The Dynamic Beast That’s SXSW
Like an artist hell-bent on staving off stagnation, South By Southwest (SXSW) is a dynamic beast, growing and becoming more complex but all the while staying true to its mandate for creative cross-pollination.
Now in its 26th year, the interactive festival focuses on film, music and technology over the next ten days. (The breakdown is the Technology (called Interactive) events run through March 11; the Film events through March 15, the Music events through March 16. For a complete schedule of the festival’s events visit the SXSW website.)
A surge in the number of Platinum badge holders (attendees who have registered to attend all three sections) is a testament to the desire of SX’ers to network with and appreciate the work of artists and innovators from other fields. According to its website: "For two weeks each March, Austin becomes the global epicenter for engaged creative professionals. The ability of SXSW to connect people across cultures and engage in ideas from a variety of disciplines remains the event’s core proposition."
Its tremendous popularity and growth are also paralleled by that of its host city, Austin, the booming progressive capital that is both hip and homey. It is barbeque and fancy fusion cuisine. Just as Austin is a fun playground for foodies (amusingly, when SX filmmakers are interviewed about what they are looking forward to at the fest, they repeatedly say ’barbeque’ and ’breakfast tacos’), SXSW is an exhilarating 9-day event for tech, film, and music professionals and enthusiasts.
It is a blissful convergence largely because it is regarded as inclusive and relatively devoid of snobbishness. At its inception in 1987 it was all about the music. Film officially joined the party in 1994, a move that made sense given the strong community of filmmakers in Austin and Texas. Since then it has become renowned as an unpretentious annual destination, a post-Park City showground for the best independent American talent that isn’t too serious-minded, that fearlessly tosses in more mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare with political documentaries and art-house dramas. This is low-brow/high-brow mishmash at its best.
As for its growth and expansion, 2013’s festival saw 400 screenings and nearly 155,000 attendees and 41,700 badge holders, exploding the previous record. And there are now components such as a gaming expo, SXEducation conference, a startup pitch competition known as SXSW Accelerator, and, as of 2013, screenings of exciting developments from the small screen, such as this year’s screening of "From Dusk Till Dawn: the Series", with its mastermind, local boy Robert Rodriguez, in attendance. If all that is sprouting from the fertile SXSW ground makes your head spin, just focus on the quality cinema on offer. Cine-discoveries, both foreign and domestic, will be as plentiful as the beers on tap at Ginger Man, just one of Austin’s downtown establishments sure to be swamped next week.
Appropriately enough, the opening night selection is "Chef," a zesty story about a man (director Jon Favreau) who flees the clutches of a domineering restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) to launch a food truck in Miami with family members and a friend (John Leguizamo). Not to dwell on food, but Austin prides itself on its clever and ubiquitous food trucks (personal favorites involve such things as kimchi fries, curry wraps, and vegan bbq), as well as its buoyant spirit.
But another pleasing thing about the festival is that numerous films play concurrently on opening night, so if this culinary adventure isn’t to a guest’s taste, they can opt for something else, such as a program of Texas Shorts or "The Dog," one of four LGBT-themed documentaries playing the fest this year. "The Dog" tells the jaw-dropping story that inspired the 1975 hit "Dog Day Afternoon," starring Al Pacino. A Brooklyn man attempts to rob a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex change operation and stirs up a veritable media frenzy. Now John Wojtowicz tells his outrageous story in his own words.
Risk and challenge
"Born to Fly" is another of the LGBT docs. I had the privilege of viewing before the festival begins, and it’s quite a thrill. Someone unacquainted with the work of Elizabeth Streb, such as myself, might wonder why a film about dance is part of the SXsports section? Isn’t dance an art form, not a sport?
Well, watching this account of the daredevil dancer come choreographer’s hell-bent mission to make people fly, will illuminate where the two meet. The New Yorker describes herself as an "extreme action architect," and the movements she orchestrates are not about grace; they are about risk and challenge, with audiences wowed by the performers’ proximity to destruction, often in the use of apparatuses. It’s quite a spectacle to behold, and Streb is a compelling force to observe and listen in on.
More on the Festival as it unfolds. Stay tuned.