The SXSW 2020 Film Collection on Amazon Prime

The Austin-based film festival goes online in quick response to the Covid-19 shutdown.

Image courtesy of Interpas via Adobe Stock

On March 6, 2020, the SXSW festival officially announced that all festival events had been cancelled by the city of Austin, in light of the Covid-19 crisis. While the film industry had already hypothesized about the impact the pandemic would have on the 2020 film festival circuit, SXSW’s cancellation made it real, and also made it urgently necessary to come up with alternatives. Going virtual was the obvious solution, something film festivals had been feeling the pressure to do in recent years regardless. The more pertinent question was: how?

On April 2, SXSW released the news of their collaboration with Amazon Prime, bringing a selection of films from their competition lineup to the platform, in front of the paywall, for ten days. In the statement, Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, said, “We’re honored to be able to provide a space for the SXSW filmmakers to share their hard work and passion with audiences for the first time...We are supporters of SXSW and other independent film festivals, and hope this online film festival can help give back some of that experience, and showcase artists and films that audiences might otherwise not have had the chance to see.” Indeed, for the 39 features, shorts, and series pilots, the exposure is huge; Amazon Prime alone has over 100 million subscribers, not to mention anyone who creates a free account to access the festival. 

SXSW’s move online is part of a wave of creative responses from the film industry. Both the New Zealand International Film Festival and the Fantasia International Film Festival announced they’ll be going completely virtual this year, while the Thessaloniki International Film Festival has launched the project Spaces, challenging filmmakers to continue creating in quarantine, and the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director Petra Costa has embarked on a mission to document the Covid-19 experience in her project Dystopia. Tribeca has paired with Youtube to host the “We Are One” festival starting May 29, fed by over 20 worldwide film festivals including Berlin, Cannes, and Venice, featuring new and classic titles.

Uncharted Territory

SXSW didn’t have a map for navigating this new pandemic-era landscape, and their speed in finding a solution demonstrates “the adaptability and resilience of the film community”, in the words of Janet Pierson, director of film at SXSW. But the Amazon Prime collaboration is not without its problems. The majority of the films in the competition lineup chose not to opt into the streaming offer, including Shithouse by Cooper Raiff and An Elephant In the Room by Katrine Philp: the winners of the narrative feature and documentary feature awards, respectively. And other upcoming festivals like Munich, Locarno, and Melbourne all elected to cancel their 2020 editions rather than go online.

The main problem is with distribution. Film festivals serve not only to generate buzz around films, but also to attract attention from distributors, who otherwise may only be looking toward the larger budget, safe-bet films. The Blair Witch Project (1999), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and more recently, The Babadook (2014) were all huge successes that got picked out of festivals. But these distributors almost always require exclusive distribution rights, threatened by the Amazon premiere. Why would they invest in marketing a film that’s already been made available to hundreds of millions of people? The conversation would be much different, and much more favorable to the filmmakers, if Amazon acquired the distribution rights to the films. But they didn’t, leaving many choosing to wait until the festivals reopen, or a better offer arrives. There’s no one right answer: it’s something the creators, distributors, and platforms will have to figure out as they go along.

That being said, the SXSW/ Amazon Prime collaboration is no doubt a wonderful opportunity for cinephiles across America to discover independent films and up-and-coming filmmakers they otherwise may never have heard of or had access to. And for the short films in the collection who weren’t looking for distribution so much as exposure, there’s less to lose than the features, and possibly more to gain.  

The Highlights

The online collection may only represent a sampling of the original festival lineup, but still provides valuable insight into the themes on filmmakers’ minds right now. At the center are women- both in front of and behind the camera. The overwhelming majority of the works in the collection feature female protagonists, and many of them are written and directed by women as well; a confirmation of a larger shift in the industry that has begun to show in recent years. These women are bringing a whole slew of new subjects and ideas into the light, committed to representing their complex personal experiences and sharing the stories that are too often left untold. 

Gunpowder Heart, writer-director Camila Urrutia’s feature debut, is an intimate revenge tragedy inspired by her memories of growing up a queer woman in Guatemala City. Following the couple Maria and Claudia, the film is a delicate portrayal of a same-sex relationship, but also of a place; the conflict stems not from the protagonists’ sexuality, but rather from the clash between their dreams and social reality. Opening with a classic Chekhov’s gun setup, the film expands into a commentary on gender violence, women’s emancipation, and societal corruption- every second waiting for the trigger to be pulled. 

It’s an important reminder that a film can have queer characters without fixating on sexual orientation- a sentiment shared by Karen Bernstein, director of the documentary I’m Gonna Make You Love Me. Piecing together the memories of Brian Belovitch, a man now in his sixties who lived for a decade as a woman named Tish Gervais, Bernstein- and Belovitch- pull the audience into deep reflection on what drives people to make the life decisions they do. Through present-day interviews with Brian, his family and friends, Bernstein draws from Brian’s personal experience a universally relatable truth, about survival and the human need for love and acceptance.  

Meanwhile Cat In the Wall, the first fiction film by Bulgarian documentarians Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, is a realist study of a specific moment in place and time- London, during Brexit, seen through the eyes of a Bulgarian immigrant family. Irina, at its head, is the picture of resilience, raising her son and supporting her unemployed brother by working two jobs. Her attempts at keeping it all together fall apart with the arrival of a cat, a catalyst to set off the tensions created by the mounting xenophobia and gentrification in her working-class neighborhood. 

Gunpowder Heart | Revenge drama in Guatemala City

Image courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

When a gun appears in a film, the expectation is that it will make fire sooner or later. This tension is the center around which the story of Camila Urrutia’s first feature, Gunpowder Heart, revolves. Shaped from the director’s own personal experiences growing up as a queer woman in Guatemala City, it begins with 22-year-old Maria (Vanessa Hernandez) showing off her new gun to her girlfriend Claudia (Andrea Henry), who, like the audience, is immediately filled with dread. When one night a group of local men attacks the girls, Maria finds a target for her weapon, and Claudia must decide whether to help her seek revenge. 

Real-world realities and themes

Gunpowder Heart takes the epic revenge drama (Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy) and adapts it to the setting of Guatemala City, creating an intimate, down-tempo slant on the genre that matches with the long, hot days and peeling decay of the place.

Inspired by the work of the Dardenne Brothers and experienced in making feminist documentary shorts (“Actores de Cambio”, “Todos Somos Barillas”) Urrutia chooses to shoot in real locations using natural light, first-time actors, and a handheld camera. In addition to that, her past as a documentarian shows in her commitment to faithfully reflecting real-world realities and themes of gender violence, women’s emancipation, and sexual diversity.

As the film progresses and Maria talks first of running away to Europe, then to America, her vendetta reveals itself to be as much against her aggressors as the society she lives in, the ever-present gun seemingly the only available tool to take control and change her situation. While Gunpowder Heart meanders more than other action-based revenge plots, the characters’ unspoken thoughts and frustrations give an order to the story and thematic resonance to a seemingly inevitable ending. 

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I’m Gonna Make You Love Me | A search for acceptance

Image: Tish on the beach, 1980 | Credit: Paul Bricker via SXSW Film Festival

“Gender for some people is a destination. For me it’s a journey,” proclaims Brian Belovitch, the subject of Karen Bernstein’s 2019 documentary I’m Gonna Make You Love Me. Weaving archival footage, old photos, classic movie clips, and present-day interviews (using Caouette’s 2003 film Tarnation as reference), Bernstein and her co-producer/editor Nevie Owens trace Brian’s life from “boy to girl to woman to man”, as states the subtitle of his memoir Trans Figured.

A focus on de-transitioning

Preferring a non-linear narrative to reflect the erratic nature of memory, the documentary pieces together its subject’s life. Firstly, his childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, his move to New York City and transition into the voluptuous Sophia Loren-esque Natalia Gervais. Secondly, her stint in Germany as an army wife, her return to the NYC drag scene as the nightlife diva Tish. Finally, the eventual detransition back into Brian Belovitch, the present-day married man in his sixties. 

While the trans experience has been gaining more mainstream visibility in recent years through shows like Amazon Studios’ Transparent, the Wachowskis’ Sense8, and HBO’s Euphoria, not many authors have touched upon detransitioning. In fact, it requires an open, complex understanding of gender fluidity and risks misconstructions. But Bernstein, who first met and befriended Brian in 1993, considered it important to focus on his singular narrative without trying to represent the trans community as a whole.

Nostalgia and intimacy

The author mentions her admiration for Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 High Art and her portrayal of LGBTQ stories. Despite some heavy subject matter, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me infuses with nostalgia and intimacy, full of affection not only for Brian but for the New York City of the 1980s. The underground fringe scene in the movie Paris is Burning set an example in 1990 that Ryan Murphy’s series Pose has recently revisited.

In conclusion, Brian’s story is unique, full of glamorous highs and terrifying lows, but the themes are universal: survival and the search for love and acceptance.

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Cat In The Wall | A critical look at the loss of tolerance

Image courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

London-based Bulgarian directors Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva first established themselves with their politically charged, controversial documentaries Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service (2014) and The Beast Is Still Alive (2016). These titles earned them the label of the “demonic duo” from a Bulgarian parliament member. With Cat In the Wall, they transport their documentary style and commitment to realism into the world of fiction, telling the story of a family of Bulgarian immigrants living in a social housing unit in working-class London.

Inside and outside walls

Surrounded by xenophobia and the tense uncertainty of Brexit, and watching, powerless, as they become victims of the gentrification process in their neighborhood, Irina, her brother Vladimir, and her little son Jojo cling to fragile stability inside the walls of their apartment. Until the arrival of the titular cat threatens their stability. 

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The Influence of New Media on Good People

As society adapts to our growing dependence on technology and social media, the artists, as often happens in history, are left trying to make sense of things. Is the digital age the best or worst thing that has happened to humanity? This is the question that writer Julien Sibony was pondering when he originated the idea for Selfie, a French anthology film in the SXSW collection. Likened to Black Mirror for its near-future setting and examination of the social effects of tech, it diverges by taking a comedic, empathetic tone; the film’s alternate title reads like a thesis heading: “the influence of new media on good people”. In separate- though tangential- episodes, five different directors attempt to provide a response to Sibony’s question, with no clear-cut conclusions. Technology is a tool, and like other tools, has no inherent meaning: everything depends on who uses it, and how. 

The “how” is the subject of a number of other films in the collection, among them the documentary TFW no GF and the shorts Modern Whore and Vert. All three explore how the division between online and offline reality fragments our identities, at times allowing truer versions of ourselves to surface, and at times creating contradictions and hypocrisy. The documentary TFW no GF, by director Alex Lee Moyer, is an attempt to humanize the young, disenfranchised men behind the self-proclaimed incel community of 4chan and Twitter: a community notorious for being an echo chamber of depression, self-hatred, violence, and misogyny. Nicole Bazuin’ Modern Whore continues with an exploration of online space as a platform for sexism by peeking into the “escort review boards”, where men rate the escorts they’ve been with- and construct their own narratives about them. Vert, by Kate Cox, acknowledges the other side of free expression, the liberty it grants to become the best version of oneself, with a simple story about a husband finally revealing a lifelong secret to his wife with the aid of VR.

Selfie | Meaning (and connection) cravings

Image credit: Tristan Aurouet, DIRECTOR 3 courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

Selfie is a French anthology film comprising five different tales by five different directors, about “the influence of new media on good people”, as the tagline states. While many anthology films, like Boccaccio 70 (1962) or Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) feature distinct, separate episodes with a common theme, the stories in Selfie also share a common location: a town in France in a future so near it almost resembles the present, except for an increased, slightly dystopian dependence on technology (similar to Black Mirror). The same characters and places appear between stories, lending a fluid, choral quality to the voices of the various directors. 

A dark comedy bordering on the tragic

The other unifying feature in Selfie is the tone: a dark comedy bordering on the tragic, reminiscent of Damian Szifron’s 2014 film Wild Tales. From the lonely high school teacher who starts trolling an internet celebrity only to fall in love with him, to the man coping with the loss of his father through online shopping, the characters crave connection and meaning in their lives: and more often than not, failing to find it.

The vignettes, while sharply hilarious, all leave a certain emptiness, urging the viewer to stop and consider the themes that lie beneath the humor- similar to 60s and 70s Italian comedies like Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso.

As fast-paced and stimulating as the social media world it examines, Selfie is both empathetic and cynical about people and relationships in the digital age, leaving the audience free to draw their own conclusions.

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How will filmmaking change post-pandemic?

How will filmmaking change post-pandemic? Not only technically, but from a conceptual point of view? It’s a question Jim Kolmar, one of the programmers for SXSW 2020, puts to the Gunpowder Heart director Camila Urrutia in their interview. For her part, she acknowledges it’s too soon to tell, but there will definitely be a before and after. Certainly in the near future, large-scale shoots with masses of extras and multiple locations don’t seem likely- and so looking forward, many are beginning to hypothesize about the direction filmmaking- and within it, storytelling- will go. There’s a general feeling that films will become more intimate, with small casts and small, often indoor settings. Besides being a necessity, it could also be a chance to level the field; what will differentiate filmmakers will depend less on budgetary restrictions, and more on their writing and directorial skills. But what will this next generation of stories look like? What is the precedent in cinema, and in the arts?

One answer is found in the tradition of the chamber film. A genre most famously used by Ingmar Bergman in films like Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963), and Persona (1966), chamber films are characterized by a limited cast, a short period of time, and a confined space- perfect conditions for quarantine filmmaking. Even before Bergman, chamber films were being made by directors like Hitchcock (Rope, 1948), Ozu (That Night’s Wife, 1930), and Dreyer (Two People, 1945). On his blog, film theorist David Bordwell traces the tradition back to other art forms as well, citing the groundwork laid by the painters Vermeer and Hammershoi, as well as the Swedish writer Strindberg with plays like Miss Julie. What Strindberg’s work shows, in the same way as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, is that limiting action to a confined interior space does not equate to limiting subject matter, or theme: rather, it can be an opportunity to focus on and magnify problems and emotions, not allowing for outside distractions or relief. In cases like Aranofsky’s 2017 Mother! or Robert Egger’s 2019 The Lighthouse, an enclosed space is used not only to escalate tension to nightmarish extremes, but also to condense the epic, larger-than-life stories of religion and mythology into human proportions, a technique that also applies to politics and philosophy: meaning through microcosm. 

In the Lineup

Already in the SXSW Amazon lineup there are examples of what can be done with a small space, few people, and a simple, well-executed idea. None more so than Marc Collin’s The Shock of the Future, a feature-length film set almost entirely in one room in the space of a single day. Its heroine Ana is an electronic music composer in Paris at the end of the 70s, who, until the very end of the film, never leaves her house; rather, the other characters come to her, reminiscent of characters in a play passing through a stage set. The shorts A Period Piece and No Crying at the Dinner Table both make use of a single room as well. A Period Piece, directed by Shuchi Talati, is a controlled study of two lovers attempting to have sex for the first time, foiled by a few drops of blood- all using the space of a couch and living room, but hinting at a much larger narrative outside the film. Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table restricts the space even more, to a dinner table and the filmmaker’s own family, reminiscing about her late grandmother- and with just this concept reaches emotional heights in fifteen minutes that many features fail to in two hours. 

The Shock of the Future | It’s the music that matters

Image courtesy of © Nebo Productions via SXSW Film Festival

The Shock of the Future is a film that pulses and beats with debut director Marc Collin’s love of music, specifically the new wave synth-pop of the late 1970s. Female pioneers in the genre like Suzanne Ciani, Delia Derbyshire, and Laurie Spiegel inspire the story.

It follows a day in Ana’s life (Alma Jodorowsky), an electronic music composer who spends most of her time at a wall of synths and sequencers in her 70s-patterned Parisian apartment, experimenting with what she believes are the sounds of the future. 

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Looking Forward

It’s impossible to say what will happen in 2020 in general, let alone in the film industry. And yet the proliferation of creative responses from film festivals and filmmakers alike since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis is a confirmation that inaction is not an option. Writers will continue to write, directors to direct, producers to produce, and, in one way or another, they will get their work to audiences- because now more than ever, we need cinema. Not only as a form of escapism, but as a way to document what’s going on in the world, and then, eventually, to attempt to understand it. What films look like may change with social dynamics, technological advances, and new spatial limitations- but then, film has been changing since its inception, simultaneously influencing and influenced by everything around it. The SXSW film festival was the first to have to adapt to this new pandemic era, but many others will follow, with more time to prepare and propose even more revolutionary solutions.