Film festival will unveil docs on Johnny Cash, Richard Pryor, Beto O'Rourke, photographer Jim Marshall and much more
SXSW is officially underway in the Texas capital, offering a wide range of new work for eager fans of documentary film.
Among the premieres Friday night are State of Pride, a documentary about Gay Pride festivals in the U.S., timed to this summer's 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, which inaugurated the modern gay rights movement. Oscar winner Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) and filmmaking partner Jeffrey Friedman directed the film. They were Oscar-nominated this year for their short documentary End Game.
On June 4th, 2004, a sixty-three-ton bulldozer...systematically destroyed numerous businesses and homes in the small mountain town of Granby, Colorado.
Also premiering Friday night is Tread, directed by Paul Solet, a documentary that recounts a bizarre incident from 2004 when "a sixty-three-ton bulldozer, fortified with steel and concrete, systematically destroyed numerous businesses and homes in the small mountain town of Granby, Colorado." Authorities could not stop the vehicle or the driver, Marvin Heemeyer, who was engaged in a longstanding feud with local business owners and town officials.
"Tread explores the polarizing perspectives on this man, his motives, and what drove him to the breaking point," SXSW writes in its 2019 program.
Tread is one of 10 films in Documentary Feature Competition, a group that includes Vision Portraits, directed by Rodney Evans, a documentary "that chronicles the creative paths of blind and visually impaired artists" including photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton, writer Ryan Knighton, and Evans himself, the film's director.
Well Groomed, also in doc competition, "travels the humorous, visually stunning world of Competitive Creative Dog Grooming alongside the colorful women transforming their beloved poodles into living sculptures."
SXSW continues its tradition of showcasing significant music documentaries, in a section it calls 24 Beats Per Second. Films under that banner include Amazing Grace, the documentary about Aretha Franklin's recording of her live gospel album in 1972. The film was held up for 46 years, first by technical issues and then by legal ones, before making its unexpected debut last fall at DOC NYC.
SXSW will host the world premieres of The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash by director Thom Zimny and Everybody's Everything, a documentary about late recording artist Lil Peep, who died at age 21 from an accidental opioid overdose.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall also premieres in the 24 Beats Per Second section, for good reason. The film by Alfred George Bailey documents the career of Marshall, arguably the greatest music photographer of all time, noted for his stunning pictures of Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and countless other giants.
Highlights from the Documentary Spotlight section include Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World, a documentary about the collective of "volunteer investigative journalists" that has been instrumental in identifying responsibility for war crimes in Syria and who shot down flight MH17 over Ukraine (it was Russia, despite Kremlin denials). I saw the film in LA and found it fascinating and important.
The Documentary Spotlight section will host the world premiere of I Am Richard Pryor, about the brilliant comedian and actor. Jesse James Miller directed the film that features "an iconic comedic cast, historians, activists and artists who provide a unique brushstroke into the complex world of Pryor," according to SXSW.
SXSW will play host to several political documentaries, among them Running With Beto, a film about Rep. Beto O'Rourke's surprisingly strong effort to oust incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. O'Rourke's 2018 campaign fell short, but launched him to prominence among progressive Democrats nationwide.
SXSW will also screen Knock Down the House, the documentary by Rachel Lears that looks at the "insurgent" campaigns of four progressive Democratic women candidates in 2018, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. KDTH premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was quickly scooped up by Netflix.
A slew of presidential aspirants are coming to speak at SXSW, including Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and potential Republican candidate John Kasich (governor of Ohio). In between screenings I hope to catch some of those appearances. Earlier Friday, I heard Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang make an impressive presentation on his main theme, advocating for Universal Basic Income.
For the full SXSW Film Festival lineup click here.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.