Day 5: Tuesday, March 13
The biggest problem I have at SXSW is finding time to write these updates. At Sundance, I’m usually doing coverage for Salt Lake City Weekly’s special daily issues and thus have a deadline of 11:30 or so each night. At SXSW, I have no such deadlines, and there’s a lot more fun stuff to do late at night, and so I wind up not getting back to Maison de la Casa del Greg until 2:30 or 3 a.m., at which point I’m too exhausted to do anything other than undress and fall into bed, and sometimes I can’t even manage that. Sometimes I remain fully clothed and just pass out in the doorway.
It was a festival of documentaries for me today, five of ‘em, and not a bad one in the lot. It’s funny that just yesterday, I was commenting to someone that I hadn’t been in the mood for the docs this year, and then today I see five in a row. That’s what we in the writing profession call “dramatic irony,” especially if we are not very good writers.
I started at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse at 11 a.m. with “Steal a Pencil for Me.” The description in the film guide mentioned the word “Holocaust,” which is one of the reasons I hadn’t been that keen on seeing it at what has otherwise been a fun, upbeat festival. But then I overheard two different strangers in two different places say it was one of the best documentaries they’d ever seen in their lives, and I became intrigued. You gotta follow the buzz at film festivals. It’s how you find the hidden gems.
“Steal a Pencil for Me” is a love story, really, about a Dutch couple who survived the war together and have now been married for 60 years. At the time, however, the man was married to a bitter shrew, even as he was falling in love with this other woman, thus creating a romantic triangle in the Nazi concentration camps.
I concur with the strangers: This is one of the most extraordinarily lovely documentaries I’ve ever seen. It has the Holocaust stuff that will make you cry, and then the sweet, gentle love story on top of that. Is there anything dearer than two 90-year-olds who are still as much in love now as they were 60 years ago? It almost makes you not hate old people anymore, just for a few minutes. On top of that, the film has gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful musical score. It makes you cry big, happy tears over and over again, or at least it did me.
I had planned to go downtown for my next film, a documentary called “Helvetica” — yes, a documentary about fonts, and yes, I was nerdy enough to be excited about it. But I would have to come BACK to South Lamar after that, so rather than hassle with all that traveling, I elected to just stay at South Lamar. Besides, the next South Lamar film was a doc about Darfur, and I thought that between that and “Steal a Pencil for Me,” I’d have myself a nice genocide double feature.
“The Devil Came on Horseback” is the film, and it’s about an ex-Marine who went to Sudan in 2004 to help oversee the recently declared ceasefire that was supposed to end that country’s lengthy civil war. While there, a new problem emerged, as the country’s super-poor western region known as Darfur became the target of systematic torture, rape, and murder by squads backed by the central government. The mission then is to let the world know what’s going on, because the Geneva Convention says that if there’s genocide a-happenin’, everyone’s supposed to butt in and do something about it. We’re all for sovereign nations handling their own affairs, but you’re not allowed to slaughter your own people by the thousands, sorry.
It’s a horrific story and a harrowing film, and no one was more horrified and harrowed by it than the well-dressed, Upper West Side-style 50-year-old woman sitting next to me. She was an audible reactor: Whenever some particularly awful bit of information was presented in the film, she would say, out loud, “Oh my G–!” At one point, the Marine is talking about how all he could do was take pictures and send reports. This prompted the woman to say, loudly, “TO WHO?!” It was apparent that she was sickened and frustrated by what was going on, and that she wanted to make sure we all knew how sickened and frustrated she was. No sense in being socially conscious unless your neighbors all know about it.
This was two movies in a row that I’d watched by myself (that is to say, with no friends next to me; I wasn’t alone in the theater), which I think is the first time I’d been alone all week. Fortunately, I was joined for the next one by Eugene, who had just come from watching movies by himself downtown. Apparently it was the day for that.
Documentary No. 3 was “Manufacturing Dissent,” in which a Canadian TV journalist stalks Michael Moore throughout 2004, attempting to get an interview with him. In the process, she tells us about Moore’s background, his life, and some of the shady ways he has manipulated facts in his films.
It’s not an anti-Moore film, really; it’s more of a “let’s pay closer attention to the way our messengers present their messages” thing. I got the feeling the woman feels the same way about Moore that most liberals do: She agrees with a lot of his positions, but she disagrees with his methods.
Of course, if you’re supposed to take Moore’s documentaries with a grain of salt, what are we supposed to do with “Manufacturing Dissent”? I guess next someone has to make a documentary exposing all the things “Manufacturing Dissent” got wrong, and so on and so forth. And the circle of life continues!
Next up: “Lost in Woonsocket,” a pretty solid doc about a good-deed-doing reality TV show that got much more involved with a particular case than they usually do. The case had two men who had lost their jobs and homes to alcoholism and were now living in a tent in Woonsocket, R.I. The do-gooders helped them get sober, then found they kept being drawn back into their lives as things progressed.
Elements of the film are stirring and inspiring, though there is just a bit too much self-congratulatory “look how much good we’re doing!” for my tastes. But only a bit. Mostly I really liked the film, and I was delighted that one of the alcoholics (now sober) was on hand to take questions afterward, as were some other people who appeared in the movie. And it’s only a little ironic that the screening was at the Alamo Drafthouse, where beer and wine are served in abundance and the drinking of them encouraged.
(A friend reported later seeing some of the people involved with the film’s production — but not the alcoholics — at a bar, buying drink after drink. In fact, they tried to use drinks to ply a good review from my friend. I guess it makes sense that after their experiences with the Woonsocket guys, the filmmakers would truly know the power of alcohol. Although I guess they were probably joking about the beer-for-review thing.)
I finally left the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse and went to the other one, the original, downtown. Movie No. 5 was “Confessions of a Superhero,” which tells the stories of four of the would-be actors who make their living dressing as superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard and posing for pictures with tourists. A Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Hulk were featured, but there are plenty of Spider-Men, SpongeBobs, Ghost Riders, Elvises, and Marilyn Monroes out there, too. Clearly they filmed more characters than they needed and chose the four most interesting ones for the film, and the ones that made the cut are hilarious and fascinating. They all want to be movie stars, the Batman guy has serious anger-management issues and claims to have committed murders in his past, and Superman is straight-up crazy. He also looks remarkably similar to Christopher Reeve and is the same height. His name is even Christopher. He’s not as buff and muscular as Superman was, but I guess he’s probably about as buff and muscular as Christopher Reeve is now.
I had a couple options for the midnight slot, neither of which particularly appealed to me. Besides, seeing one would have made this a six-movie day, and that sort of marathon should not be taken lightly. There was a party at Maggie Mae’s celebrating the end of the film conference and the beginning of the music part of SXSW, and Maggie Mae’s is usually a good time, so I headed over there. Found Erik Childress, talked to him for a while.
Also ran into Spencer Berger, writer and star of “Skills Like This,” which won the audience award for best film in competition. That surprised me — I thought the film was really funny, but not all-time-favorite funny — and then I looked at the other movies in the category and thought, “Yeah, I guess that’s about right.” Anyway, Berger was cool, excited to have won the audience prize, optimistic about the film’s future. Nice guy, good to see him having success at the festival.
Then I saw Ryan Jones, director of “Fall from Grace,” the Fred Phelps documentary. I told him I’d enjoyed the film and asked if I could ask him a question that had occurred to me later. In the movie, Phelps never talks about love and heaven; he talks exclusively about what God hates (fags, and anyone who isn’t actively persecuting fags) and who’s going to hell (pretty much everyone). I asked Jones, “In the time you spent with him, did he EVER talk about God’s love, or who’s going to heaven, or was it only hate and hell?”
Jones said that was pretty much right. In Phelps’ view, his Westboro Baptist Church is the only one doing God’s will, and thus only they are going to heaven. They’re the only ones God loves. I was glad to have it confirmed that Phelps, consumed with hate, anger, and obsession, is probably the least Christ-like Christian I know of. Jones and I agreed that if heaven will be pretty much just the Phelps family, we probably don’t want to go there anyway. Hell’s where all the cool people are.