South By Southwest Film Festival

Former Lawman Seeks to Make Cops Accountable


When William “Dub” Lawrence was sheriff of Davis County, Utah, he never thought that the SWAT team he set up in 1975 would become part of a national trend toward unaccountable use of force by police. But 30 years later, as a civilian, he watched helplessly as the same unit killed his son in law to end a standoff.

Peace Officer, a documentary film that examines the increasingly militarized state of American police, as told through the story of Lawrence, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin.

Lawrence now works at clearing blocked sewage lines, but in his spare time he still uses his old law enforcement skills investigating and recreating crime scenes to uncover the truth in officer-involved shootings in Utah. He met filmmaker Scott Christopherson in 2012 and asked him for help editing video footage from the day his son in law, Brian Wood, had died, in order to get a more precise sequence of events. Christopherson quickly realized that Lawrence’s story had the makings of a documentary.

The movie, directed by Christopherson and Brad Barber, traces the development of police “special weapons and tactics” teams by the Los Angeles Police Department after the Watts riots in 1965. Lawrence, a former city police officer, established a SWAT team after his 1974 election as sheriff in Davis County, a suburban county north of Salt Lake City. The SWAT unit didn’t kill anyone during his four-year tenure. A straight-arrow who believes in equal application of the law to everybody, he once wrote himself a ticket after someone pointed out that he had parked illegally. Lawrence was defeated for re-election in 1978.

The SWAT team was called to the house Wood shared with Lawrence’s daughter, Liz, in September 2008, after Wood called to report that he’d “beaten and raped” his wife. (Liz said he beat her during an argument but denies being raped.) When police arrived Wood barricaded himself in his truck with two guns and threatened suicide, but seemed close to surrender at several points. No mental health professionals were on hand, according to Lawrence, nor were Lawrence or Wood’s father allowed to speak with him. After 12 hours, the SWAT team moved in and Wood was disabled with a stun gun and then killed with a single shot from a sniper. Authorities first reported that he had shot himself, but were later forced to admit he was called by an officer.

The movie also recounts the cases of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed by an undercover drug officer as she backed her car out of a parking space after what officers said was a drug deal, and Matthew Stewart, an Army veteran whose house was raided in the middle of the night after police were tipped that he was growing marijuana. When he pointed a gun at the intruders who kicked in his door, the resulting shootout left both Stewart and several officers injured, one fatally.

Visiting Stewart’s house, Lawrence meticulously recreated the crime scene, tracing each bullet hole (and digging up several bullets investigators failed to collect). He cast doubt on whether it was Stewart who fired the fatal shots or, as he puts it, “friendly fire.”

After the film, Lawrence said the laws should require more accountability for police, more transparency in records of shootings and take away the immunity from prosecution for police that has been building for 35 to 40 years. “It’ll take time to bring it back.”

Among other top documentary offerings at the South By Southwest Film Festival:

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, directed by Sara Hirsh Bordo, examines the story of Lizzie Velasquez, who was born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. After a video of her as a teenager labeled her as the “World’s Ugliest Woman” and went viral on the Internet, she fought back to become an anti-bullying activist whose TED talk also becomes viral. The documentary follows her progress to become a motivational speaker and an activist on Capitol Hill lobbying for a federal anti-bullying bill.

Velasquez said she has never met the original bully. “If for some reason I found myself in the same room I’d give him a hug and thank him for making me what I am today.”

Frame By Frame, directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpetti and financed with a Kickstarter campaign, tells the story of four Afghan photojournalists who face the realities of rebuilding a free press in a country where the press was effectively shut down during the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban’s oppressive rule from 1996-2001, as there were a couple Taliban newspapers but no photos were allowed and there was one Taliban radio station. The press was allowed to rebuild during the American occupation and there are now 174 radio stations, 80 TV stations and many newspapers and magazine trying to reframe Afghanistan for the world and for themselves.

Journalism in Afghanistan is in a precarious position. The filmmakers noted that the new president of Afghanistan has voiced a his concern for a free press, but 2014 was the most dangerous year ever for journalists in Afghanistan.

The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, on the unrepentant perpetrators of a massacre of hundreds of thousands of leftists following a military takeover of the government in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. Many of the leaders of the genocide not only are unrepentant but are still in power. The Look of Silence follows a family of survivors who discover from the first film’s footage the gruesome details of the murder of their son and brother, who was the leader of a farmer co-operative, so he was labeled a leftist.

Fifty years later, the nation has nominally returned to democracy but many of the military leaders are still in power, and members of the death squads — who were never punished and are proud of their atrocities — live amidst the still-terrified families of their victims.

When Adi, a 44-year-old optometrist and brother of the slain co-op leader, hears about the cleansed history of the genocide that is taught to his children in school, he sets out to confront his brother’s killers and tries to get them to acknowledge their crimes.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, directed by Alex Gibney, is a critical examination of the life, work and legacy of Steve Jobs, the driving force behind Apple Computers and the iPhone and iPad, which have transformed our relationship with computers. Gibney recalls the wunderkind who co-founded Apple and built it into one of the most profitable companies on Earth, but he balances with Jobs’ dark side: his denial of his daughter Lisa before he acknowledged her and named a computer after her; the controlling businessman who lashed out at tech journalists who came into possession of an iPhone prototype; and the schemer who gave himself and his pals backdated stock options while using overseas accounts to avoid taxes.

Top music documentaries include:

Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, recounts the 60-year career of Mavis Staples, who started out as the vocal anchor of the family Gospel group, the Staples Singers, which under the leadership of guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who combined Gospel, blues and soul music, inspired millions and helped propel the civil rights movement marching beside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s and scored several hits with Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s but couldn’t get a recording contract in the early 2000s until Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy helped Mavis produce You Are Not Alone, a mix of Gospel, blues, soul and roots rock on the Anti- label. It won her first Grammy award for Best Americana album for 2010.

A Poem is a Naked Person, a legendary documentary that has been in the works since Les Blank started filming Leon Russell, his band and entourage at Russel’s compound near Tulsa, Okla., in 1972. Black followed Rusell during the next two years, at concerts in New Orleans and Anaheim and during recording sessions for his roots album, Hank Wilson’s Back in Nashville. The resulting film is an impressionistic portrait of a musician who merged rock, blues, gospel and country music and the entourage that surrounded him. Blank produced his original cut in 1974, but it was never released, for reasons that apparently are obscure but apparently involved creative differences between Blank and Russell; a question about the delay was deflected in a Q&A after the screening at SXSW, but Leon Russell, who was in attendance, seemed to enjoy the show. Over the years, Blank kept chipping away at the film until he died in 2013, his son Harrod Blank told Film Comment. Harrod suggested that rights to songs may have been one roadblock; he reportedly was negotiating on them a week before the premiere. A theatrical and DVD release is expected.

Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. Veteran Austin music writer Joe Nick Patoski finally tells the story of Doug Sahm, the prodigy who started out as playing guitar, fiddle and steel guitar growing up at the intersection of rock music, Latino music and the blues in San Antonio in the 1950s. At the suggestion of a promotor (the notorious Huey Meaux), Sahm and keyboard player Augie Meyers formed the “Sir Douglas Quintet” in the 1960s as a faux English rock group during the British invasion and produced the hit, “She’s About a Mover” in 1965. After a marijuana bust, Sahm relocated to the Bay Area of California in 1966, immersed himself in psychedelia and produced his 1969 hit, “Mendocino.” He returned to Texas in the 1970s, but after getting roughed up by a cop in San Antonio he moved up I-35 to Austin, which he named the “Groover’s Paradise.” He produced several classic Tex-Mex albums that impressed fellow musicians but he never seemed to sell enough albums to acquire superstar status. He approached that level as organizer of the multicultural supergroup, Texas Tornadoes, with Meyers, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez in the 1990s, but he died of a heart attack on the road in Taos, N.M., in 1999, way too soon at age 58.

Patoski has written a series of definitive biographies on Texas musicians, including Selena, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and even the Dallas Cowboys, but Sahm never sold enough albums or developed the national fan base to interest Patoski’s book publisher in a biography, so Patoski embarked on producing the documentary instead. He mixed concert footage and commentary from Sahm’s friends, family and fellow musicians, anchored by Augie Meyers’ stories and insights, to bring back Sir Doug, if only for 82 minutes.

Other documentaries that are worth checking out:

Invasion, directed by Abner Benaim, looks back at the invasion of Panama by 30,000 US troops to oust General Manuel Noriega, the nation’s dictator who had been a CIA ally, after he ran afoul of President George H.W. Bush 25 years ago. The film focuses on characters whose lives were shaken by the invasion, including civilians, military veterans, politicians and others.

Barge, directed by Ben Powell, follows the men who work on the barges that travel the hundreds of miles from Rosedale, Miss., to New Orleans and back. The crew, which includes a deckhand following his father into the family business; a former convict working his way upward in the hopes of eventually becoming a first mate; a veteran 38-year engineer in now hurry to retire; all wrangling the dozen or so cargo barges that are lashed together for the trips up and down the river.

Deep Time, directed by Noah Hutton, looks at the changes the fracking boom brought to a North Dakota community settled by Norwegians and a Native American reservation.

Landfill Harmonic, directed by Graham Townsley, tells the inspirational story of the Recycled Orchestra, a youth group that plays instruments made entirely of trash from the landfill in Cateura, a slum outside Asuncion, Paraguay. Their families make their living by picking and reselling trash from the landfill. One of the garbage pickers, Cola, is also a luthier who shows a talent for turning canisters into violins and cellos, flutes from water pipes and spoons, guitars from packing crates and drum heads form X-ray film for a band of youngsters whose music teacher, Favio Chávez, leads them to successes that include sold-out concerts and playing a gig with Megadeth. “The world sends us garbage, we send back music,” he said.

*Raiders!*, directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, tells the tale of two boys who as 11-year-olds in Mississippi in the 1980s set out to remake *Raiders of the Lost Ark*. After seven years they strained their friendship and nearly burned down a house and they had finished every scene except one — the explosive airplane scene. Thirty years later, they attempted to finally finish their fan film by building a replica of the 75-foot “Flying Wing” plane from Raiders in a muddy field in Mississippi and they finally realized their childhood dream.

*Rolling Papers*, directed by Mitch Dickman, looks at the emerging world of legalized marijuana in Colorado through the eyes of the nation’s first marijuana editor, Ricardo Baaca, and his team at the Denver Post and its new website, The Cannabist.

Salt of the Earth, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Riberio Salgado, tells the story of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who spent 40 years traveling the world in the footsteps of an ever-changing humanity. He is now embarking on the discovery of pristine territories.

Western, directed by Bill Ross and Turner Ross, looks at the relationship of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, through the eyes of the longtime mayor of Eagle Pass, a Texas cowboy who deals with cattle brought across the Rio Grande and a lawman who watches the border as society across the river breaks down from the increasingly violent narcotraffickers.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, directed by Julien Temple, follows a legendary rock musician who was diagnosed with incurable cancer but who manages to defy his death sentence.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652