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SXSW 2021: A Whirlwind of Films from Around the World

Fifteen years ago, I was delighted by an impromptu visit from a friend. He appeared in the door of my office and asked me to help him staff a first year film festival. What he knew was that I possessed a “very particular set of skills.” But even I couldn’t have imagined that I would staff an entire film festival in a matter of hours. T’was a professional coup, from what I understand, that still echoes in the dark corners of (once Bacchanalian, now somewhat more reserved) festival afterparties. 

I’m now (long retired from my post) introduced to volunteers with those two coveted letters: O.G. It’s important for us to have this understanding before I confess that…It took me two days to figure out how to pilot the SXSW app.

The learning corkscrew–to call it a curve would ring hella trite—nearly sabered the effervescent enthusiasm I harbored for this (my maiden) Fest-In-Place voyage. But as the fog slowly lifted, I began to catch a glimpse of the spoils.

Molly GillisPLAISIR was my “first.” Imagine the delight of opening this initially confounding, virtual festival via the tale of an adventurous girl, unable to speak the language, but absolutely on board for dinner plate licking and bare breasted frolicking in the garden? All aboard! Molly, understandably a 2019 Spike Lee Production Fund recipient, was awarded the 2019 Princess Grace Foundation Cary Grant Film honor for this thesis short. I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for her next project.

Love Is Just A Death Away, a stop-motion love story, addresses the plight of melancholia and loneliness at the garbage dump. Singles who weathered 2020 can relate, yes? The intricacies of this animation grabbed me by the gut and applied just enough pressure to illuminate its indispensable role as the extraordinarily poignant backdrop for the film’s most endearing take-away. We are soft, vulnerable creatures—all of us—no matter the rag-tag nature of the exoskeleton we are articulating from Point A to Point B. Life, even that which tap dances on the flames of a dumpster fire, is a Love story.

Femme, Ng Choon Ping’s pilgrimage into the dark, violent, homophobic, drug-riddled den of iniquity where the film’s protagonist finds himself desperate to escape, brings us from the sobriety of one bad decision’s potential impact to the triumphant medicinal powers of the right tube of lipstick in the blink of an eye. What I was left with, also sobering, is the terror that a young boy in a mini skirt and a sequined shrug lives so imperceptibly close to. Each foot in front of the other, a potentially deadly step.

And beauty, long lauded as existing “in the eye of the beholder,” kept my queue on topic by serving up Udo Kier in Swan Song. If you’re up for a breathtaking performance, this is your feature. Kier’s Mister Pat, a dispirited nursing home patient, embarks upon an institutional escape and pilgrimage of metamorphosis with the gusto (and stamina he covers QUITE a bit of ground) of a young bull. Armed with little more than a cardboard sign advertising “free makeup tips,” a pink straw hat and a stolen backpack full of antiquated beauty supplies, he encounters angels, confronts demons and polishes off a bottle of Crown Royal. The scene, set by the realities of life outside the security of a matrimonial framework and illuminated by the cruel disparity of societal expanse, creates a canvas for Mister Pat to deliver the caliber of performance that any artist would be ecstatic to call their last. Beholder be damned. The beauty in this production was “coming from inside” the performances.

Women is Losers, an intimate portrait of an unsinkable Hispanic heroine, took me deeper into the den of inEQUITY. Even whilst employing my least favorite format for a feature, it took me to a place I’ll go willingly any day: Radical Empathy. Abortion, sexual discrimination, housing insecurity, domestic abuse and the inescapable nature of poverty are challenges that we can never-ever cultivate enough empathy to completely eradicate. But, like COVID vaccinations, we must revisit them until as many human beings are protected as we can plausibly hope to inoculate. In this film, I was particularly touched to see a topic reiterated that Stacey Abrams’ keynote speech featured: feminine ingenuity. Abrams, when told that she’d never get a spy novel published, submitted the same book as a romance. The rest is quite literarily herstory! Likewise, in this film, Celina triumphs when she explains that “they” wouldn’t rent her an apartment, or give her a loan for a house. And then counters that they will sell her land, upon which she can build a house.

Just in time for a welcome distraction, Squeegee serves up a torrid encounter between an erotically adventurous executive and the window washer of her daydreams! It’s a darling short that explores the realities of a face-to-face encounter with a lover who has previously existed, only, on the emotionally insulated opposite side of a piece of glass.

Meanwhile back in IRL, I was personally over-the-moon to spend some quality South By time with my sweetheart! Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes challenged us intellectually. Under the Volcano had us both ready and willing to grab a bag, stuff a single article of clothing inside and board the first island hopper they’d sell us a seat on. Justine Bateman’s Violet, as day-four-weary as we may have been, was a visual tour de force. And Without Getting Killed or Caught led us enthusiastically into a poetic road tour of art, love, loss, friendship, utter despair, lyrics that are so beautiful they’d never make a hit song and more than one all-night booze soaked bender. I wasn’t mad about it. Not even half a drop.

Now, this bit is for the Binge Bunch. Step aside “Stranger Things” and “Pretty Little Liars,” there are a couple of new kids in town and they are not afraid to steal your lunch money. “Sasquatch” and “Cruel Summer” left me desperately wanting more! Prepare yourself. Truly.  “Sasquatch” will appear on Hulu this Spring and “Cruel Summer” on Freeform in April.

Initial insecurities and frustrations aside, SXSW Online revealed itself as a treasure trove of inspiration and insight. I supplemented the Austin-in-Athens experience with a rack from Pulaski Heights BBQ. And tonight I’ll toast the 40-something films, sessions and keynotes I managed to consume with a Hoffbrau butter steak hack. I would even step out precariously onto a limb and posit that the boots-on-the-ground festival might, now, disappoint me in some ways. I mean… in what other forum could you expect to see Tik Tok’s “Global Head of Music” ask Mick Fleetwood to (essentially) tell the audience how awesome Tik Tok is? Or watch Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean fangirl over Michael Lewis? We’ve all been there! It’s just nice to know that the cool kids aren’t immune.

I’m going to end this dispatch on a much more somber, but infinitely necessary note. Please see The Drover’s Wife: Legend of Molly Johnson. The past year has given us ample opportunity to show up, step up and rise up. But what I’m asking you to do is sit down. “My Da, Jock Stewart, a Scot fell madly in love with a beautiful Ngarigo woman,” Leah Purcell’s Mrs. Johnson explains. “Their love was deep as the highest peek to the lowest valley and as wild as the snowy river,” she continues, borrowing a phrase from Rob Collins’ Yadaka. This film brings the atrocities of a hate homicide to our doorstep. To Molly’s doorstep. Viscerally, asking the audience to imagine that you walk out of your front door one morning to find the loveliest human being you’d ever encountered hanging from a tree. It isn’t something that is happening somewhere else, or happened in another time, or to someone else. It’s right here, now, happening in front of each and every one of us. And this film has us SIT with that. I was, immediately struck by the longing to put this 107 minutes in front of every single person that I know. It was that gorgeous, and necessary, and I tremble, even now, to line these words up on the page in a futile stab at homage. So I’ll zip it and reiterate: Please. See this movie.