGOs, including Slumdwellers International, which can use the film.

Untold Stories

Seeking Asian FemaleTwo social-issue documentaries I saw showed solid narrative skills and took up topics you won’t find on cable or the headlines. Debbie Lum’s "Seeking Asian Female" peers into the subculture of men obsessed with Asian women, who have “yellow fever.”  She follows 60s-ish Steven, who finds 30-year-old Chinese Sandy online and convinces her to marry him. What could be a standard narrative of victimhood takes surprising turns, and leaves us still wondering: Will they make it?

I also enjoyed, for its understated and elegant storytelling, Mark Kendall’s "La Camioneta." He uses the journey of a school bus, from Spotsylvania, VA to a Guatemalan town to shed light on cross-border relationships, Central American turmoil, and the aspirations of families. Incredibly, this is a thesis film.