By Curtis Woloschuk – Associate Director of Programming at VIFF
The sheer scale of Austin, Texas’ SXSW lends itself to myriad descriptors. With overlapping music, film, interactive, gaming and comedy festivals augmented with conference sessions focussing on everything from sports to social impact, labels such as labyrinthine, monolithic or just plain monstrous are all quite apt.
Even if an attendee finds themselves armed only with a Film badge, there are still an array of possible paths through the programming. While filmmakers may focus on conference panels exploring new storytelling methodologies or dissecting innovative distribution strategies, more rabid movie-lovers may devote themselves solely to seeking out the festival’s marquee attractions both on-screen and off. After all: once you’ve queued up for several blocks to access the Ready Player One pavilion, what’s a meagre 7-hour wait for the world premiere of the film itself?
I tend to steer clear of such Instagram fodder in favour of amassing as many screenings as crosstown venue-hopping will allow for. And while I’ve never managed to match my first SXSW foray in 2014 in terms of pure numbers – 48 films in 8 days that time around – each subsequent visit has offered up its fair share of films to be savoured. Over the years, I’ve also adjusted my festival-going practices to ensure that my gorging on cinema is complemented by partaking in the cornucopia of world-class junk food that Austin serves up at every turn. But more on that in a moment…
Amongst the highlights of SXSW’s film programming, this year were a number of titles air-lifted in from Sundance. Anyone who caught Bart Layton’s Imposter at Vancity Theatre in 2012 will want to keep an eye out for American Animals, which adroitly interweaves narrative and documentary elements to revisit an inanely devised art heist. Even more inventive is Boots Riley’s provocative satire Sorry to Bother You, which sees an African American telemarketer finding doors (and dark corridors of power) opened for him when he starts using his “white voice.” Meanwhile, Ari Aster’s meticulously calibrated supernatural chiller Hereditary and Bo Burnham’s agonizingly accurate Eighth Grade lived up to their hype as two of the most harrowing films in years.
A number of SXSW world premieres also served notice that some of American independent cinema’s most intriguing voices are uncovering new inflections. Joel Potrykus’ Relaxer sees the Michigan auteur once again wedding apocalyptic dread and depraved humour while demonstrating a greater attention to formalism. The standout debut feature of the festival was undoubtedly writer-director-star Jim Cummings’ tragicomic Thunder Road. Heart-wrenching and hilarious in turns, it makes sublime use of long takes to document an Austin cop coming apart of the psychological seams – and spilling an impressive deluge of tears – as he comes to terms with his mother’s passing. Fellow Austinite and one-time mumblecore poster boy Andrew Bujalski continues a graceful migration towards more mainstream storytelling with Support the Girls, which uses a roadside Hooters-like bar as an improbable stage for an unexpectedly affecting reminder that all things must pass.
With Austin and SXSW both growing and evolving at alarming rates, this frequent visitor to the now finds solace in familiar haunts and comfort foods. Just as there’s a welcome familiarity to clambering up the well-worn steps the intimate Alamo Drafthouse Ritz or settling into the unforgiving seats of the historic Paramount Theatre, there’s a reassurance to knowing that there’ll be opportunities throughout the festival to sneak away to the Casino El Camino for a half-pound burger dressed in nothing but blue cheese and buffalo sauce or Iron Works for a plateful of brisket, sausage, ribs and mac and cheese.
The past two years, I’ve also made a point of embarking on a closing day Tacodyssey that involves eating tacos for every meal. And I’ve found that if you stare long enough into the salsa-slathered abyss, some valuable festival lessons may just manifest themselves. Of course, I’m more than pleased to share the wisdom imparted by Tacodyssey 2018:
Breakfast: I’ve always prided myself on being someone who liked tacos for breakfast more than I liked breakfast tacos per se. Well, Torchy’s Wrangler (brisket, egg and potatoes) and Ranch Hand (eggs, beef fajita and diablo sauce) tacos conspired to prove that I’ve been a damn fool.
Festival-applicable lesson learned: Grow too entrenched in your tastes and you risk missing out on something amazing.
Lunch: A ten-minute easterly hike from the convention centre extricated me from the festival fray and deposited me at Las Trancas, an unassuming Airstream serving up drool-inducing tacos al pastor and offering a potent reminder of Austin’s laid-back charm when it’s not an occupied territory.
Festival-applicable lesson learned: Take a moment to appreciate the city that lurks just beyond the event you’re attending.
Dinner: Spilled out into the chaos of Austin’s infamous East 6th Street with one SXSW film to go, I impulsively grabbed two pollo tacos from the Tacowey cart and began wolfing them down. Then, perhaps owing to the mirror-like sheen that the grease had lent them, I found myself reflecting back on the preceding seven days and the narrative worlds they’d exposed me to. Adrift in reverie and intoxicated by Tex Mex, I found myself savouring it all.
Festival-applicable lesson learned: Appreciate every experience that film affords you.