SXSW Documentaries: Finding a Voice

by Patricia Aufderheide
A close-up of rainforest dweller in the SXSW-featured film Learning to See.

A close-up of rainforest dweller in the SXSW-featured film Learning to See.

Documentaries excel at giving voice to people, causes and perspectives you may never have known or even thought about—but someone has, and is ready to share. They may even have a constituency with them when they show up at festivals. This year’s SXSW Film documentaries featured many such films, some quirky, some polished, all with their own interest. Some I found admirable, intriguing or both:

Strong Women: In Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle’s Ovarian Psycos, young, poor, angry Latina women take to the streets on bikes, under a full moon, wearing bandanas decorated with ovaries and fallopian tubes. “Ovaries so big we don’t need no f’ing balls,” is their argument. It’s an extraordinary story about a movement born of resistance to both poverty and misogyny, eventually headed to public TV. Dawn Porter’s Trappedwhich will show on public TV soon, also features formidable women who keep women’s clinics that offer abortions open in the South, against ever-increasing pressures, driven by concern for women’s health. The film has had many pre-broadcast screenings, and appears at the very moment the issue was focused on at the Supreme Court.

Oddballs: Josh Bishop’s Dwarvenaut stars Stefan Pokorny, who improbably is thriving in a business recreating a Dungeons and Dragons environment in miniatures suitable to take over your living room table…and living room.  He’s a cheerful obsessive in a world of people addicted to game fantasy, and at SXSW his D&D friends found the film. In Accidental CourtesyAfrican-American rock musician Daryl Davis pursues encounters with Ku Klux Klan members (yes, they are still around, apparently a lot of them). He hopes to break through stereotypes on both sides. Amazingly, some claim friendship with him, but always explaining that Daryl understands their defense of white identity. Filmmaker Matt Ornstein, a music-video pro, makes Davis a likable, but gullible character.

Photo by Gene Tomko.

I Am the Blues-Photo by Gene Tomko.

Artists: If you want to know what women artists are doing to turn craft into art and protest, then Icelandic director Una Lorenzen’ Yarn is definitely for you. I had never once considered yarn as an opportunity to make feminist art, or as much of anything else, and I was completely charmed. Another film that introduced me to art I wanted to pay much more attention to was Daniel Cross’ I Am the Blues, which strolls through the Delta to meet the ancient blues musicians who were stars but did not make the great Exodus to the North in earlier decades. The old men and women demonstrate enormous strength of spirit as well as technique and wit.

Nature: Several films made powerful arguments about resetting our relationship with the world around us. In Learning to See, Jake Oelman profiles his f ather, an offbeat close observer of nature who photographs rainforest insects from his home in Colombia. The extraordinary photographs and video of the insects reveals a wondrous and varied world of colors and shapes that gives a sense of what is at risk with endangered forests—like the one Oelman films in. Patrick Shen’s In Pursuit of Silence explores the consequences of ever-present noise, especially the cacophony of the modern urban environment, with experts, artists and others who resist it. The Seer, by Laura Dunn, profiles poet-farmer Wendell Berry, who for many decades has made an argument that only becomes more sadly apt, about the economic, social and psychic dangers of Big Ag. Another way of telling that story is Christopher LaMarca’s Boone, about a small goat farm in Oregon that struggles despite hard work and thrift to stay afloat. LaMarca’s respected work as a feature photographer is evident throughout the crafted cinéma vérité story.

No wonder documentary’s doing so well in the marketplace, with abundance like this.


SXSW 2016: Storytelling, Immersion, Engagement