Posts Tagged 'SXSW 2013'

SXSW Update #3 – Close of SXSW 2013; Film Festival Impact

Neighboring Stateside and Paramount Theaters on Congress Avenue during SXSW 2013.  Photo by Eric Allen Hatch.

Neighboring Stateside and Paramount Theaters on Congress Avenue during SXSW 2013. Photo by Eric Allen Hatch.

The 2013 SXSW Film Festival came to a close this weekend, having screened, as head honcho Janet Pierson noted at the closing night awards ceremony, 133 features and 10 shorts programs. Considering that SXSW sets limits on how many titles they repeat from other festivals like Sundance, making the majority of SXSW’s features U.S. or even world premieres, this is a staggering figure. We’re still comparing notes and favorites, but I’ve now seen at least 40 of these features, and with MFF’s programming administrator J. Scott Braid and screening committee member Eric Cotten also in attendance, we’ve been able to cover the overwhelming majority of SXSW’s offerings for MFF 2013 programming consideration.

To attend SXSW is also to see the incomparable impact a major film festival has on its hometown’s year-round film scene. I’d estimate that somewhere between a dozen and twenty of SXSW’s features were Texas-shot. That includes some of the best narrative films in the lineup, such as Andrew Bujalski’s sly and utterly unique Computer Chess (which I discussed at greater length on the blog last week), Yen Tan’s poignant small-town romantic drama Pit Stop, and Hannah Fidell’s riveting and tense psychological portrait A Teacher.

In a city that boasts not only major film festivals such as SXSW, the genre-honoring Fantastic Fest, and the screenwriter-oriented Austin Film Festival, but also active year-round programming courtesy of the Austin Film Society, the historic Paramount Theater, and the legendary Alamo Drafthouses, it’s no surprise that Austin’s film scene is flourishing. Over the past several decades, it’s emerged as one of the only U.S. cities that can be said to rival L.A. and NYC for diverse film production, smart and lively criticism, and enthusiastic, highly film-literate audiences.

It’s this magnitude of impact Maryland Film Festival would like to have in Baltimore—building not just audiences, but also helping cultivate a local filmmaking community as active and vibrant as that of a city like Austin, not to mention one that keeps pace with the explosions in music and visual art our city has seen in recent years. Watch this space for MFF 2013 announcements; we think you’ll agree that a Baltimore filmmaking explosion is already underway.

Eric Allen Hatch, MFF Director of Programming



Photo still from Joe Swanberg’s DRINKING BUDDIES.

Within their 2013 festival, SXSW Film has found a clever method to remind each audience of the many ways film festivals discover and nurture talent. In celebration of their 20th anniversary, SXSW has been rolling archival festival bumpers before each screening. Bumpers are those short pieces (typically running between 30 and 60 seconds) that thank festival sponsors, audiences, filmmakers, and volunteers for their support. Since SXSW has a great tradition of inviting festival alumni to create these bumpers and give them some narrative heft, they’re now able to draw from two decades of what are essentially little-seen short films by major directors that have emerged on the festival circuit.

One of the most striking bumpers is by frequent MFF alum David Lowery (director of MFF 2011 Opening Night Short Pioneer), whose forthcoming Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was one of the breakthrough films of Sundance 2013, and stars Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine. This 2010 SXSW bumper entitled “Soundstage” is an artful encapsulation of the dreamlike aesthetic he brings to his work:

Another bumper, 2007’s “McGriddles,” was directed by Joe Swanberg and stars Andrew Bujalski, a nice distillation of the sharp humor and charm the two brought to Swanberg’s feature Hannah Takes The Stairs.

It’s an intriguing moment to revisit the early work of these pioneers of handcrafted digital cinema, as both have exceptional new features in the SXSW 2013 line-up that seem to mark bold new phases in their careers. Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is perhaps the film audiences expected from him after 2009’s Noah Baumbach-produced Alexander the Last, which was his most conventionally polished and accessible film to date. Instead, for several years Swanberg turned inward for a series of deeply personal micro-budget films such as Silver Bullets and Art History (both MFF 2011). Drinking Buddies, set in and around a craft-beer brewery in Chicago, is shot by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson, and brings in a winning cast of familiar faces such as Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, and Jake Johnson. As with Lynn Shelton’s recent work, the film depends on these established actors embracing the conversational tone and spontaneous working methods that distinguish most of Swanberg’s filmography; and as with Shelton’s recent films, the cast more than responds to the challenge, yielding results that are warm, hilarious, and emotionally resonant. Drinking Buddies wowed a packed house in the historic, 1200-seat Paramount Theater, a triumphant moment in a fascinating and still-evolving film career. It would seem to mark not so much a move to the mainstream as the mainstream moving toward Swanberg.

Photo still from Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess.

Photo still from Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess.

Bujalski’s Computer Chess, on the other hand, is a masterpiece with no obvious creative precedent. Set circa 1980 and, in a challenging but brilliant move, shot on period-specific analog video, the film takes us inside a subculture of offbeat personalities who camp out in a hotel conference hall, attempting to create the first computer system capable of beating human chess masters. But as the film builds into a Robert Altman-worthy ensemble comedy, it also takes on unexpected surreal and even hallucinatory notes, largely thanks to the rich subplot of a self-help event simultaneously taking place in the hotel. Computer Chess is funny, daring, and utterly unpredictable; each creative risk—and there are many—pays off brilliantly. Simply put, if I see a more original film this year, I’ll be quite surprised.

Lowery, Swanberg, and Bujalski all have the biggest films of their respective careers poised to emerge in 2013. In so many ways, SXSW 2013 has been a great reminder that well-curated, forward-looking film festivals like SXSW and MFF offer unique opportunities for audiences to share in the early discovery of major film artists, and to continue to follow them as they grow and evolve.

Eric Allen Hatch, MFF Director of Programming



Photo of Divine from I Am Divine by MFF alum Jeffrey Schwarz, playing at the SXSW 2013 festival.

The South By Southwest Film Conference & Festival marks its 20th year in 2013, and three members of the MFF programming team — myself, programming administrator Scott Braid, and screening-committee member Eric Cotten — are all here in Austin to take in films. SXSW’s programming is international in scope, but the focus is on U.S. independent work, the next major stop for emerging domestic films after Sundance in January. It’s an especially important festival for the MFF programming team, the last trip we take before putting the finishing touches on our own lineup, which we’ll begin rolling out in early April.

As befitting a film festival that runs alongside equally renowned music and interactive (technology/gaming) components, SXSW’s line-up is peppered with some high-profile genre and midnight films. Last year saw the festival premiere The Cabin in the Woods, and this year’s edition boasts both the Evil Dead remake and V/H/S/2. We’ll be especially eager to check out the latter, a sequel to the omnibus horror film we screened within MFF 2012, this one boasting a segment by Maryland’s own Eduardo Sánchez.

Meanwhile, two very different Baltimore-focused documentary features have been generating much-deserved buzz at SXSW. Lotfy Nathan’s thrilling first feature 12 O’Clock Boys looks at Baltimore’s urban dirt-bike phenomenon, seen through the eyes of a young teenager who hopes to become a part of it. Simply put, this film contains some of the most eye-popping Baltimore footage ever caught on camera, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes poignant. Its trailer went viral on social media a few weeks ago, helping position the film as one of the festival’s most talked-about docs, an auspicious debut for a project that we’ve been tracking throughout its several years of production.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Schwarz, a frequent MFF guest who attended last year with the moving documentary Vito, has completed his highly anticipated new feature I Am Divine. It’s the definitive story of Baltimore’s own drag icon, made with the full cooperation of key participants like John Waters and Divine’s mother, and bursting with wonderful archival clips and stills. A roller coaster of a story filled with moments of triumph, heartbreak, and hilarity, it’s also another expertly crafted entry in Schwarz’s highly compelling body of biographical documentaries.

In addition to seeing films this year, I was invited to participate as a SXSW mentor in the field of documentary film programming. This allowed festival attendees to sign up for blocks of time to ask me questions about getting their documentary finished and out into the world. I met with a wide range of folks, from a few aspiring filmmakers looking for advice in getting their projects funded, to others with completed films in hand seeking tips on maximizing their films’ festival lives and positioning them for distribution. The SXSW mentorship program is a great facilitation of the networking possibilities one can find at film festivals; I enjoyed meeting this diverse group of people, and appreciated the opportunity to share some of the insights about the festival world I’ve gained over the seven years I’ve worked as a programmer for MFF.

SXSW continues through this weekend, and we’ll be in town for the full duration. We hope to take in about 50-60 features and as many shorts before the festival closes. Watch the MFF blog for more updates!

Eric Allen Hatch, MFF Director of Programming