I thought my first time at the SXSW Festival would involve food trucks stained with barbeque sauce, someone called Hal at a micro-brewery, live music in cult venues, dark rooms with the sweet, savoury scent of fresh popcorn, then kicking back at my boutique hotel with my goody bags. But this is 2021, Covid-19 is still with us, so South By must take place online and it’s here I find myself, of a weekday evening, choosing content to watch that won’t interfere with my 6am alarm for work (time difference y’see), sat in my pyjamas at the computer, no make-up, excitedly trawling through the well-organised SXSW online schedule. Where to start??
I’m a big film fan so it’s the private film screenings that grab my attention and there’s so much to choose from at SXSW. Let’s start with the shorts. The winner of this years’ SXSW Jury Award Winner for Animated Shorts is Nuevo Rico, directed by Kristian Mercado Figueroa. An animated piece about a brother and sister who stumble upon a celestial secret that changes their lives forever. They are suddenly propelled into Reggaeton stardom, but soon discover that their newfound fame comes at a deep price. Figueroa is a Puerto Rican filmmaker living in Spanish Harlem whose music-driven short Pa’lante won the SXSW Jury Award in 2019, so we know we’re in good hands. The film opens with bright, bold anime inspired animation, total nods to Akira, the Japanese post-apocalyptic cyberpunk manga film. I like the mix of animated content, there are scenes of stop-motion characters that are vivid in colour, psychedelic almost. Even though the film begins in a futuristic style, it has retro throwbacks throughout. Figueroa is known for his distinct voice, addressing issues of identity, family, and systemic oppression across race and class. His work is celebrated for its poetic portrayal of working-class struggles. I definitely felt its poetry; “the gods still haunt me” says Barbie, the sister of the siblings who battles to do the right thing. A cool, powerful short that is direct from the filmmakers’ distinctive palate.
I saw two other shorts at the festival, The Mohel, the story of a man caught between the worlds of religion and money as he prepares for his son’s Brit Milah ceremony. This was well-acted and well written (by Charles Wahl, who also produced and directed), it had a strong thread with a noir feel and I found myself wanting more at the end. The other short was a documentary, from Canada, beautifully filmed by Amar Chebib called Joe Buffalo, the true story of an Indigenous skateboard legend who is also a survivor of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School system. Following a traumatic childhood and decades of addiction, Joe must face his inner demons to realize his dream of turning pro. It was gripping from the get go, I didn’t know anything about this history and was glad to feel educated from watching this film. A true story of hope and survival, something we all need right now, with some gnarly skating scenes of course. I just said gnarly everyone.
I was lucky enough to sit down to a couple of live screened events – one being for the feature film screening of Recovery, a tale of two directionless sisters who decide to brave a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home. Starring Whitney Call and Mallory Everton as the two sisters, this is almost a comedy horror with its sense of Covid-panic inducing scenes of tension and preposterousness rolled into one, making for an uncomfortable watch! I really enjoyed the humour in it and its quiet direction by Everton and Stephen Meek, the way they dealt with this virus ruled world we now live in was inspired, and so relatable. I definitely felt part of the sisters’ dialogue, it was like I was in the backseat with them. The second screened event I booked on for was a Q&A with the actor, comedian, writer, producer and director, Bill Hader. This was a virtual conversation between Hader and Olympic runner, actress and author Alexi Pappas, discussing their experiences with their own mental health and how it’s affected them in their working life. Hader was expectedly laid-back and down-to-earth, speaking candidly about how anxiety has reared its head in situations for him, and how it took him a while to plug away in the business before grabbing a lucky break. My only gripe was how short this talk was! More Bill Hader!
It wasn’t all pyjamas and hard-backed chair hilarity, I missed the boat on watching the SXSW premiere of Clerk, the documentary all about, yup, cult director, writer and actor, Kevin Smith. I was looking forward to this but, you snooze you lose, literally in this case.
I’ve had a brief ball with SXSW 2021 online, I may not have had a sweet weekend hangover and my clothes don’t smell of barbeque, but I’ve always wanted to go to South By so it was a real honour and privilege to attend this iconic festival for Joyzine.
SXSW 2022 has just been announced for 11th-20th March – get all the latest details at sxsw.com
Review by Jo Overfield