[Note: There have been some corrections made for the NY Export section since this was first posted, per the producers. I sourced incorrect information from a published article in FILMMAKER Magazine. Apologies.]
For my SXSW wrap-up, a bit anemic as it is, I'd like to mention a few more films/filmmakers that impressed me, and the outstanding doc shorts program presented at the fest.
I may write almost exclusively on nonfiction filmmaking (although that's changing more and more as I see work that's throwing any sort of idea of "genre" filmmaking out the window--more of this, please), but, no matter what, I still want to be thrilled when I sit and watch a film, transported, told a great yarn, be emotionally engaged and moved, etc. I'm tired of seeing films not ready for exhibition, hurriedly "completed" to meet a festival premiere, sloppily finished, or what have you. There's no room for that anymore, if there ever was.
Whether it's a film in the guise of what some are calling "social issue," an intimate portrait, a first-person account, or an historical treatise on a seminal event of the recent past (or some combination, thereof) the focus, intention (and the tenacious hold on that intention) of the maker's vision should be felt viscerally at every moment.
In the case of Jody Lee Lipes, Henry Joost and Matt Porterfield--these are filmmakers we celebrate at Hammer to Nail over and over again. Why? Because these are filmmakers who have such intense imperatives in the way they create cinema, such devotion to their craft, such expertise in the way in which they storytell. Lipes and Joost have collaborated as co-directors on NY Export: Opus Jazz which had its début at SXSW last week. (Lipes also shot Lena Dunham's SXSW narrative jury prize-winner, Tiny Furniture.) The film won an audience award in the Emerging Visions category.
This re-creation of Jerome Robbins' 1958 tour-de-force dance story (written for the screen by Lipes) was shot on location in New York City and stars an ensemble of New York City Ballet dancers--all young, lithe, explosively energetic presences. The film was conceived, created and produced by Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, soloists in the ballet company, and it took them several years to finance the finished film after getting the rights to the piece from the Robbins Trust. They shot a 5-minute sequence with funds raised by the producers from private donors to use for further fundraising efforts, and committed to shooting the film in anamorphic 35mm to make it as gorgeous as possible. You can see a preview here. Over a year later, PBS came on board and took the film on as a pre-acquisition for its Great Performances dance series. Remaining steadfast in their vision, the first-time producers had much more fundraising ahead of them, and the finished product shows, to glorious effect, the uncompromising way in which it got made. Aaron Hillis, writing for IFC.com News, says, it is a "jaw-droppingly gorgeous marriage of choreography and cinematography." The 45-minute narrative, accompanied by an excellent fifteen-minute "making of" documentary directed by Anna Farrell and Matt Wolf will have its broadcast premiere on PBS' Great Performances as part of the Dance in America series this Wednesday, March 24. Watch it on as big a screen as you possibly can.
SXSW exhibited a very strong documentary shorts program. As I've expressed before, shorts programs (watching several short films back to back) is not my fave due to the unevenness, most times, in the quality of films shown together. While there might be a couple of standouts, one usually has to sit through several that are rather weak, or even worse, pointless. But the half dozen I saw in this program were all fantastic and I hope they all make many appearances on the circuit in the next couple of years, and beyond.
Amy Grappell's 20-minute Quadrangle (which premiered at Sundance) took the jury prize, and Travis Senger's White Lines and The Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug (26 minutes) received a runner-up nod for his world premiere. Quadrangle is a fascinating piece, a video art installation more than it is a traditional narrative film. The physical manifestation of the storytelling resonates so strongly because of the subject matter, that of a family collapsing and tearing itself apart due to a well-intentioned "social experiment" that goes awry. The reveals come tantalizingly slowly and subtly and we don't know for sure how these people are related to the filmmaker, but we know that they are. I especially like the way she reveals and implicates herself into the piece, again very deliberately and slowly until she is fully folded into this story that has impacted her life in so many ways. We never actually see her, but we do hear her and, at one point, see her shadow outlined on the cement as she films. Intelligent, potent, and artfully conceived and crafted. She is working on a feature narrative script of the story.
The other film I'll give special mention to is called 6. Also a world premiere at the fest, this film is just a staggeringly beautiful piece of work. In its 22 minutes (I would have been more than happy to sit through something feature-length), it shows us a complete and full universe with such intimacy and love. 6 is a portrait of a teeny, tiny town in Texas, extrapolated through its rabid devotion to its high-school football team which consists of only six players; the place is so small it cannot populate a full 11-man team. Its maker, Jeff Bednarz, has exquisite instincts and finds storytelling soulmates in his editor, Jack Waldrip, his cinematographer, Mark Thomas (stunning work) and, in particular, his subjects, who open up to him in ways in which only an incredibly empathic artist can get subjects to reveal their hearts and souls. I cannot wait to see more from this team of filmmakers.
The other films in the program were: The deeply personal and beautifully shot Seltzer Works by Jessica Edwards; David Wilson's Big Birding Day with breathtakingly magnificent cinematography by Wilson and Nathan Truesdell; and, Bradley Beesley's hilarious Mr. Hypnotism about the notorious Ron Dante.