Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stephanie Huettner's SXSW journal [part one]

Friday, March 11

My journey with SXSW 2011 will be my first as a Video Projection Crew Chief. I have been a Film Traffic (Film Librarian) Crew Chief for the past four years and was moved over to projection this year, to my delight. While this will mean a more restrictive schedule for me during the festival with regards to what I choose to see, I will still get to see plenty and learn plenty about video projection equipment.

The first movie I see at the festival is aptly titled The First Movie. It is a Scottish film by a director from Northern Ireland, Mark Cousins. Cousins grew up during the worst days of the IRA conflicts and remembers film being a welcome escape from the chaos surrounding him. He decides to travel to a remote region of Iraq called Guptapa (which was the site of horrific chemical rain attacks in the late 1980s) to set up a pop-up free cinema and to see what kinds of movies the kids in this region would make if given the opportunity. While this premise may sound like a set-up for maudlin realizations about the nature of war and the usual waxing poetic about how children see the world, this film takes a more experimental track. Rather than editing the film like a diary of the journey, Cousins and his team choose to focus on several long sequences featuring the children playing with balloons and talking about what kind of movie they would make if they had the opportunity. The free cinema is a smashing success and one who loves film can't help but be inspired by the genuine wild enthusiasm with which the children greet films like E.T. and The Red Balloon. The films made by the kids on flip cameras are sometimes silly, as they should be, but others are very thoughtful. One child chooses to take his camera to a mosque to interview the men there. He gets an unabashed and honest interview from a man who may have been wary of talking to any outsiders. The film which is considered the “discovery” of the film is made by a boy named Muhammed, (nicknamed “Little Muhammed”). It is a 2:20 minute-long shot of a boy playing in the mud. The filmmakers choose to call it “The Boy and the Mud.” Muhammed shoots his friend playing with water passing in a small stream, pulling it on to the soil and turning it in to mud. If this description makes one shrug with apathy, the key to it is the narration which Muhammed provides. “The boy is playing with the mud. He is using the water to turn the soil in to mud, because this is all we have to play with where we are. He is giving his dreams to the water and the soil. He is giving his dreams to the mud. He would like to build a house from this mud.” Muhammed then pauses in his stream-of-consciousness poetry to direct his friend: “Keep playing with the mud. Keep playing with it and make more.” A born director. While it may not be a work of genius, it is incredibly impressive that an 8-year-old boy who has little exposure to cinema at all knows innately how to narrate and direct a film, as well as how to make adjustments to the shot. I enjoyed this film thoroughly, finding it thoughtful and beautiful. Ironically, having just praised the novice filmmaker's narration skills, I could I have used less of Cousins' constant narration in every scene. Many of the images tell the stories just fine on their own and don't need his intrusive description. Nevertheless, his true affinity for the kids comes across and one gets the sense that they are truly discovering a new part of themselves through the creation of their films.

Saturday, March 12

The next day, I saw another documentary with a far more complicated story to tell. Better This World is the story of two friends from Midland, texas who became increasingly disillusioned and angry at the state of their country and the role which it was playing in the world after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. They dabble in revolutionary group meetings and are soon pulled in to a group in Austin, by a man known in the media for his activism in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. As the SXSW blurbs state: “The result: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high stakes entrapment defense hinging on a controversial FBI informant.” Like I said, this one is very complex and in order to get all of the details, you'd need to just watch it. It is exceptionally well made, tightly edited and incredibly informative. While it's also emotional, filmmakers Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway do not indulge in the melodrama of the situation. They succeed in making a thoughtful and provoking portrait of two young men who saw themselves as true patriots and the agents who viewed them as a threat to the country they love.

Sunday, March 13

I had a minor break on Sunday evening, and couldn't resist stopping by the Paramount (a gorgeous movie palace where the likes of Harry Houdini and Katherine Hepburn have graced the stage) to catch a few minutes of Win Win. Director Tom McCarthy was in attendance, as were Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Alex Schaffer. McCarthy is proving himself one of the most well-rounded talents in the business. In addition to his work as an actor (remember that smarmy, lying reporter in season 5 of The Wire?), his two previous directorial efforts (The Station Agent, The Visitor) were both home runs. I only got to see the first 45 minutes of this one before jetting off to another venue, but I think it's safe to say that he has another win winner on his hands. Sorry, I had to do it.


Joshua Blevins Peck said...

Going to a screening this week of WIN WIN...really looking forward to it! You're right about TM--he's a multi-talented guy.

the hidden staircase said...

saw a poster for 'win win'...and didn't realize it was TM's. i love 'the station agent' and re-watched with friend jamie a few months ago. also like 'the visitor' and recommended to my mom. a TM movie with paul giamatti sounds awesome...eventhough i have zero interest in hs wrestling!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

SJ and I saw a press screening for WIN WIN a couple of nights ago and it's really good. Probably my favorite new film of the year so far. Even the wrestling stuff is good!

Detrola said...

I really enjoyed Win Win, very sweet movie. Big props to first time actor Alex Shaffer the chill little wrestler dude who apparently is a New Jersey state champion!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

Now we know why the wrestling scenes were so realistic in the film then. Nice reportage Detrola!