South By Southwest is best known for its music festival, which draws hundreds of bands and thousands of music industry workers and fans to Austin during Spring Break for showcases at what seems like every bar and warehouse in River City. But SXSW, as it is abbreviated, also mounts a first-rate film festival, which has acquired a reputation as a premiere showcase for documentaries.
Among the best of this year's crop:
638 Ways to Kill Castro. Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz has taunted the US business and political establishment ever since his rebel army toppled right-wing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. As Wayne Smith, former head of the US interests section in Havana, says in the documentary first broadcast by British Channel 4 in November 2006, Castro seems to have the same effect on US presidents that a full moon has on werewolves. Over the past 48 years the US government has schemed, sometimes openly but mainly undercover, to oust the charismatic communist dictator by whatever means necessary. Some of those means included assassination, from exploding cigars and toxic foot powder to femmes fatales, Cuban exiles and Mafia hit men. Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuban Intelligence, counted 638 known plots and conspiracies against Castro. Some were projects of the CIA, especially during the first half of the 1960s. From the '70s onwards, the attempts were most often made by Cuban exiles who had been trained by the CIA.
In the film, Dollan Cannell and Peter Moore managed to get interviews with many Cuban exiles, CIA operatives and would-be assassins, including Orlando Bosch, reputedly the greatest terrorist in the Western Hemisphere, implicated in 50 bombings, including a Cubana airliner that was blown up in 1976, costing 73 lives. He now lives in Miami with his family. Asked if he was involved in the bombings, he replied, "I'm supposed to say no." The documentarians also spoke briefly by phone with Luis Posada Carriles, who also was implicated in the Cubana bombing as well as 1997 bombings of tourist hotels and restaurants in Havana and a 2000 attempt to blow up Castro at an appearance in Panama. Posada is now held in El Paso on an illegal immigration charge as the Bush administration refuses demands by Cuba and Venezuela that he be extradited to either of them.
Other would-be assassins include Enrique Ovares, a classmate of Castro who is possibly the first man to try to kill him after he took power -- but lost his nerve. Antonio Veciana, a Cuban exile, tried to kill Castro at least three times over 17 years. He now runs a marine supplies store in Miami. Félix Rodríguez, a CIA operative, took part in three attempts against Castro, and gave the order for Che Guevara's execution in 1967 in Bolivia. Other Cuban exiles are still training as paramilitaries in Florida, hoping one day to get Castro in their sights. But the 80-year-old red has outlasted nine US presidents and, if he recovers from an undisclosed intestinal illness that has sidelined him since July 2006, he might well survive his 10th.
Crazy Sexy Cancer. Kris Carr, an actor and photographer, tells her own story about being diagnosed in 2003 at age 31 with a rare, incurable form of cancer, but refusing to give up on life. Senses of humor and perspective keep despair at bay as she becomes a "healing junkie," experimenting with New Age health seminars and alternative therapies, trying a macrobiotic vegetarian diet, later switching to a raw vegetable diet, and forming a network of "cancer chicks" to deal with the stigmatized disease. Whether it's the attitude, the diet or aromatherapy, the cancer appears to be arrested. But if it's not going anywhere, Kris Carr and her new husband are making the tour of film festivals and the documentary is expected to be broadcast on The Learning Channel and a book based on her experiences will be published this fall. See crazysexycancer.com.
Devil Came on Horseback. Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern tell the story of retired Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, who as an unarmed military observer in Darfur took thousands of photographs documenting atrocities and genocide in western Sudan. Steidle accompanied African Union monitors in areas that were off-limits to journalists and gathered evidence that the Arab government was bent on driving black Africans from the region. The primary drivers are Arab militias known as "janjaweed," which is Arabic for "devil on horseback." After the film, Steidle noted that the black Muslims, who have not received substantial assistance from Arab Muslims, still see the US as a potential savior. He said the best way to influence Sudan to stop the genocide is to pressure Chinese businesses that are developing Sudanese oilfields and pipelines. See thedevilcameonhorseback.com.
Everything's Cool. Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand examine the disinformation campaign mounted by the global warming industry ever since a 1988 report predicted, among other things, disease outbreaks and catastrophic storms. Lobbyists connected to the oil and coal industries funded "bioskeptics" who first claimed that global warming was an unproven theory and after Hurricane Katrina showed what climate change could do to coastal communities, the skeptics have fallen back to the line that even if it the climate is changing, it's not caused by humans. The filmmakers interview Ross Gelbspan and Bill McKibben, who have been writing about global warming since the 1980s, and Heidi Cullen (no relation), a climatologist with the Weather Channel. McKibben complains that even though there is no longer a real scientific debate over whether the climate is changing, "we're not doing anything about it." Director Gold said they started out making a film about the science, but decided that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth had covered that ground. So they moved to the story of how people were confused by the claims that there was a scientific debate. See everythingscool.org.
Hard Road Home. Stats say that four of 10 parolees return to prison within six months of release and two-thirds will be charged with another serious crime within three years. Director Macky Allston explores the Exodus Transitional Community, a Harlem nonprofit organization where ex-cons help newly released prisoners find jobs and stay out of trouble. It follows three characters: Julio Medina, a former gang leader who founded the center in 1999 after earning a master's degree in divinity while serving 12 years at Sing Sing and now is on call 24/7 trying to cut that recidivism rate while he scrambles for funding to keep the doors open; Alberto, the center's top job developer who is Julio's right-hand man; and Griffik, a young parolee who hopes to beat the odds. See hardroadhome.org.
Hell on Wheels. Director Bob Ray followed the revival of roller derby in Austin, Texas, for more than five years. Conceived as "hot girls on skates" in 2001, the rolling fems survived physical mishaps and financial struggles as they attempted to bring back the sport that died out in the 1970s. They adopted campy monikers and had to learn not only how to block and jam, but also to fall down without breaking an ankle -- and make sure they had medical insurance for their "bouts."
As the league began to show financial promise, a power struggle developed between the initial four team captains who wanted to keep controlling interest in the league management and some of the skaters who wanted a more communal operation. Eventually, they split into two leagues, with the corporate (albeit still small-scale) owners importing a banked track while the upstart co-op skaters stayed on the flat track.
Although passions have cooled in recent years, there is still enough rivalry that skaters at the premiere were seated in the wings of the Paramount Theater, separated by the center rows of general admission. After the screening, one of the flat-track skaters, Tinker Bell, addressed the crowd, "Feelings come back but they don't come back bad. I want to go over and hug those bitches that hate me." See hellonwheelsthemove.com.
Run Granny Run. Director Marlo Poras tells the story of our favorite grandmother, Doris Haddock, also known as Granny D, of Dublin, N.H., who at age 90 walked across the country to promote campaign finance reform. In 2004, at age 94, she stepped into the breach to run for the US Senate against incumbent Sen. Judd Gregg when the presumptive Democratic nominee dropped out a few days before the filing deadline. (His campaign manager had absconded with his campaign treasury.)
Without serious money and largely written off by Democratic Party leaders, Haddock took to the byways again to get the word out and received just enough encouragement from well-wishers to consider mortgaging her home to get airtime for her lone TV spot.
I don't give away much to reveal that she didn't win, but her 34% total surpassed what the pros expected and her role in the voter turnout is credited with helping John Kerry win the state. Granny D, who turned 97 in January, told a crowd at the premiere the effort was worth it: "Democracy isn't something we have. It's something we do." She added, "If we became a good democracy, we can change the world. And we really need to." She is now working on getting public financing for congressional elections. See marloporas.com and grannyd.com.
Running with Arnold. Director Dan Cox, former film editor at Variety, covers the campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who moved from Terminator to Governator of California, with the world's fifth-largest economy, in 2003 after voters threw Grey Davis out of office, largely in reaction to economic chaos orchestrated by friends of Arnold, such as Enron's Ken Lay. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the film follows Schwarzenegger from humble origins in Austria to the megamuscled megastar in Hollywood who struck it rich with real estate and business investments. Cox also follows his trail of broken promises, lies, half-truths and his "hands-on" approach to women. Among other things, Arnold promised to self-finance his campaign and boasted that he didn't need to take special interest money, but he went on to become the most prolific fundraiser in state history and has taken millions from lobbyists and vetoed bills they opposed. And note: He's pushing to amend the Constitution to let him run for president. See runningwitharnold.com.
The Unforeseen. Laura Dunn, in a lyrically photographed film, tells the story about the threat of developers to Barton Springs, the environmental crown jewel in downtown Austin. Dunn offers a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Gary Bradley, who moved from the plains of West Texas to make his fortune developing real estate in Austin in the 1970s before he planned his most ambitious project in the 1980s with a subdivision that threatened the watershed of Barton Creek and its famous springs. When Austin tried to tighten regulations, the developers got the state Legislature to pass a bill to let developers proceed with "grandfathered" plans. When Gov. Ann Richards vetoed the bill, that only mobilized developers to get behind George W. Bush, who as governor signed a similar bill in 1995, allowing the subdivision and others like it to be built out. The spring water is increasingly cloudy, Bradley went bankrupt in 2002 and now Bush is enabling polluters on a national scale.
Ya Basta! [Enough Already!] explores the epidemic of kidnapping in Mexico, which has the highest incidence of reported incidents in the world, surpassing Russia and Colombia. It is estimated that 5,600 are abducted each year just in Mexico City. Poverty and contempt for law enforcement have combined to make kidnapping an industry that is often condoned by authorities.
Ricardo Ainslie, a psychologist now living in Austin, Texas, noticed the climate of fear and anxiety when he returned to his native Mexico City in May 2004 and found that the streets of his old neighborhood, which used to teem with children at play, were deserted. His childhood friends and families recounted tale after tale of someone they knew who had been kidnapped. Outrage boiled over in the summer of 2004 when a family of two brothers who had been kidnapped paid $600,000 for their return, only to find they had been killed.
Mexican officials are reluctant to discuss the kidnapping wave because it's not good for tourism, but Ainslie gained the cooperation of authorities and interviewed five kidnap victims and the father of a sixth, who was killed after he paid her ransom. When the grieving father encountered little cooperation in getting authorities to investigate the kidnappers, who apparently were well-known in the neighborhood where they operated, he conducted the investigation on his own. Another victim was kidnapped by men who killed his father during the abduction. He later learned they were Judicial Police.
Ainslie also spoke with the head of the Agencia Federal de Investigacion (known by its acronym, AFI, Mexico's equivalent to the FBI, which was formed in 2001 to fight corruption and organized crime), the head of the anti-kidnapping division for the State of Mexico; journalists who have covered kidnappings; and a former case worker who notes, among other things, that there are no detectives in the Mexican system, only prosecutors who stay in their offices and send police officers to collect information at crime scenes, reviewing their reports later. See yabastathemovie.com.
Among the narrative features (that is, the movies that you actually might see in general release at your local theater), there was a trend toward zombie movies that I could just as soon miss. My favorite feature was Trailer Park Boys, a movie version of a "hit" Canadian TV series about two petty criminals who, upon their release from jail in Nova Scotia, return to the Sunnyvale Trailer Park to plot "The Big Dirty," or the crime that will set them up without breaching the $1,000 limit for grand larceny that might put them in jeopardy of hard time. Hilarity ensues.
If you like the NBC comedy series My Name is Earl, Trailer Park Boys is the series it "resembles," to put it charitably, but unless you got BBC America on cable a few years ago -- before it was dropped because of harsh language and casual attitudes toward marijuana use -- you probably have never heard of it in the States. More's the pity. And, in case you're wondering, director Mike Clattenberg notes that the series, which is starting its seventh season in April, has been well-received in the "manufactured housing community" in Canada.
See the entire list of films at SXSW.com.
Jim Cullen became a movie critic while running projectors at a drive-in theatre.
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