SXSW Film Awards: Grand jury doc prizes go to 'For Sama,' 'Ernie & Joe,' 'The River and the Wall' and more
Audience awards will be announced in the coming days
A select group of documentary filmmakers is celebrating recognition from the SXSW Film Festival.
For Sama, directed by Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, won the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary Feature Competition. It tells the story of al-Kateab's efforts to document conditions in her hometown of Aleppo in the midst of Syria's brutal civil war.
In the course of making the documentary over five years, al-Kateab "fell in love, got married and had a daughter all whilst filming the violence raging around her and in particular documenting the challenges the conflict imposed on women and children," SXSW programmers noted.
Nothing will stop us to save the truth.
Accepting the award, al-Kateab took aim at Syria's leader.
"I just want to tell the man who is killing us every day in Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, that nothing will stop us to save the truth," she said to applause. "This film tells the story about what's really happening in Syria and [we] always, as Syrians, dream of a free Syria without an Assad."
Watts added, "This film shows that love and humanity and all the qualities that Waad and her family represent can be stronger than the weapons of tyrants and dictators. And that gives hope to all of us that are facing dictatorships and governments in all our countries around the world...Things can get better and they will."
The River and the Wall won the Louis Black "Lone Star" Award, presented to a film that is shot largely in Texas and/or addresses Texas themes. The documentary by Ben Masters "follows five friends on an immersive adventure through the unknown wilds of the Texas borderlands as they travel 1200 miles from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico on horses, mountain bikes, and canoes."
"Thank you to my team. I have the best team," Masters said as he accepted the award. "It's hard to find people that are willing to quit their jobs and go float down the river for three months. So, let's do it again!"
That comment was lighthearted, but Masters also touched on current politics as he addressed the SXSW audience.
"I would like to dedicate this award to the Rio Grande because it is, in my opinion, a river before it is a border," he observed. "And, in my opinion, that river and the landscapes that it goes through embodies the very best of what Texas is and I can't think of anything more un-Texan than allowing the federal government to come in and steal a bunch of Texans' land to build a wall through our national parks and our state parks."
The Documentary Grand Jury also presented two special recognition awards.
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy won recognition for Excellence in Storytelling. Elizabeth Carroll directed the film about nonagenarian author Diana Kennedy, a British native who has made her life in Mexico and written numerous cookbooks about Mexican cuisine.
"This woman's story is really impactful and powerful. She's a feminist for the ages and she's 96 years old now," Carroll said as she accepted the award. adding on a more political note, "The thing is, food doesn't have walls. In Mexico the food is beautiful, it's amazing, it's cultural, it's powerful and we don't need to separate ourselves that way. And I think food culture proves that around the world and especially when women are the ones telling the stories. Women are the ones who pass down food traditions and women are responsible for food culture, so let's keep supporting women and supporting food and having no walls between us."
A Special Jury Recognition for Empathy and Craft went to Ernie & Joe, directed by Jenifer McShane. Her film centers on two remarkable police officers in San Antonio, Texas who specialize in law enforcement situations that involve individuals with mental health issues. Unlike police in many other cities, officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are skilled at defusing conflicts with mentally ill people.
The Grand Jury wrote, “Everyone needs to pay the fuck attention to this deeply felt and expertly rendered documentary about two members of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, who are changing how police see their own jobs with their embrace of making empathy and the individual the priority over force and violence.”
"The reason I'm so so thrilled about this [award] is that I really believe we're in the midst of a real mental health crisis in this country and this story takes place in Texas but it's every single community across the country," McShane commented from the Paramount Theater stage. "We're all grappling in some way with [an] awful mental health crisis and we have a history of criminalizing that and so to follow two officers who can be an example to us of a different way to look at this--and really I think the film is really about communication and connection and how we can really start to look at each other."
In the Documentary Shorts category, the top prize went to Exit 12, directed by Mohammad Gorjestani.
In their citation, jurors wrote, "We are giving the award to Exit 12 for its strong directorial vision and creative risk-taking. We celebrate Mo as an incredibly talented, energizing, and emerging voice in cinema and hope this award will help propel his already promising career to greater heights.”
All Inclusive won a Special Jury Recognition honor in the doc shorts category. Corina Schwingruber Ilić directed the film.
Jurors wrote, “Special Jury Recognition goes to All Inclusive, a wry look at our modern-day pursuit of happiness. Every shot is perfectly composed, the editing is spot-on, and it’s funny - delightfully depressing."
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.