Skateboard doc 'Dragonslayer' took top honors at SXSW.

Talent Emerges at SXSW 2011

Julia Barbosa March 22, 2011

The 2011 edition of South by Southwest Film Festival showcased a total of 140 feature films including 66 world premieres, 15 North American premieres and 15 US premiers. Films at this year’s festival were bursting with innovative ideas, especially an unusually fruitful Documentary Features category. The Jury Prize top honor for documentary was bestowed upon Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer, a film about a skateboarder who wanders aimlessly through life and whose mundane interactions reflect the disorientation and uncertainty of an entire generation. The Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Vikram Gandhi's Kumaré, a film investigating the evergreen trend of looking to exotic religious leaders for life guidance.

A newer phenomenon sparked director Ian Cheney’s The City Dark, another SXSW world premier. The film begins with a deceptively simple question: “What do we lose, when we lose the night sky?” After encountering statistics that show the world's urban population has surpassed the rural population for the very first time, Cheney, who grew up in Maine’s countryside and now lives in New York City, decides to find out what happens when light pollution kills the starry nights over city areas and discover the consequences of the loss of contact with the night sky.

Guided by the music of Best Documentary Score awardees The Fishermen Three & Ben Fries, Cheney's mesmerizing investigation goes from empirical—astronomers who have been relegated to remote areas of the earth, biologists who discuss the effect of artificial light on ecosystems, cancer researchers who speak of possible links between artificial lighting and higher cancer rates—to philosophical: What happens to the human species when we lose the humility to look outward and beyond ourselves? The resulting film is not a tirade against urbanism, but a meditative essay that encourages us to pay reverence to a crucial part of our existence that is sometimes taken for granted.

Also of interest in the doc category was the world premiere of PressPausePlay, a star-studded rumination on the difficulty of creative expression in the Internet age.

New talents were also crowned in the Narrative Feature Competition, with Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection sweeping all major awards at its world premiere, including Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Best Film, Best Music, Best Editing and Best Breakthrough Performances by Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary. The film, shot in a small town outside of Austin called Smithville (where Terrence Malick also shot The Tree of Life), revolves around Linda, a barren Christian housewife on a quest for the son that her husband may have helped conceive through a sperm donation sometime during their sexless 20-year marriage. After an improbable love connection springs from a strange encounter between Linda and her husband's alleged son, Natural Selection stumbles a little searching for the perfect balance, but a firm grounding in the strength and complexity of Linda's character carries it through, placing director Robbie Pickering on a short list of up-and-coming directors to watch.

The Emerging Visions category brought the North American premiere of the excellent Silver Bullets. Director Joe Swanberg, whose films Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends and Alexander the Last have debuted at SXSW in previous years, typically embodies the uncorrupted “one-man, one-camera” feel that the festival is known for. In Silver Bullets, he goes one step beyond, turning the camera back onto himself to dissect the anguish of the personal relationships, creative crises and self-examination of the filmmaking process. The result is a sometimes brooding, sometimes frantic narrative with fantastic touches that invite the audience to follow down the director's path of reflection and self-discovery.

Edging out Silver Bullets to take the Best Film honors in the Emerging Visions category was Andrew Haigh’s low-budget drama Weekend. One of the most talked-about films at SXSW this year, Weekend tells the story of a gay couple that casually meet at a bar and manage to develop a strong connection over the following 48 hours. From the moment one of the protagonists sits, vexed because he is unable to finish a text message with the “ideal” punctuation, Weekend shows it is a film that strives to illuminate delicate nuances. The characters in the story are constantly addressing the difficulties of building a gay relationship in a (mostly) straight world, an ongoing discussion that handily parallels Haigh's own struggle to write a film about a gay couple that can hold up outside of clichés and niche markets.

Improbably, the struggle pays off, and Weekend manages to remain an unapologetically gay love story while achieving enough honesty and sensibility to have universal appeal.