SXSW: Survival of the Fittest

By Curtis Woloschuk, Associate Director of Programing

Anyone who’s ever thrown themselves fully into a film festival experience knows that they come to rely on their survival instincts every bit as much as their discerning cinephilia. We’ve all seen (or perhaps even been) those VIFF diehards carting along a Tupperware of emergency rations so that they might enjoy some nourishment as they skip a proper dinner in favour of braving a multi-block line at The Centre for Performing Arts.

Of course, these festival perils are informed by their host city. As the multi-tendrilled SXSW takes over Austin, Texas for 10 days every March, attendees must be aware of hazards specific to the rapidly gentrifying state capital that insists that it’s ‘keeping things weird’ despite a Google logo now sitting at the apex of its skyline. Rushing between venues, one must be constantly vigilant about evading hundreds of rental electric scooters piloted by inexperienced and often inebriated riders who’ve brought chaos to the sidewalks and intersections. Should you take refuge at one of the city’s countless food trucks, there’s also the constant danger that one ill-advised decision when it comes to the selection of hot sauces may have you unwittingly embarking on a, urm, macabre digestive odyssey.

Maybe it’s the fact that one has to keep their SXSWits about them or maybe it’s the fact you find yourself in a place where a golden age of strange is drawing to a close, but the festival fare that resonated the strongest this year all revolved around the theme of survival. In no particular order (aside from chronologically in the sequence that I experienced them), some of this year’s highlights included

What We Do in the Shadows

Continuing his extremely impressive hot streak, Taika Waititi has overseen the successful adaptation his 2014 horror-comedy feature for the small screen while transposing the blood-sucking action from Auckland to Staten Island. Witnessing the uproarious inventiveness with which his creative team have approached the conceit of vampires trying to reconcile their arcane ways with the modern world, it’s apparent that they’ve tapped into a rich comedic vein.

Boyz in the Wood

SXSW’s Midnighters lineup is notoriously uneven, with many of the high-concept premises ultimately proving underwhelming in execution. Thankfully, the first feature from Ninian Doff delivers on the mischievous promise of its cheeky title. As four young ne’er-do-wells endure a forced march through the Scottish countryside, they’re set upon by predatory members of the upper class. As Doff calls on his music video experience to release a barrage of Edgar Wright-like set pieces and visual flourishes, the hit-to-miss ratio is surprisingly high.

One Man Dies a Million Times

The giddy elation of Doff’s film is counterpointed by the somber fatalism of Jessica Oreck’s stirring piece of science fiction (not to be mistaken for sci-fi). Primarily a documentarian (whose Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo was a hit at VIFF), Oreck has masterfully transposed the story of the establishment of the world’s largest seed bank during the siege of Leningrad into a speculative dystopian future. Immaculately shot in striking black-and-white by Sean Price Williams, it’s a harrowing but deeply humane story of sacrifice for the greater good.

The Art of Self-Defense 

On the heels of his much-maligned performance in a certain Zack Snyder-helmed superhero blockbuster, Jesse Eisenberg may’ve understandably harboured some concerns that his career might be on the endangered list. Riley Stearns’ deadpan absurdist comedy reminds us just how potent a comedic weapon he can be when skilfully implemented. A cautionary tale of a milquetoast office drone emboldened by martial arts and coerced into increasingly extreme behaviour, this proves a well-calibrated, tonally precise takedown of toxic masculinity.


Ensuring I could capably dodge any accusations of descending into dinosaurdom, I used my final morning at SXSW to venture into the new frontiers housed in the Virtual Cinema immersive exhibition. Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s VR work allows a user to assume the form of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird that vanished from existence over 30 years ago. Immersed in a digital rendering of this creature’s habitat, you’re left awash in disparate sensations, including the euphoria spawned by the sensation of flight and the encroaching awareness of your imminent extinction. All told, a heady closing note to punctuate another dizzying festival experience.

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