As usual, SXSW Film Fest overflowed with documentaries—some good, some medium well. My thoughts on a handful of them.
As travelogue and documentation on the evolution of the most unique entertainment festival in the country, Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW adequately tells the tale of SXSW’s rise to economic and artistic prominence. When New York City’s New Music Seminar bailed on the idea of a Southwest version in the 1980s, Austin Chronicle delivery boy Roland Swenson approached the paper’s founders about doing something themselves. What began then, 25 years ago, with less than 200 bands has exploded into a national event with well over 2,000 acts, temporarily increasing the city’s population by an estimated 100,000. One of those first acts was Mojo Nixon who offers up some of the more entertaining analyses in a documentary that could have used a few more fireworks.
Billed as the last vinyl record shop in Teesside, United Kingdom, Sound It Out Records is a warm, neighborhood café that serves music rather than food. It’s a testament to the place that it still exists, especially in a town hard hit by the economy. Director Jeanie Finlay uses a beautifully deft touch on letting the story tell itself—witnessing the owner’s vast memory bank of his store’s stock, conversing with its colorful patrons. It’s a wish-I-was-there experience.
Like the paper it’s documenting, the creators of Page One manage to be in the right place at the right time. When a New York Times editor takes a call from WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange the cameras are there to catch a discussion on what secrets the Times might print. It’s also a moment representative of the problems plaguing the publishing world—how to disseminate the news in a fluid state of technology. The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience. The grizzled journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful, and seemingly effortless sound bites.
This well researched film takes us on a visually beautiful tour of our lives in relation to the lights of the night. What starts as an interesting treatise on the increasing inability to see the entire night sky because of the world’s use of electric light turns into more serious speculations on whether Edison’s invention could be the cause of everything from sea turtle hatchlings getting lost to an increase in breast and prostate cancer.
People of the African nation of Sierra Leone practice an ancient ritual of family talk called Fambul Tok in this incredible documentary. Citizens whose lives were horrifically changed by civil war, where family members became killers of their own families, where torture and cruelty were every day occurrences, demonstrate a remarkable amount of tolerance and forgiveness as they gather to heal the emotional scars of war. Even though the fighting was over, rapists and murderers would walk among the victims and victims’ families with impunity. But instead of imprisonment, the perpetrators would be reconciled with the citizenry through Fambul Tok. Sierra Leone, we learn, has a saying that sums it up best. “There is no place to throw away a bad child.”