The 5 Best Documentaries We Saw at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival

Ivaasks Films

The best film I saw this year at SXSW was not a documentary, but it was made in the style of one. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows is a hilarious mockumentary about a foursome of vampires living together as flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand. I mention it not only because I think most doc fans appreciate a good mockumentary but to note the irony since the best documentary I saw this year at SXSW was made in the style of a narrative. Actually, I’m trying to not make that claim these days. I should instead say that it was not made in the conventional documentary style.

In general it felt like a weak year for the doc program. I didn’t love any of the jury award winners (some at least make my honorable mentions spotlight below), was disappointed in not only the quality of many premieres (especially the absolutely worthless Wicker Kittens) but also the lack of many bigger buzz titles from Sundance in the festival favorites section (it baffles me that Simon Chinn was in town but without The Green Prince). I didn’t hear a lot of talk of docs I missed, though I left still curious about Yakona, The Immortalists, Print the Legend and definitely PULP, which is pretty much the only music doc I heard any positive chatter for.

Due to a few reasons, including the fact that I was covering other stuff for Film School Rejects and because there wasn’t a good vibe anyway, I didn’t see a whole ton of nonfiction at SXSW this time around. I don’t think I even caught more than ten features, and I saw about the same number of shorts. But I can vouch for the following five titles with a bit of additional praises for parts of other docs below.

1. The Special Need

This is a constructed documentary in so many ways, but its heart is something that’s completely natural. 29-year-old Enea is a virgin, so his filmmaker friend Carlo takes him on a road trip to get him laid and also record the whole adventure. Both of Carlo’s missions are very, very well-planned, it seems. I imagine the path through Europe, from their home in Italy to an Austrian brothel to a sex therapy clinic in Germany, was all pre-routed, and the way the film is shot makes it seem storyboarded in advance. However, there is nothing scripted about Enea, a charmingly ignorant yet commonly confused man when it comes to the opposite sex. That he’s autistic makes him often more unpredictable and candid, but he’s still representative of us all. Maybe a little more genial. [Full Review]

2. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Impressive in its immediacy and, given its quick turnaround, its biographical and historical insightfulness. Also because of its immediacy there’s a lot of powerful emotion on display, not just in the expected mournfulness of Swartz’s family and friends but also the unrestrained anger that’s expressed by at least one interviewee. For a profile piece, it’s so finely focused on the past, the present and the future all in the simple story of a complex young man and what he meant and means to the world. [Full Review]

3. Evaporating Borders

This essay film produced by Laura Poitras, written and directed by Iva Radivojevic, takes us on a tour of Cyprus and introduces us to a handful of subjects, all of them seeking asylum in the Mediterranean island nation, which sits near enough to the Middle East to be a place of refuge for political immigrants. Framed magnificently in its structure and its shots, it’s a doc that provides specific exotic appeal while also being quite familiar in its concentration on the orthodox Christian locals’ pushback against “becoming a Muslim country.”

4. Song from the Forest

A white American lives among a native pygmy tribe in the deep jungle of the Central African Republic. He has a 13-year-old son with his Bayaka wife from there, and he takes the kid on a trip to New York City (and some other places in the U.S.). What sounds like the plot of some cheesy ’80s fish-out-of-water comedy is in fact a very thoughtful look at two extremely different ways of life on the planet and a contemplation of why the one has been preferred over the other. A key moment occurs on the way out of Africa as the man is told he is doing good by taking his son off to a better place. It’s like the opposite of films we see popping up about Christian missionaries and adoptions. [Also see Daniel’s full review]

5. Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story

This could be the best depiction of transgender yet, or at least the most accessible and comprehensible look at a transgender person — who funny enough admits she’s not 100% sure herself of what it means. Kristin Beck is a Navy SEAL who recently came out and began the process of becoming a woman, and because of her position of national note and because that job is so defined by its macho reputation, her story is especially interesting — and maybe especially controversial — to many Americans. Beck, even though a poster person for transgender, mostly wants to be accepted as just a human being. Directors Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona depict her as a wonderful one at that. I’m very excited for people to be able to see this simple but very polished and totally respectful and inspiring doc when it airs on CNN this summer.

Honorable Mentions:

12 Years of DFA: Too Old to Be New, Too New to Be Classic — A funny and fast-paced look at DFA Records that gets the point for being the most enjoyable doc of the fest.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey— I actually didn’t catch up with the pilot to this new series until I got home, but now I can concur with everything Neil wrote here.

The Great Invisible — Margaret Brown’s jury winner wasn’t as tight as I’d wished, but it’s filled with great moments, most of them featuring food-pantry volunteer Roosevelt Harris, one of the most lovable doc subjects of the year so far.

The Home Team — A small, rather insubstantial doc about a substantial small town basketball team that still probably had the finest direction I saw in any of the nonfiction films this year.

The Legend of Shorty — Chinn produced this too-timely doc about the search for the drug cartel kingpin known as El Chapo, and it has to be celebrated for its original use of narco-corrido ballads to provide exposition — some of it more legend than fact, but that’s all the more reason to love the device.

Vessel — There’s an incredible story in this film about pro-choice activism on the high seas, it’s just not the doc’s own doing.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.