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Commentary: South by Southwest is in danger of losing its indie film cred

Posted 8:29am on Monday, Mar. 21, 2011

AUSTIN -- One thing became very certain at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, which officially wrapped up Saturday: It has joined the big leagues of film festivals around the world.

For many years, distribution deals being struck at SXSW were a rarity; Hollywood and New York film execs looked upon the fest as a well-regarded but fundamentally regional event. No longer.

This year, the Weinstein Co. acquired the football documentary Undefeated, with plans to release and remake it. Anchor Bay Films paid reportedly seven figures for the thriller The Divide. By week's end, there were also rumors that the gay drama Weekend and the dramatic prize winner, Natural Selection, were being pursued.

There's also a parallel narrative that emerged at SXSW: The large scale, the daunting crowds, the increasingly strange presence of corporate sponsors. On the second day of the festival, a friend Tweeted: "SXSW is a carnival now. Not a good thing."

It was a sentiment you were apt to hear a lot at this year's festival. The interactive conference and the film festival have seen double-digit attendance increases in recent years. That meant some of the streets near the Austin Convention Center were so crowded that you had to literally elbow your way past people.

And everywhere you looked there were corporate logos and people begging you to download their newly created apps. Next to my hotel was something called the PepsiMax Lot, which, so far as I could determine, was a giant parking lot where Interactive Conference attendees could spend the day drinking beer and/or free soft drinks. Across the street was the CNN SXSW Grill, a makeshift restaurant/broadcast studio/conference center.

Does this mean South by Southwest is losing touch with its roots? Is it becoming the very corporate-fueled wasteland that it once so vigorously bucked against?

These are questions that organizers would do well to consider. The last thing anyone wants to see is this once-vibrant, scrappy event turn so vast that it eventually caves in on itself. For now, though, here are some highlights from the SXSW film fest, which featured an unusually strong lineup this year. For more SXSW film coverage, go to www.dfw.com/movies.

Eat, pray, eat some more

You can probably chalk it up to the success of the Food Network and reality competition shows like Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef, but a new genre of mini-documentary films has emerged: the portrait of the obsessive, high-end chef. This year, South by Southwest showcased El Bulli: Cooking in Progress and A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt. Both movies center on ambitious (some might say egomaniacal) chefs, and both offer a bird's-eye view of the goings-on inside an haute-cuisine kitchen.

El Bulli is the more challenging effort, especially if you don't know much about the titular restaurant, a three-star Michelin operation in Spain that closes for six months every year to completely reinvent its menu. (The doc was made before chef/owner Ferran Adrià announced that he would be permanently shuttering the restaurant in July 2011.)

Even better is A Matter of Taste, slightly more traditional, but in many respects a far more insightful effort, about Paul Liebrandt, a young British chef who, circa 2000, was pegged to become the biggest cooking sensation in New York. Both movies eschew the flashy editing and triumph-or-tragedy clichés of Top Chef to present something much more nuanced and complicated: a look at the true blood sport of building a new restaurant, where everything from a sloppy sous chef to a dismissive New York Times review can instantly sink your career.

Promising 'Weekend'

There is no greater pleasure for a movie critic than wandering into a movie at a festival with no expectations, and wandering out 90 or so minutes later with your faith in an art form having been quietly restored. That's pretty much what happened to me on the festival's first night, when I took a chance on a British gay romance called Weekend, screening at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard as part of South by Southwest.

I am hesitant to make any great claims for this movie, which mostly just revolves around two guys in apartments or bars talking. But by exploring the intimate details of a budding male-male relationship -- and allowing the characters to discuss the mixture of pride and anxiety that they feel as gay people in the early 21st century -- Haigh has given us something that feels unique, precisely because it is so commonplace.

If gay cinema is usually preoccupied with martyrs (Milk) and tragedy (Brokeback Mountain), here's a movie at once specific to the gay experience yet utterly universal, about everyday people puzzling through everyday life.

'Elevate' scores

Another of the festival's standouts was Elevate, a moving, absorbing documentary about four Senegalese teenagers who travel to the United States in order to pursue high school basketball. The film -- directed by Anne Buford, sister of San Antonio Spurs general manager RC Buford -- might not reinvent the wheel, but at the screening I attended, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Meanwhile, a number of emerging young North Texas-based filmmakers had strong showings. David Lowery won the top prize for short filmmaking, for his new film, Pioneer, which premiered at Sundance; and Daniel Laabs and Julie Gould's short film 8 also received a prize from the jury.

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