I was almost left behind my first morning in dry, sunny Austin, Texas. A festival conceived for DIY hustlers and hustlees, the first South By Southwest festival in 1987 attracted 700 musicians and music industry types looking for a way into a business increasingly monopolized by multimedia conglomerates. In 1994, film and interactive components were added to the music showcase, and the festival, which opened further to the press and the public, grew by shaggy, flannel-clad exponents. By early 2011, 36 000 people were poised to descend on downtown Austin for ten days of staggered events; for the first time the film and interactive components rival the music fest in attendance.
By this morning, those of us who didn't book our hotels months in advance and therefore had to set up camp on the outskirts of town were wholly dependent on the hourly shuttles that ferry the fringe element to the heart of the action. An ill-timed vending machine run during the wait ensured that I had to chase down the white minivan as it was swinging out of the hotel's lot. And chase it I did, flailing at unattractive angles, as one does.
It was an apt introduction to a festival too crowded with activity to wait for any woman. Based at and around the square-block slab of the Austin Convention Center (although institutional in construction, its insides are disconcertingly surreal: stairs routinely lead to nowhere; secret floors are tucked in between the legitimate ones) in the downtown core, SXSW works to maintain its rebellious streak despite a level of success that would mortify any self-respecting slacker. Dedicated press screenings, for instance, are apparently for losers, an anti-media move that seems at odds with a functioning festival's mandate.
And yet the interactive arms of the festival are opened wide for a corporate and media embrace. Increasingly the festival's financial and media centerpiece — social networking juggernauts like Twitter and foursquare were both launched here — the interactive conference is also a particularly international draw. On the film side, the competitive slate is relatively modest: Eight features and eight documentaries (culled from almost 2,000 submissions) vie for jury recognition, along with a selection of shorts. Outside of Charlie Casanova, a dark thriller from Ireland, all of the feature-length films in competition are American, in keeping with the festival's spirit of growing and promoting new talent on home turf.
Beyond the competition, the programmers are free to roam the geographical, budgetary, and attention-grubbing maps. The big money is on the “Emerging Visions” showcase, which features edgy films that may have distribution — like the buzzy Bellflower (pictured), a love triangle with an apocalyptic twist—but are looking to build momentum, and comers like The Dish and the Spoon, starring reigning indie enchantress Greta Gerwig, and F*ck My Life, a romantic comedy set on the social networking grid by Chilean director Nicholás López. Then there are soon-to-be released Hollywood corkers like Source Code (starring Jake Gyllenhall) and The Beaver (starring the terrifying train wreck formerly known as Mel Gibson) and the music-themed showcase 24 Beats Per Second, which this year will offer a veritable 1990's theme park ride comprising documentaries about Hole, The Foo Fighters, Le Tigre, and Canadian underdog (if that's not a redundancy) Ron Sexsmith.
Also included in that showcase is a doc about the festival itself, Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, which chronicles, on its 25th anniversary, the fest's founding by four local men (three in the media, one in the music industry) looking to organize a showcase for the musicians drawn to Austin by its low cost of living and give them a shot at a time when the majors were too busy pursuing the next Milli Vanilli to seek out actual talent. Now the biggest music industry event in the world, SXSW has survived that industry's revolution by combining the outsider spirit of its hometown (“Keep Austin Weird” is its unofficial motto) with its founding ambition, which involved, among other things, making enough of a statement — and enough money — to give the reigning titans in New York City the middle finger. Earned artistic independence is a rare and powerful place to be, a creative utopia more scrutinized for being self-created and self-governed. I'd run to catch a ride there any day of the week.
SXSW x Numbers
Movies seen so far: 3
Men without shirts seen so far: 1
Tacos eaten: 0
Bags of trail mix eaten: 3
“Duh, Winning” T-shirts spotted: 1
Times lost in the Convention Centre: Already beyond tallying