From hobnobbing with hardcore movie buffs to film-focused talks and screenings, Eleanor McSherry takes us through her highlights of the online experience of 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
The South by SouthWest (SXSW) festival, which takes place in Austin Texas, is affectionately known as ‘South By’ and is a yearly collection of film, interactive media, innovative technology, music festivals and conferences. The inaugural festival was in 1987 and since then it has grown not only in size but also in prestige, as corporate sponsorship, big-name acts, innovative technology and hundreds of undiscovered bands, filmmakers, and tech innovators flocking there every year. Unfortunately, last year’s physical festival was cancelled last year due to the pandemic and went digital and online.
Luckily, as a representative of the Ireland’s Mid-West film industry, yours truly was able to get a ticket, courtesy of Film in Limerick and Innovate Limerick, for this year’s offerings. While I was disappointed not to be flying over to Texas itself, the remote festival was still a very exciting prospect!
Browsing the schedule was almost overwhelming. Being a film head, there was just so much all in one place, with over 300 sessions, 700+ speakers and hundreds of events. The difficulty was not ‘what do I watch’, rather it was ‘when do I sleep?’, which I did very little of, I might add. So many premieres, films, talks and people to talk to, all from my home; what more could a girl ask for?
Live sessions and events were available across five channels scheduled every day starting at 3.15pm GMT. They screened on the event platform mobile app and through the Connected TV app and this programming was rebroadcast overnight. Thankfully some of the events were recorded, allowing viewer to watch them back later. Most places at the events and screenings had to be registered in advance, which at least made the decision making process easier. You had to be cutthroat and decide quickly.
There was a 500-person limit on some screenings. Conference Keynotes and Featured Sessions were available on-demand the same day after its scheduled stream time. All other conference sessions were available on demand on Tuesday, 16th March. Many films did not have a capacity limit and were available for the duration of the event. Three exceptions with 6-hour timed windows were Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil; Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free; and Under the Volcano.
Without further ado, here are my highlights. Although I have tried (very hard) to narrow it down, don’t take it as a comprehensive guide.
the producers from Shondaland, Jada Pinkett Smith, Justine Bateman, the Russo brothers, Willie Nelson (music festival but had to see it), James Cameron (on Climate Action, really good), Mark Duplass, Jessica Biel, Elizabeth Shue, Queen Latifa, Ice Cube, to name-drop but a few of over 20 in all.
My personal favourites:
- Taking Films from Seed to Screen: Vanishing Angle took place on Tuesday 16th of March at 3.15pm (GMT) and featured Matt Miller, Natlie Metzger, Jim Cummings and Benjamin Viessner. This was such a fun and interesting talk given by a friend of mine from the Kerry Film Festival, Jim Cummings and his production partners. They discussed past and current projects, their processes and how to overcome barriers. Jim is known for his no-nonsense and practical approach, so offers really great advice.
- Another one was Behind the Lens with Rising Cinematographers – also on Tuesday at 3.15pm (GMT), but I watched it later, hosted by Snehal Patel (Zeiss), with Diego Guljarro (based in Toronto), Lauren Guiteras (based in LA) and Farhad Dehivi (based in India). Each worked with different versions of the Arri Alexas; they debated the value of each camera they used and whether handheld was better than tripod. They also discussed lighting, filming in real spaces using natural light, production design and how to adapt lenses. It was interesting hearing how they used natural light and lighting together to get different effects. Also a lot of talk about filming in a pandemic and the issues that raised. This was such a valuable opportunity to hear from the guys behind the cameras.
- Some of the other great talks I took in were on ones on diversity and disability in film/television production, climate cinematography, authentic storytelling, filming during a pandemic, technical innovation in cinema and television; I tried to catch them all but needed way more time.
Films and Television
I watched a lot of short films but the features were too good not to miss out on. My favourites were World Premieres:
- Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil (4 episodes, 20 mins each) – Director Michael D. Ratner. A very raw, honest and unpretentious streaming TV documentary series about the Grammy-nominated singer’s 2018 overdose and her new addiction-management philosophy. It was shocking but real.
Next were two beautifully shot films:
- Directed by Gracie Otto, the documentary Under the Volcano (90 mins) [main image] is an absolute must for all music fans and was a feast for the eyes. It highlighted such an important time in pop-music culture. Focusing on the ten years, from 1979 to 1989, the film looked at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios, which was based on the relatively small island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. The British documentary was a mix of taking heads, archive footage and a lot of photographs of famous music artists from the ’70s-’80s; like Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits and the Police, to name just a few. Some of the most iconic music was created there. Under the Volcano was a brilliantly told, well informed piece and one of the best music documentaries of the year so far.
- The second film, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson (109 mins) was director by Leah Purcell. A beautifully shot feature film from Australia, the basic premise centered on how a lonely bushwoman struggled to raise her children and run the family farm while her husband was away. Set in the Australian Outback, in the late 19th Century, thematically speaking this film had it all, love, rape, murder, racism, colonialism with a big dollop of sexism to top it off. The film is proudly feminist and highlights the plights of the indigenous Australian but still has universal themes. While not an easy watch, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson was deeply compelling. Purcell should be commended for not only her inspired direction, but for her brilliant writing.
- I also took in the television episodic pitching competition, which, as a writer, freaked me out completely. It looked very daunting as you had to pitch online but with your partners zooming in in front of three judges! I took in a couple of television pilots; in true SXSW style they were a weird mix of sci-fi, disability, romance, teen angst and to top it off an adult woman playing a teenager on the cusp of adulthood – Chad. All very enjoyable and a bit disturbing but very well made!
There were two ways of doing this, you could check out the list of delegates, click on a button to connect, send them a message and set up a meeting. I did this and came away with over thirty new contacts from all over the world. I’ve had a couple of meetings since, after the festival.
The second way was a bit of a disaster for me, it was like speed dating on zoom and in fairness, I’m a bit too long out of that game. Some people would be really good at this, I just wasn’t prepared, I suppose. Basically you logged into a zoom link, which was hosted by the festival, then were allocated/thrown into break out rooms and basically had to introduce/sell yourself in a minute to 6 other people. The two I experienced were a mess… no one moderated the sessions, so the group was dominated each time by two speakers, so it was really frustrating. I could see how it might appeal to some people but it was not for me!
While technically I was not covering the festival for Film Ireland I thought this whole experience too good not to share. On the whole it was a fantastic opportunity. Although the online elements will never replace face-to-face festivals; you miss that whole personal experience and I just love sitting in a cinema. If I have a couple of grand to spare I must pop along next year in person!
SXSW 2021 took place 16–20 March
You can catch up on SXSW Online 2021 Keynotes & Featured Speakers.