The 2017 SXSW Conference & Festival starts this Friday, March 10-19 in Austin, Texas. Organisers call it “the most diverse, collaborative and inventive communities in the world.” Joe Biden and Jill Stein are going to be there—not to mention hundreds of musical acts, comedians, and, most important to me, movies.
Seattleites still have a couple of months to wait before SIFF 2017 rolls back into town. (May 18-June 11, mark your calendars!) In the meantime, for those of you lucky ducks headed to Texas this weekend at SXSW, here’re a few good documentaries making their world premiere.
The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin
Documentary Spotlight – World Premiere
Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot and Bill Weber
This warm, entertaining and, at times, bittersweet film features the life of renowned writer Armistead Maupin. A San Fransisco staple for many decades, we learn first about Maupin’s dubious upbringing as a conservative overachiever in the deep South. In many ways, Maupin’s story reflects what so many gay men went through as they came to discover themselves in a less forgiving American culture.
Maupin’s desire to make his emotionally distant father proud will doubtless resonate with not just gays, but all kinds of misfits. He could have so easily been consumed and beaten by a drive to conform. That is what makes his eventual self-realization, exodus to San Fransisco and coming out such a delight to witness.
Along the way, we hear from a series of familiar faces in Maupin’s life, including Neil Gaiman, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McCellan and Amy Tan. If you weren’t aware of Maupin before, the film makes his influence on our culture immediately apparent. For example, the 1993 PBS adaptation of his column in The Chronicle, “Tales From the City,” broke serious ground in its depiction of gays and trans people on television. And if you’re not already aware of Maupin’s connection to beloved Hollywood icon Rock Hudson, get ready for a salacious, fascinating bit of gossip.
Visions – World Premiere
A film by Parker Smith
Ramblin’ Freak is a great example of what makes festivals like these so special—you might never get a chance to see a film as raw and precious as this one anywhere else. A self-described “three-time film school dropout,” Parker Smith made his way to Austin, Texas from his home in Kentucky with a desire to make weird little films, and here we are.
The story begins when Smith bought an old school camera on Ebay. The original owners left behind footage of internet bodybuilding sensation Gregg Valentino. For reasons better left unrevealed, Smith felt a serendipitous connection to the man in the footage and based his film around his journey to New York to meet Valentino. (He is, by the way, a gracious and dynamic subject).
There’s not a lot more to it than that. The film looks cheap, I suspect by both necessity and design. (Don’t forget that it’s shot on one of those cameras with the tiny little analogue tapes). Smith drives to Valentino in a minivan with his cat inside. Long, uninterrupted takes of the two of them eating and hanging out in the back should be boring. And yet somehow, the filmmaker manages to create intrigue out of these ordinary moments.
A quote from the untouchable documentarian and filmmaker Werner Herzog at the beginning of Ramblin’ Freak offers an important clue about Smith’s headspace. I mean, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. This isn’t exactly Herzog’s Into the Abyss (among my all-time favorite films and not to be trifled with)… but it’s speaking Herzog’s language.
A couple of pre-teen twins with a makeup tutorial show on YouTube make frequent appearances throughout, adding to the mystery. The critical moment came for me during an eerie diversion featuring a series of fatal car crashes, also collected from YouTube. ‘Holy shit,’ I said. ‘This is a movie about death. It’s profound and frightening inevitability and the people and cats that death leaves behind.’
What’s the story with those twins? And how exactly does the bodybuilder from the Bronx fit into all of this??
Documentary Feature Competition – World Premiere
Directed by Jairus McLearly
And now for something really mind-blowing. The Work takes us deep inside Folsom Prison to witness a four-day group therapy workshop. Yes, it’s as intense and intimate as it sounds. The program pairs prison inmates (many of them lifers) with men from the outside. Right out of the gates, shit gets real.
You don’t need me to tell you that our culture has some issues with “toxic masculinity.” Nowhere is that more apparent than in a prison yard, filled to the brim with powerful men so afraid of their feelings that they’ll commit murders or worse to avoid confronting their vulnerability.
The inmates are fascinating and courageous. Most of them are veterans of the program and are there to mentor the newcomers in the process. Have you ever in life seen a hulking man who’s admitted to cutting another man in half later break down in tears? No, but really. For real. It’s okay to cry.
Meet three men in particular from the outside: a 25-year-old kid without a lot of direction or purpose in life; an angry-as hell-dude with a huge chip on his shoulder; and a middle-aged bartender who grew up with an incarcerated father. The difference between all of them melts away and what we’re left with is a raw, terrible but ultimately cathartic exorcism of so much pent up pain.
Nearly all of the men are affected by absent or emotionally unavailable fathers. It’s a question that keeps coming up, both in documentary films and in my own life. I mention this only because I suspect that men without fathers are a cultural issue that has or will affect every one of us, one way or another. And it’s a void in our lives that’s begging for a solution.
The Work is a film of tremendous power, capable of breaking your heart and then mending it, over and over again.
Visit the festival’s official page for a complete list of these and all the other events playing at SXSW 2017, March 10-17 in Austin, Texas.