Still from 'Broken Orchestra.' (Courtesy of filmmakers)
COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under South by Southwest, the major Austin, Texas film, music and tech festival, a mere week before the fest was set to begin in mid-March. So Amazon proposed a plan to stream—for free and for a limited time—every feature and short in the festival. It was an innovative partial solution that promoted SXSW, paid the filmmakers an undisclosed fee and, at the same time, self-evidently was neither the financial deal nor the platform that the vast majority of the 135 feature filmmakers in the SXSW program deemed the best distribution strategy for their films.
Consequently, only a handful of feature narratives and documentaries, a few episodes of new TV series and more than 30 short films accepted the offer. Dubbed “Prime Video Presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection,” the series launched this past Monday and streams through May 6. (An Amazon Prime membership isn’t required, but an Amazon account is.)
It’s important to recognize, as a viewer, that this collection resides at the intersection of film festival and the streaming experiences. The guiding principle of the former is accepting that you won’t love everything, but you’ll enter worlds and see visions you otherwise wouldn’t in the normal course of everyday commercial and/or arthouse movie-going.
While people very, very rarely walk out of a movie they’ve paid for, even if they don’t like it, streaming subscriptions are a de facto, 24/7 encouragement to start watching something/anything and, if it doesn’t grab you, bail. (I do this most frequently with stand-up comedy specials and long-form TV series.)
My gentle encouragement is to give everything in the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection a fair shot. That especially applies to the feature films—the short films will likely be over before you can even decide you’ve had enough. For your sampling consideration:
Czech director Jan Vejnar’s riveting short film is a certified highlight of the series. Weather-beaten French actor Denis Lavant (Beau Travail, Holy Motors) trades his clothes for a few bucks and a day job as a film extra, or so it seems. It’s a parable, I think, of the film industry’s ruthless production ethos, as well as an indictment of governments who view soldiers as disposable parts.
Writer-director-star Ingrid Haas opens her vibrant piece with the not-unfamiliar scene of a young woman buying a bottle of booze at a corner store and, oh yeah, a pregnancy test. A lot of shorts are showcases for filmmakers with style and ambition, but Still Wylde—which dashes through a longer period of time than most short films and mixes chuckle-worthy one-liners with piercingly dramatic moments—introduces a filmmaker with an off-center perspective and something to say.
The program includes several fascinating nonfiction portraits of artists. Abigail Goldman is an investigator in the public defender’s office who lives a normal suburban life outside Bellingham, Washington and makes crimson-dappled dioramas of domestic carnage. Although we’re in Twin Peaks country, and David Lynch (not to mention John Waters) would embrace Goldman’s artistic pursuit, filmmaker Kevin Staake smartly depicts Goldman head-on without surreal embellishments or postmodern condescension.
Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business
Now in her 90s, Betye Saar is a remarkable artist and a genially provocative interviewee. Filmmaker Christine Turner packs an unbelievable number of her artworks, along with a telescoped biography, into a mere handful of minutes. The film makes you want to run out and visit a sprawling exhibition of Saar’s work, which is part of the goal of this piece produced for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a delicious appetizer, but Saar deserves a full-length film.
The Broken Orchestra
The Philadelphia public school system, like all too many big city education departments, hacked its music budget to almost nothing. Charlie Tyrell reimagines the talking-head doc—cutting among interviews emanating from TVs on stands, i.e., catnip for high school A/V geeks in the house—to recount an inspiring grass-roots rehabilitation project for damaged instruments. Inspiring and infuriating, let me say, to anyone who’s fed up with the general lack of respect given to the arts in this country.
Le Choc du Futur
Not surprisingly, perhaps, none of the four narrative films in the SXSW lineup were made by U.S. filmmakers. Marc Collin’s enjoyably indulgent time-travel trip to late-’70s Paris focuses on an aspiring artist, Ana, who composes ahead-of-the-curve electronic music. This is kind of the perfect movie for sheltering in place, as it unfolds almost entirely in the flat where she’s housesitting with a wall of synthesizers, tape decks and, eventually, a beatbox. Alma Jodorowsky carries the unhurried film with a stylish naturalism that occasionally puts one in mind of Anna Karina. The misogyny she encounters isn’t unexpected, but the grooves of Throbbing Gristle and Aksak Maboul are.
Andrea Werhun describes herself as a performer, which is a kind of artist. The Toronto escort’s well-reviewed book of the same title, with photographer and filmmaker Nicole Bazuin, is full of provocative views on power, sex and money. The duo extends their collaboration with this highly art-directed, color-saturated, reenactment-laced slice of Werhun’s life that explores the thorny issue of vulnerability. Modern Whore leaves you wanting more.
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
For long stretches, Brian Belovitch lived a life of noisy desperation. Bullied as a boy in New England, Belovitch transitioned as a teenager and (after a short-lived marriage) fled to Manhattan to thrive as Tish, a performer in LGBTQ clubs in the ’80s. Then Belovitch came out again—as a gay man. Filmmakers Karen Bernstein and Nevie Owens get integrity points for opting not to structure and sell their documentary feature (which highlights Michael Musto as a voice of reason) as the latest (commercial) entry in the Warhol/Downtown subgenre. Instead they let Belovitch carry the ball most of the way through his wildly colorful life. Alas, I did not find their main subject the most riveting raconteur. I have to believe that I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, which premiered last September at DocNYC, would be a shoo-in for the (now-postponed) Frameline festival. The audience that would have filled the Castro in June for this doc is the audience that will most appreciate it on Amazon Prime Video today.
Cat in the Wall
Bulgarian filmmakers Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva parlay their documentary background into this lived-in narrative feature in which the camera is never more than a few feet from the characters. A Bulgarian mother, brother and young son live in close quarters in a London council estate, trying to forge careers and a future. They aren’t typical refugees—Irina’s an architect and Vladimir has a master’s degree—yet they face similar slings and frustrations. Cat in the Wall is billed as a comedy-drama, and I expect the humor would pop more with a theater audience. To put it another way, this is the film for people who wish Ken Loach’s movies were 80% less grim.
Last but hardly least, this fiction short—which was slated to screen locally in the SFFILM festival a few weeks ago—introduces us to a Jersey girl preparing for her bat mitzvah and (symbolic) adulthood. There aren’t a lot of black Jews in the United States, so we suspect from the opening shot that there’s a unique story here. Writer-director Rachel Harrison Gordon wants us to read between the lines rather than tell us outright, though it’s clear that Birdie lives with her white mom and is meeting her African-American dad for lunch. Adulthood is complicated, and comes with all kinds of responsibilities, but Birdie is ready. Some shorts are the perfect length, while others make us want to follow the story a while longer. Broken Bird is in that second group.
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