by Jessica Mosby
The annual South by Southwest film, interactive, and music festivals are one of the highlights of my year. In 2011 I attended South by Southwest for the first time, and while I had fun, being a novice was often a bit distressing. I generally felt that I had to do everything, even when it was not physically possible. I would lament that I missed this film or that event, completely overlooking the fact I had spent days in dark theaters watching four or five films in straight succession.
Although I saw so many great films at SXSW this year, it is the documentaries that really stand out. The following five are my favorites. Each film is unique, well-done, and thought-provoking. Home from Austin for almost a week now, I am still thinking about these films and recommending them to anyone who will listen.
Brooklyn Castle is my favorite documentary of SXSW. A documentary featuring kids working hard and succeeding when the odds are against them is my kind of documentary. I just love to feel inspired for 101 minutes! New York City’s I.S. 318, an inner city intermediate school with a poverty rate close to 70 percent, has overcome being “school in need of improvement” through the power of chess. Devoted teachers and administrators work after hours to tutor the chess team on strategy, organize trips to tournaments, and mentor kids who take any loss particularly hard. While there are some amazing chess players on the team, filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore also profiles students who struggle academically and use chess to improve their grades, concentration, and self-esteem. At I.S. 318, there is room for everyone on the team. The honesty between the adults and students is admirable. Teachers and chess coaches do not baby or falsely inflate the students’ egos. The only way to become a better chess player is to work hard and study. While tragedy almost strikes with the current economic downtown jeopardizing the chess program, the school scrambles to makeup the funding. The larger message of Brooklyn Castle is that a relatively small amount of money allocated to public schools can transform kids’ lives, and cutting that money endangers otherwise bright futures.
Dreams of a Life
The story documented in Dreams of a Life is literally my greatest fear: To die alone and not be found for years. The 90-minute documentary is like the plot of a crime drama TV show, but without the tidy resolution. Joyce Vincent died alone in her London apartment in 2003 at the age of 38 while watching TV and wrapping holiday presents. When she was found three years later the TV was still on! For those intervening years, none of her friends, coworkers, or large family came looking for her. Her apartment was located in a busy part of the city, and Vincent did not live a hermitic life. Filmmaker Carol Morley tries to solve this bizarre and tragic case by featuring extensive interviews with friends and coworkers. While there are no real answers, the case is fascinating. Vincent was a complicated and secretive woman who kept people at an arm’s length. The character study that emerges does not solve the case, but challenges the viewers to think about their own lives and the lives of people they think they know.
Eating locally for one year has almost become clichéd. It seems that there is always some new foodie starting a blog or tweeting about efforts to eat locally. Most live in places like Northern California, with abundant farmers markets, and where this is no real challenge. I therefore approached Andrew Beck Grace’s 62-minute film with some skepticism. Grace and his wife, both native Alabamans, returned to their home state with mixed emotions. After looking to their individual genealogy and romanticizing their predecessors’ agricultural livelihoods, Grace and his wife challenged themselves to eat locally for one year. But Alabama is not California. Eating locally is actually very challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. The story that emerges is as much about a couple reintegrating themselves into the community of their home state after a self-imposed absence, as it is about the state of mechanized agriculture in Alabama. The days of the family farmer growing diversified crops and living off the fruits of their bounty is sadly an archaic relic of simpler time. But Grace meets a number of young farmers who want to return to eating off the land and recreate a sense of community. Eating Alabama is as much about the food Grace ate as the people he met while buying and growing that food.
Full disclosure: I love documentaries about cults, particularly if they are set in the 1970s. There was no way I could not see The Source. The 105-minute film by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos chronicles the rise and fall of the Source Family. At its height the Los Angeles-based group had 140 members; most were young and attractive, and all proclaimed their devotion to Father Yod (real name: Jim Baker). The Source Family operated a hip LA restaurant, appropriately called the Source Restaurant, and recorded 65 psychedelic albums in their home studio. Everyone in the group changed their name taking on a unique first name (Electricity, Isis, etc), the middle name “the,” and the last name “Aquarian.” The Source Family embodied every stereotype about left-leaning Californians in the 1970s. Unlike many famous cults, the Source Family did not end in tragedy. Rather, everyone slowly disbanded after Father Yod’s death. Wille and Demopoulos weave the extensive archival footage (the family had an official historian) with current interviews of former members. The Source does not romanticize the group, but rather creates a realistic portrait of why people chose to join the family, and how that experience continues to affect their lives decades later.
WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
I am always excited to see a film with a strong feminist message. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s 65-minute documentary WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines fits that bill. The documentary explores the creation, evolution, and legacy of America’s most famous female superhero: Wonder Woman. Guevara-Flanagan does a great job condensing the history of Wonder Women while paying special attention to her fans. Comics were generally a male-dominated genre where women were portrayed as waiting around to be saved by the male superhero, but that formula was challenged when Wonder Woman appeared on the comic scene in the 1940s. Her creation was directly linked to the elevated role of women in order to keep America running during World War II. But just like the women who were sent home when the men returned from WWII and reclaimed their jobs, Wonder Woman has not always been written as a tough as nails broad out to save the day. She has gone through a number of transformations that mirror the fluctuating status of women in American society. The continued relevance of Wonder Woman’s legacy, especially in the lives of young girls, makes WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines a documentary worthy of attention.
About the Author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.