This year was the longest I’ve spent in Austin. I got there a week early to attend SXSW Edu, and I had already spent much of the week loitering around the Austin Conference Centre attending sessions and I felt ready for what the main festival had in store for me.
This year’s SXSW felt different to previous years. Whereas in 2016 I felt SXSW had reached a point where it was becoming too big, this year felt much quieter and more pleasant. The previous week it had been cold during most of SXSW Edu, at times colder than London and the weather throughout the festival wasn’t anything like the temperatures I’ve come to expect. Maybe this put off students on Spring Break? During Music, there also appeared to be less free parties and no real big names and this for me was a good thing. Overall, I think this is my favourite SXSW.
After four days of sitting in sessions, I didn’t feel like attending too many Interactive sessions and other than a few space related sessions and a session on Marvel Comics, I did my best to catch films, tv premiers, documentaries, music and some of the other activities around town.
I tended to split my time each day between catching films and documentaries during the morning and early afternoon. Then heading off to music for the rest of the day. I’ll cover SXSW Music on my music blog
Although, SXSW was quieter this year, Film seemed to be busier. There were a few films I wanted to see I couldn’t get into and the queues for films like US, started hours before the film. Unfortunately, this usually meant missing something else interesting, and I ended up avoiding the satellite venues sticking to the Paramount, Stateside, Alamo, and the Conference Centre’s screen and avoiding most of the big evening Premiers.
Sadly, the busy status in the SXSW app was unreliable, often going from quiet to full in the space of five minutes which isn’t much use when you’re sitting on the shuttle between satellite venues. I found that the first showings each day worked best for me, often catching the first session at the Alamo or Stateside. I managed to catch 11 different showings. I think this is the most showings I’ve ever caught at SXSW.
What We Do In The Shadows (4/5)
What We Do In The Shadows was a low budget mockumentary written by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilder People, Thor Ragnarok). It was a comedy that documented the life of vampires living in modern day New Zealand.
Tonight was the Premier FX’s new TV series that supplants the vampires from New Zealand to New York or as Taika joked, that bit of Toronto that doesn’t look like New York.
One of my favourite films from SXSW 2016 was Taika’s ‘Hunt for the Wilder People’. It’s a great little comedy. Although Taika couldn’t make SXSW to introduce the film, he filmed a short five minute skit that had the audience doubled over with laughter.
Tonight’s Premier was introduced by Jemaine and Taika. Again, the audience we doubled over with laughter putting us all in a really receptive mood for the Premier
In all honesty, i was surprised to hear there was a TV series. The film felt like it explored what seemed like quiet a limited premise. However, the Premier was enjoyable, with nice dynamics between the cast. Whether the premise will stretch to a full 10 episodes is difficult to tell. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to catch it in the UK.
After the Premier, there was a fun Q&A with the entire cast
Them That Follows (2/5)
In the Bible, the Devil is represented as a serpent. Some Christians sects believe that those with true faith can dance with and tame snakes. This film takes place in one such sect with Mara, the daughter of the sect’s Pastor (Walton Goggins) struggling with faith, love and pregnancy. It’s a pretty standard story of somebody struggling to come to terms with what their faith means to them. For the first hour or so, the film is pretty miserable and when it takes a turn for the better, it’s does so in predictable fashion
One Man Who Dies a Thousand Times (1/5)
This is what the guide said
“A true story, set in the future. About seeds and genetic diversity, about growth and decay, about love and war, about hunger of all kinds. About what it means to be human, even when all your humanity is stripped away.” Genre: Drama, Experimental, Sci-Fi
What the guide should have said.
“Don’t spoil your day with this completely miserable film set in Leningrad during the three year siege during WW2. Based a true story of a Russian seed bank based in the city of Leningrad, it explores the morality of saving human life vs protecting future generations. The budget was clearly too small to deal with creating a period piece so it’s left anachronistic technology in place and called the picture a sci-fi. It’s not. It’s a film of interminable misery occasionally punctured by abject misery”
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenus (4/5)
The story of the Church of Subgenus was completely new to me. It was one of those silly ideas that grew into something that captured the imagination to many likeminded people. It was essentially a ‘fake’ religion, art project and fanzine. This entertaining documentary explored the Church’s history.
Apollo 11 (5/5)
Using film footage that been sitting in various archives, this impressive documentary captures the launch, landing and safe return of Apollo 11 on the moon. Much of the footage was completely new to me and the documentary team had managed to use the old film stock to create a cinematic experience that looked amazing on the big Conference centre screen. Through careful editing and colour grading, all footage looked like it was captured by a modern documentary team.
The biggest surprise was how the actual ‘first steps’ were handled. This wasn’t the footage we have seen thousands of times. I hadn’t realised that Buzz filmed the first steps from the window of the lander. The documentary team opted to use this footage and it gave the entire documentary a fresh feeling.
This film was weird and then got nasty. Really nasty. Essentially the story of a weird man who is scared of the outside world and lives off cereal, who finds somebody in his kitchen cooking him food. The person purports to be his neighbour and he’s concerned about Tito. A weird friendship with a power imbalance then develops, gradually drawing Tito out into the real world…..
I have to admit, I was finding this film a struggle for much of it’s running time. The nastiness of the final act, and a misguided porn sequence simply destroyed what little time I had for the film.
The Art of Self Defence (5/5)
Jesse Eisenberg puts in a Jesse Eisenberg performance as an accountant who’s attacked one evening by a motorcycle gang. Feeling insecure, he initially decides to buy a gun, only to be drawn into a Karate dojo on his way home. Gradually gaining self confidence as he practices and improves, he starts to impresses the Sensei. But everything changes when he’s the Sensei invites him to the ‘evening class’
As you’d expect with Jesse Eisenberg, everything is played pretty much straight up in an absurd way. At times, parodying films like Karate Kids, but also very much exploring perceptions of alpha males.
After a series of depressing films. This is just what I needed.
Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine (4/5)
Another music documentary. This time about the rise of the US Music Magazine, CREEM, and it’s eventual disintegration. It was a story of sex, drug, and rock and roll.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (4/5)
It’s a documentary about Johnny Cash. Is there anything else you need to know?
Okay, so what’s different about this one? Well it had the support of the Cash family and covered all his life and included some family footage from later years. While it was never particularly hard hitting, it anchored the whole documentary and explored Cash’s personality and imperfections through the prism of his performance at Folsom Prison.
Cash is one of those rare stars who transcend their genre and generation. Spending two hours exploring his life and his music was well spent.
Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (2/5)
Okay. Put your hands up if you didn’t read the brief for this documentary and thought it was the story of Jim Marshall? Yes, so did I. Jim Marshall the man who’s amps powered all the big rock acts of the 60s and 70s. I was expecting to hear to story of the acts who adopted his amps, like Jimmy Page, Hendrix, etc.
Instead, this was a documentary about a particularly unpleasant, arrogant photographer. He took many iconic photographs that we’ve all seen. But he did it while being a heavy drinking, junkie arsehole. I just couldn’t connect with him and the documentary left me cold.
7 Reasons To Run Away (From Society) (4/5)
Somebody has been watching too many episodes of Inside No 9. This absurd Spanish black comedy offers seven short films that very much flow from the same creative well as Inside No.9. Each short film offers a fantasy commentary on modern society. The film won me over with the first of the seven stories, as two affluent parents wake up their layabout son in the middle of the night to him he ‘is an accident’. But that’s just the start of a much more difficult story for their son to hear, and one that had the audience laughing with shock.
The TV companies were out in force this year with launches for their new big shows. There was a Game of Thrones experience that required acts as a blood drive. Amazon’s had taken over a large space near Rainey Street to push their new show, Good Omens. Everyone said it was really impressive inside. I never made it in, there were either queues or I would find it had just closed.
There were the usual corporations pushing their image during SXSW Interactive. Capital One, as usual, had their house and a good evening lineup.
Companies such as Sony, Dell, Samsung, SAP, Accenture, BOSE, LG, all had big areas. All trying to sell a picture of them being cutting edge. LG’s was particularly interesting as they seemed to want to think cute robots was the best way to sell their brand. Sony on the other hand, wanted to create a picture that they’re cutting edge, presenting research projects and startups they’re were supporting. In fairness, all had something interesting going on, and most had a VR experience.
The main tradeshow was vastly different to previous years. There appeared to be a lack of the rich startups that previous shows had, so less freebies :( . The focus had also shifted away from being a tech show, to include new areas such as ‘Wellbeing’ and cosmetics. There was also a significant increase in the number of Country stands such as Malaysia, UK, Germany, Spain. Italy, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Each country bringing new innovative products and services to sell a vision of their country being hi-teck and open to business. While the lack of freebies was a disappointment, I liked the mix.
Closing the festival, overlapping with the end of music, was SXSW Gaming. Another example of how SXSW constantly evolves. In 2016, gaming had just started to find it’s footing. This time, the gaming hall was big with live competitions, it’s own small conference and lots of visitors. Another sign that SXSW will probably continue for another 30 years.