By Jim Hession, 2013 Fellow
Skinny jeans. Flannel shirts. Blond dreadlocks. Thick-rimmed glasses. Old-school kicks. Elaborate scarves. Carefully coiffed facial hair. Fedoras galore.
A resident of Manhattan for the last eight years, I rubbed my eyes and squinted: Is this what Brooklyn looks like?
But no, this was not Brooklyn. It wasn’t even Astoria, Queens. I was at Newark Liberty International Airport—Terminal C, Gate 70—and me, my vintage Air Force Ones, and this very fashion-forward crowd were all headed to the same place: Austin, Texas, home of cheap beer, good music, taco trucks, and the 2013 South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals.
I was fortunate enough to be traveling to SXSW on the very generous dime of the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship. And as luck would have it, I had even been bumped to a first-class ticket in apology for several flight cancellations and numerous missteps at the hands of the well-intentioned but over-worked employees manning the American Airlines ticketing booth. In short, I was now riding in style.
But as I delicately sipped a complimentary cocktail while nestling into my cushy, row-three leather chair aboard the mammoth Boeing 747 airliner, I couldn’t help but eye the single-file line of embarking passengers and wonder what all of these 30-somethings did for a living in order to afford the over-priced airline ticket, a $1,800-plus festival pass, and all of this pre-washed designer denim! Unbeknownst to me at the time, I happened to be presented with an enormous hint when one slender, handsome, trendy-looking man passed by my seat carrying an expensive bag and wearing a t-shirt emboldened with the words “WILL BLOG FOR FOOD.”
Yes, as I would soon find out, SXSW is much more than “just” a film festival.
For those of you who are uninitiated (as I was until very recently), SXSW is actually four distinct festivals rolled into a single two-week event: there’s the music and comedy festivals, which both take place on the second week; there’s the film festival, which spans the entire two weeks; and then there’s something called “SXSW Interactive,” which is held on the opening week but seems to infiltrate everything happening in Austin for that brief period of time.
If you’re anything like me, your first question might be: “What the hell is an Interactive Festival?” Sounds a bit scandalous, perhaps. In practice, however, it’s something that SXSW tamely defines as featuring “the brightest minds in emerging technology … [while hosting] an unbeatable lineup of special programs showcasing the best new digital works, video games and innovative ideas the international community has to offer.” Still confused? How’s this: while in line for my very first film screening at the festival, I happened to overhear one attendee inform the other that “this is where Twitter blew up in 2007.” Later on, I was inclined to verify such hyperbolic hearsay and found it to be entirely accurate. So yeah, the interactive portion of SXSW is sort of a big deal. It was also the reason that, for one of the very few times in my life, I actually wished I could have been in two places at once.
For example, while me and the film-going crowds were busy huddling silently in dark, musty movie theaters for hours on end, the much more verbose and “interactive” crowds were simultaneously gathering at places such as Austin’s very au courant AT&T Convention Center, holding court and passionately declaring war on IT turnover, searching for illusive North Korean tweets with a member of the “Twiterati 100,”helping couch potatoes become more productive members of society, (finally) discovering a redeeming quality practiced by professional wrestlers, celebrating the virtues of something that we all possess by way of a discussion concerning some very innovative textiles, making rather large generalizations, taking online romance to a whole new level, speed dating on a strictly professional level, and confirming that, yes, a Twitter-driven robot can, in fact, stimulate each and every one of your God-given senses at the very popular Show & Smell gathering (the sequel). Believe it or not, all of this—and more—took place on just the opening weekend!
It is also worth pointing out that the palpable web-based fervor that descends upon Austin’s many conference rooms manages to aggressively permeate the streets of downtown, where numerous info booths, promotional displays, and teams of overly cheerful representatives for the-next-big-internet-thing merrily recite carefully crafted pitches while hawking an assortment of free stuff to the compliant schwag collectors passing by. It all begins to feel like a bit of a circus at times—it is a festival after all—and on certain streets I found it impossible to walk a half-block without being inundated with hordes of information concerning matters such as how I can best listen to online music while socially networking at the same time, or why I should shop for groceries from the comfort of my PC, or why it’s better to hail a taxi cab using my iPhone rather than with a raised arm and a shout. As a proud, self-respecting New Yorker, I found the latter proposal to be particularly specious in nature, but in complete fairness, a majority of these ardent app peddlers that littered Austin’s sidewalks were also distributing on-the-house beer tickets that were redeemable at the various event tents located nearby. So let’s just say that I owe all of them my deepest gratitude. Also, I should give credit where credit is due and note that my teething baby daughter, Isabella Rose, ended up thoroughly enjoying the collection of complimentary Frisbees and other gratis marketing trinkets that I amassed on her behalf; she sends her thanks as well.
But first-class airfare, free beverages, and promotional Frisbees aside, I had traveled to the Lone Star State in order to see movies. And movies I did see. But before mentioning any specific films, I feel obligated to stress that I am not a film critic (nor do I wish to pose as one). It should also go without saying that none of the works that were chosen by way of the selection committee’s exhaustive process need a blessing from little old me. And so, as a fellow filmmaker, I wish most of all to extend my sincere and heartfelt congratulations to each and every movie that was shown at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
Unfortunately, there were a number of films that I regret not having the opportunity to see over the course of my brief trip. To name just a few: Maidentrip, Brothers Hypnotic, Linsanity, Medora, and Andrew Bujalski’s newest film, Computer Chess. I am looking forward to enjoying each of these movies later on this year! Nevertheless, of the films that I actually managed to catch at the festival, there were a handful of works that I found to be particularly memorable.
Most notably, I’ll join the growing chorus and say that I was absolutely blown away by Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a film that I think I can safely say is a cinematic masterpiece that will soon be considered required viewing for anyone interested in the craft of documentary filmmaking. I had the honor to attend a late night screening of the movie on a cold, breezy Sunday evening, and I woke up on a warm, sunny Monday morning still experiencing the residual horror, disbelief, and distress that the film imbued upon me and my consciousness. By design, Killing is not an easy watch, but I kindly urge anyone and everyone to see this very profound work of art sometime in the near future.
On a much lighter note, I enjoyed loads of laughs while watching the comedy Awful Nice, which features the hilariously funny duo of James Pumphrey and Alex Rennie, both of whom I predict will be starring alongside a notable celebrity in a yet-to-be-made Hollywood movie sometime very soon (congrats to fellow editor and all-around good guy Kamau Bilal for his work on the film).
I was also grateful for the opportunity to have screened SXSW’s excellent “Documentary Shorts” program. I was very pleased when SLOMOwas awarded with the category’s “Best Documentary” honor, as I felt that the piece was superbly executed, refreshingly inspirational, and well deserving of distinction.
Lastly, I was lucky enough to be present at the world premiere of Downloaded, an entertaining documentary that chronicles the infamous rise and rapid fall of Napster, the turn-of-the-century peer-to-peer file sharing service. As the film’s director, Alex Winters, has correctly pointed out, the documentary was "the perfect movie for South by Southwest, because it's about music, it's about tech, and it's about movies." Well put, indeed; immediately following the film’s premiere, Mr. Winters surprised just about everyone and introduced Napster co-founders Sean Fanning and Sean Parker onto the stage, simultaneously upping the collective net worth of those in attendance at the historic Paramount Theatre by a few billion dollars (give or take) and sending the crowd into a complete tizzy. It was a reaction best embodied by that of a big, bald, burly, mustachioed gentleman sitting a few rows behind me, who let out a reactionary and seemingly irrepressible high-pitched squeal of “OH SHIT!” at the sight of these two Internet deities in the flesh. Remember when I noted that SXSW was not “just” a film festival?
I enjoyed many other worthwhile movies at this year's showcase. However, my most lasting impression from my jaunt to Austin does not concern one film in particular, but rather my refreshed appreciation for the power of cinema and the changing role that the medium potentially plays in today's increasingly fragmented, digitized, and plugged-in cultural landscape. Indeed, much has been said about the wonders of movie-going and the shared, collective experience that it facilities; ever since the Lumière brothers first screened a projected motion picture to a Parisian audience in 1895, people have been experiencing, firsthand, what it means to watch a film in the company of strangers. But for me, this time-honored experience felt significantly different at SXSW.
You see, some of my favorite moments happened in the minutes leading up to the start of the numerous screenings that I attended. It was a series of events that played out over and over again: the house lights would dim, the buzz of countless conversations would leisurely peter out, and then—and then!—everyone would reach into their pockets or purses and turn off (or at least mute) their goddamn cell phones. We would then proceed to sit in silence for upwards of 90 minutes and function as a group of living, heart-pumping, oxygen-sharing, CO2-expelling individuals, devoting our complete attention to a single, cohesive piece of work—a specific train of thought, if you will. And I increasingly came to find that the act of going to a movie took on new and exciting relevancy in Austin given the rather mundane fact that me and my fellow movie-goers had managed to find an excuse to untether ourselves from the ever-present email correspondences, text messages, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and additional forms of digital distractions that undoubtedly subjugate too many of us. Especially given the ubiquitous talk about Twitter-this, Spotify-that, and Hater-huh? that swirled around all of us filmmakers who managed to physically bring our bodily beings to Texas, I can honestly say that it was astonishingly refreshing to unplug from the digital world for an ever-so-brief period of time in the name of cinema appreciation—or in the name of appreciating anything, for that matter.
If the SXSW Interactive Festival provides any indication of what the future holds for tomorrow’s society (and by all accounts, it does), I can assertively say that all of us will be progressively presented with a growing host of new, innovative, and exciting digital tools designed to boast our productivity, increase our social connectivity, and satiate our natural desire to be recognized as individually relevant human beings. In practice, however, it is much more likely that a vast majority of these newfangled digital creations will collectively decimate our children’s attention spans, disconnect us from tangible human interaction, and herd us all towards Internet-based sales marketing uniformity. Facebook much, anyone?
And so, my time spent in Austin fostered a sensation of extreme admiration for the filmmaking community at large and its continued contributions to a cultural pastime that, in some small way, will forever provide a respite from the hyperventilating, omnipresent, and always proliferating reality of the ones-and-zeros lifestyle that so many of us lead. If I could pass on just one thought in exchange for the very special opportunity that was so graciously afforded to me by the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship and the SXSW Conferences and Festivals, I would kindly urge all of my fellow filmmakers to remember that storytelling, at its core, is a noble endeavor that has been pursued by human beings since the very beginning of our existence. And despite popular notions to the contrary, at the end of the day, there will never be a fresh new app that can rival a great movie and its ability to captivate us, unite us, and enrich our appreciation for the world that we all share.
And with that, I can proudly say, cheers to free drinks, cool schwag, and small victories!