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Emptying the SXSW Film notebook: Doc edition



Rahsaan Roland Kirk in The Case of the Three Sided Dream
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 'The Case of the Three Sided Dream'

I can't really add anything to what's being reported on last night's fatal car crash, except to note that not two days ago I mentioned a guy who spent all of last year's SXSW in a hospital after being struck by an SUV - and that during the last SXSW I attended before this one, in 2011, the wonderful Kate Lamont withstood pretty significant facial injuries after interacting with a motorized vehicle (you may remember a local benefit show afterwards to help pay for medical bills). But the show will go on pretty much exactly as planned, says SXSW managing director Roland Swenson, and like just about everyone here, I'll be getting to some afternoon showcases - just as soon as I empty out this notebook full of stuff I just haven't had the time to write about.


The Legend of Shorty

A guerilla doc about two guys trying to find Mexican drug lord numero uno Chapo Guzman ties for the profoundest thing I saw during the fest (the other being the Jury Prize winner for Best Doc, The Great Invisible, which I'll get to in a second if you'll just be patient, geez). The pretty darn brazen conceit was that co-directors Angus Macqueen and Guillermo Galdos would challenge the U.S. and Mexican governments' contention that Guzman was impossible to find by using their meager resources and connections to score an interview. And as Macqueen put it, talking after Friday night's world premiere, "the authorities got to him just before he went on camera" (you may have heard that Guzman was arrested this February, more than a decade after he "escaped" from a "maximum-security" Mexican "prison").

Who knows how much Macqueen is inflating his own efforts, but the doc shows that they got to Chapo's hometown, in a region apparently completely ruled by drug gangs who grow opium and marijuana with impunity, and scored an interview with Chapo's mom and some of his employees and cohorts. Which raises a question: Knowing that it's pretty much open season on journalists investigating the drug trade in Northern Mexico, why would anyone embark on such a foolhardy project? The answer, according to Macqueen, is that "foreign journalists, if they're sensible, are safe" and that it's those journalists actually living in Mexico who could be eliminated by either the drug gangs or the government (or both) at any moment.

One of those brave journalists, prominently featured in the film, was in the house for the premiere: Anabel Hernandez, a freelance journalist who gets to righteously and justifiably attack Chapo and his crew during the film, emphasizing the complicity of a Mexican government which allowed him to operate as he saw fit until his recent arrest (which both the directors and Hernandez agree is unlikely to alter the situation considerably; they doubt, for instance, that he'll be extradited to the States). Hernandez said after the film that Chapo and his fellow gangsters are "primitive people," and that because Chapo's lower-key partner in the Sinaloa cartel is still in charge and the cartel remains in power, "northing has really changed."

While I'm suspicious of anti-drug arguments that place the blame for complex geopolitical situations squarely on the shoulders of drug users ("you know you're supporting the Taliban when you smoke that opium, jerk") - if only because we're complicit in the suffering of others when we buy just about any consumer good - I certainly felt bad about every joint I ever smoked as I saw the footage of journalists, gangsters and innocent bystanders slaughtered in all kinds of creative ways on the streets of Culiacán, home base for the Sinaloa cartel, from beheadings to hangings to old-fashioned drive-bys (Chapo evidently killed his own son by accident in one of those drive-bys). Indeed, it's hard to tell who isn't complicit in the ongoing brutality taking place just south of us.

One more note: The Legend of Shorty's storyline is moved forward in large part by a soundtrack made up of original songs in the style of narcocorridos - and it's such a wise and clever choice on the part of the filmmakers. They give a sense of how these gangsters are glorified and mythologized - and give the doc the sort of exciting forward momentum which can be found lacking in your average public media documentary.


The Great Invisible

Here's a fact from The Great Invisible, about the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, that I felt compelled to jot down: Revenue from sales of offshore oil revenue drill rights is the second biggest source of funds for the U.S. Treasury department (trailing only tax revenue). And to be sure, the same organization that sells off those rights is in charge of regulating drilling. So it only makes sense Congress hasn't passed any sort of new safety legislation concerning oil drilling in the way of the disaster, according to the documentary.

Aw hell, here's another film where no one is innocent. Yes, you're part of the culture that allows giant evil corporations like BP, Transocean and Halliburton to not only destroy our planet in a gradual way, but cut costs and employees to the bone on drilling platforms such that redundant safeguards become ever less redundant, and 11 guys end up losing their lives so that we might have $3 oil. That's not to mention the survivors, prominently featured in the doc, who suffer from PTSD, consider or attempt suicide, and generally find themselves cast aside by the predictably evil Transocean, which operated the platform, constructed by Halliburton, on behalf of BP.

Director Margaret Brown emphasized after the film that she didn't make an "environmental documentary"; that it's not quite right for eco film festivals; that she couldn't really discuss the impact of dispersants (used to clean up the oil spill) on the environment, partly because we won't know the impact for at least another decade; and that she wasn't really looking to provide any answers to help resolve the situation. As she puts it, it's not a "green but gray film," in the sense that it attempts to present a truthful, complex portrait of the situation (although it does offer a website and opportunity to get involved at the close of the film, and only a deluded apologist would think the subject deserves a balanced treatment which gives credence to misinformation disseminated by an industry which already controls the narrative in a Congress and White House that just can't resist a few good payoffs).

So what does Brown actually do in the film? She visits with those living along the coastline whose lives were impacted (often ruined) by the oil spill, from the poor shrimpers and oyster-catchers and -shuckers who are either out of work or working much less; to a tugboat captain who takes a long view on the industry as he works reduced hours; to those folks who survived the explosion, including Doug Brown, the rig's chief mechanic, who was forced to take shortcuts that led to the tragedy, and who now finds himself wracked by guilt for having lost so many men under his watch.

Brown obviously spends plenty of time with her subjects and cuts to the core with well-chosen scenes and interviews, and we get the sense of how an accident miles away can throw off the equilibrium of communities that were perhaps on the borderline between poverty and self-sustainability, but which offered a way of life and inspired pride of place. But what do you know? By the close of the film, the docks are up and running and people are back to work - that is, in the staging area for oil rigs and tugboats. As for those shrimp whose veins are still coursing with black gold - well, it'll be a little longer before they're ready to be harvested, and besides, the big money is not in shrimp.



I walked out of a new documentary about Dan Harmon and his podcast, Harmontown, thinking: "That it was better than it had any right to be." Not that Harmon isn't funny and brilliant and troubled and open about his troubles, but the setup felt a bit contrived - to follow Harmon and crew on the road for a January 2013 tour of his show, the first time on the road for Harmon but certainly not his co-host, Jeff Davis, whom you may know from Whose Line It Is Anyway? and other improv comedy.

But, you know, none of it felt forced, and director Neil Berkeley was careful about pacing out the "you changed my life, Dan" moments, mixing them in with Harmon's self-loathing monologues or backstory on Harmon's writing and directing jobs (including The Sarah Silverman Show and the cult fave pilot Heat Vision and Jack). Berkeley, who also directed an excellent doc on artist Wayne White, gets a lot of credit for putting together a movie that captures the fun and energy of the podcast while suggesting why people connect with Harmon's honesty as he negotiates a new relationship and what would appear to be full-fledged alcoholism.

But guess who the real hero of the film is: Harmontown's resident Dungeon Master Spencer, a shy but very funny and totally adorable nerd who leaves his bedroom in his parents' house for the road trip, and overcomes the demons of anxiety and misanthropy along the way. Spencer holds his own, improv-wise, with Davis and Harmon, playfully translating their D&D moves in a way that makes the game actually seem fun and somehow appropriate for the stages of comedy clubs.


The Case of the Three Sided Dream

OK, one more doc to discuss (and all of above are worth a full-price movie ticket, by the way). I went out of my way to catch this feature on Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of our greatest jazz musicians, who would try just about anything to, as someone put it in the film, connect with the audience - playing three woodwinds at one time, making use of a nose whistle to imitate the sound of a cuckoo bird and generally pushing the boundaries of jazz in order to better realize his ideas (which he says came to him chiefly through dreams).

And while I thought it could have used a narrator or captions or some other way in order to communicate key facts about Kirk (familiarity is certainly assumed), The Case of the Three Sided Dream is an excellent riff on Kirk's life, featuring interviews with family members and close collaborators, animated sequences based on Kirk's music or interviews, and a whole bunch of archival footage that I hadn't seen before, including his one performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which is probably the best thing that ever happened on The Ed Sullivan Show (Roland Kirk and Mingus trading phrases in the intro to "Haitian Fight Song" with Ed fuming in the wings; it doesn't get better than that).


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