Filmmaker Nanfu Wang picks up a pair of awards for I Am Another You
There's a charming informality about the SXSW Film Awards ceremony. It's far from the dressed up-buttoned down atmosphere of some other awards shows; presenters are known to sip beer on stage and let loose with an unrestrained expletive or two.
The result is an entertaining evening for the audience, and a potentially life-changing experience for the winners.
I can't believe this has happened.
The 2017 awards were presented Tuesday night at the historic Paramount Theatre in Austin. The grand jury prize for documentary feature went to The Work, directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, a film that goes inside Folsom Prison in California for an extensive group therapy session between inmates and former prisoners.
The jury praised the film for its "for its complex and graceful visual and sound design ... its honest and at times brutal theatricality."
"I can't believe this has happened," McLeary said as he accepted the grand jury prize. He gave a shout out to his mom, who joined her son at the podium after doing a celebratory dance across the stage.
"She was the backbone for all this. When we did not have the strength or the courage this is the woman who kept us going," McLeary said of his mom.
Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who won acclaim for her 2016 documentary Hooligan Sparrow, established that she will not be just a one-hit wonder. She earned two awards on the night for her new documentary I Am Another You, a film about a young man described as a "charismatic drifter."
"The special thanks I want to give is to Dylan Olson, the main character of the film, for sharing his life and story with me. And to the Olson family for being generous about their emotions, their memories," Nanfu said in accepting a special jury award for excellence in filmmaking.
Nanfu also won the SXSW Luna Chicken & Egg Award for documentary, an honor that goes to a female filmmaker and includes a $15,000 prize.
Maineland, a documentary by Miao Wang about wealthy Chinese high school students who come to Maine to study at a boarding school, won a special jury award for excellence in observational cinema.
The director, once an exchange student to America herself, filmed over a three-year period to create Maineland.
"Going back to high school has been more traumatic than I ever imagined," Miao admitted of making the film, as she accepted the award.
Little Potato, directed by Wes Hurley and Nathan M. Miller, won the grand jury prize for documentary short.
"This film demonstrated a remarkable capacity to simultaneously explore several pertinent issues facing the world today efficiently and most notably with a wonderful sense of humor," the jury said of the 13-minute film. "These... included LGBT rights, domestic violence, immigration and political upheaval... It is a beautiful and surprising story of one family struggling and ultimately succeeding to make a new life for itself."
An autobiographical doc that tells the story of Little Potato's journey growing up gay in the Soviet Union before and after the fall of communism, his mother's struggles to create a better life for them both, and their eventual escape to America via her becoming a mail-order bride.
"Thank you so much. I never win anything," Hurley, evidently a young man of few words, said from the stage before urging his producers to speak.
The film portion of the SXSW Conference and Festivals runs through Saturday, March 18. Audience award winners will be revealed Saturday morning, with screenings of the winners to follow during the day.
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.