[16 March 2006]
As is often the case at South by Southwest, the real show can’t be found on-screen: the real show is happening outside the theater. On my way to a film downtown, I walk past two girls in nurses’ outfits, a rowdy group of pirates, and a guy in a hockey mask holding a rusty sickle in one hand and a stained burlap sack in the other. What’s most unique about this last fellow, though, is that he’s not handing out flyers, DVD samples, or miniaturized snack items. Instead, he’s just silently strolling around, periodically checking the contents of his bag (for what, I don’t dare imagine), and generally digging the scene. Even more notable is that the general populous around me seems to ignore him. Either that or they’re just accepting his presence without comment as part of the larger freakshow that accompanies SXSW. After all, it’s four days into the screenings and we should all be jaded to such madness by now.
Still, as I watch the dude adjust his hockey mask and cross the street, it seems to me that this year’s “festival” seems particularly devoted to living up to that title. In a city whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird”, SXSW goes a long way toward ensuring that this remains the case. Attending these events, in fact, makes me feel a lot like one of those nature documentarians, tracking some bizarre annual urban migration. Like clockwork, every Spring Break the frat bars empty as students head off to get drunk in Mexico and these festfolk come running hipsters, hypesters, hucksters, and, now, horror stars all partaking in the madness and, to a large extent, adding to it.
“Baaa… beeee shark! Doo, doo, dooo, dooo! Baby shark! Doo, doo, dooo, dooo!” As an opening act before the screening, a chorus line made up of the principals in Summercamp! has the whole theater audience up from their seats and partaking in a camp song, complete with hand gestures and dance moves. It’s an odd, refreshing change from the usual scene of folks hammering away at their blackberries or sitting disinterestedly with their arms folded before the lights go down. These expressions of infectious enthusiasm are on display throughout the film, too, which chronicles the experiences of counselors and campers who spend a summer at the wooded environs of Swift Nature Camp in Wisconsin.
At its essence, the film is an homage to that quintessentially American experience of leaving your family during the summer months and running around the woods with strangers, canoeing, and trapping fireflies. To a certain degree, Summercamp! is content to foreground the sheer joy and wonder that the campers (the oldest of whom are no more than 12 or 13) experience in their environment; making new friends, decorating their cabins, and roasting marshmallows. As filmmaking goes, though, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel: it’s not hard to follow a kid around with a camera and wait for them to do something cute or funny. And we get lots of scenes in which these youngsters flash their gap-toothed grins, make mud angels, and frolic though grassy meadows together. It’s enough to make even the most hardened zero-population-growth advocates say “awww”.
Luckily, however, Summercamp! offers a bit more than an extended recapitulation of a Hallmark ad. It questions, for instance, the overmedication of today’s youth, as a great many of the campers some disturbingly young are able to rattle off diagnoses and the medications that doctors have plied them with. One counselor, though, points out that the campers are kept too occupied during their summer at camp to suffer from the likes of ADHD, implying that, in many cases, environment may have a good deal more to do with a child’s mental well-being than a pill might. Similarly, a lot of these children confess to using summer camp as an escape from the pressures of bullies, isolation, parents, and school in their real lives. It’s as if the summer camp is an extended, kiddy version of a trip to the spa, relieving these stressed-out youngsters from the rigors of their normal childhood. Summercamp!‘s underlying question is, “shouldn’t being a kid be fun?”
For most of the campers, though, summer camp is fun. The experience allows the kids to be kids again, even if for a short while. As such, Summercamp! is unique in that, while a majority of documentaries these days take heart-wrenching subjects for their focus, this film’s topic is by and large unadulterated joy. It’s enough to send you out of the theater grinning, singing about baby sharks.
It seems that the conception of Africa in the mainstream, Western press can be summarized in a few key words: war, disease, famine, poverty, AIDS. These catastrophic story lines appear to rotate on a regular basis, but the bottom line remains the same: Africa is only ever a place for misfortune and disaster. An important film by directors Zach Niles and Banker White, however, looks to trouble that notion. The Refugee All Stars tells the unlikely story of an musical group whose members have managed to sing in the face of war and dance in a place of exile.
In 1999, Sierra Leone was a country torn apart by Civil War. Rebels and government troops alike perpetrated unspeakable atrocities against one another and against innocent civilians, forcing a flood of refugees into the neighboring Republic of Guinea. The film, initially conceived as a project documenting the Civil War, instead chronicles how, among the refugees from Sierra Leone, several musicians are able to come together through a combination of luck and perseverance in one of the ramshackle camps housing the displaced. They begin to make music under the collective banner of The Refugee All Stars band, performing for fellow refugees in an effort to “de-traumatize” their countrymen and to improve the dire living conditions that they’re forced to endure.
Indeed, the lot of the refugees in Guinea, as those around the world, is at once appalling and, to the rest of the world, largely invisible. Without a home, without family, and dependent on the charity of international organizations and foreign governments, these people are entirely voiceless in the world. This film proves that their songs, however, can be heard. The Refugee All Stars follows the band on its tour of other refugee camps around Guinea, as they spread their message of positivity to smiling crowds of faces of those who, otherwise, would have very little to smile about. As the violence gradually subsides, the band is able to return to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and the members of the band are given a chance to record their songs in an effort to spread their message beyond the camps.
Reassembled for the film’s screening here in Austin, it’s clear that The Refugee All Starts are well on their way to accomplishing this goal. What’s most compelling about both the film and its subject is the sheer force of will it must take for these musicians to pick up a guitar after losing their homes, to sing after witnessing the murder of their loved ones, to dance and make music after encountering the worst tragedies imaginable. Performing an impromptu number for the audience after the screening, the group’s joy was palpable and remarkable. The standing ovation they received from the audience will hopefully translate into more attention paid to the plight of refugees in Africa and throughout the rest of the world.
From the Blues Brothers to the Eagles to Motley Crue, there’s a certain etiquette in place when it comes to band reunions. For starters, it’s generally expected that the band will have broken up while they were at some kind of creative or commercial peak. This break-up is to be the fault of substance abuse and intra-band acrimony, resulting in years apart marked by solo projects and a lack of communication. Hints of a reunion, of course, are to be ever present, but they are to be dismissed in interviews as idle speculation. Until, one day, the right mixture of nostalgia and cash combine and the big announcement finally comes: “We’re getting the band back together, man!”
Fans of the Pixies will recognize this formula clearly. Though they enjoyed moderate success before they broke up, the bulk of the band’s followers were converted during their long hiatus, as prophets like Kurt Cobain brought their musical structures (referenced by loudQUIETloud‘s title) down from the mountain for millions of alt kids to worship. The Pixies became known as the band that started the alternative/grunge/indie rock movement, garnering the lion’s share of their fame when they were no longer in existence. Their reunion, consequently, was a resurrection that had been anticipated for years with a nearly religious fervor.
loudQUIETloud, directed by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin, follows the group around on their 2004 reunion tour, beginning with footage of their first, tentative rehearsals (in which bassist Kim Deal relies on her Ipod to remember her parts) to their final series of sold-out shows in New York City. In between, the film looks to balance its celebration of the group’s influential music with introspective portraits of the group’s infamously cantankerous personalities. Those looking for touching confessions or effusive reconciliations, however, will be disappointed. The film is unable to add any insight into the personal dynamics at work among the group that fans have not already read about in countless magazine articles before.
That’s not necessarily the film’s fault, though. Frank Black, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering are spectacularly uncommunicative people, both toward each other and toward the cameras. We get hints that Black might be a bit of a control freak, and it’s clear that Kim is struggling with her sobriety, but these are hardly revelations. Instead, the film can only offer a great many shots of the band members off by themselves, reading or sitting silently in their hotel rooms. Given this, it’s not hard to see what caused the band to split up, but we’re no closer to understanding why they all behave this way.
Fans of the band will enjoy loudQUIETloud more as an extended concert film than anything else. And for many, this is likely enough. Sure, we may not ever understand what drives these people apart, but watching them tear through “Gouge Away” in front of thousands of screaming fans shaved heads, beer bellies, and all is very much its own reward.
The latest foray into the culture wars is a film whose title alone had festival goers flocking in droves to its midnight screening. Directed by Steve Anderson, Fuck is an in-depth examination of the ultimate four letter word, a single syllable whose mere utterance is enough to send critics into a frothy frenzy, calling down the doom of our civilization as proponents get equally worked up in their attempts to shout down the critics. The film is an attempt to make sense of both arguments, to understand how one little word can cause so much upheaval.
Fuck begins by attempting to trace the word’s murky origins back through time. Is it an acronym? Experts conclusively agree that it’s not (sorry Van Halen). Where did it come from, then, and what did it mean? On that, no one’s sure. It seems that it’s always meant just about what it means today, and, as far as anyone can tell, it’s always been with us. There are some who might find this a comforting thought, though others would just as happily rid the planet of the word for good.
It’s in this collision of attitudes where Fuck finds its true purpose. Thankfully not satisfied to dwell on linguistic history alone, the film uses the word as a launching pad to explore the deep cultural divide between puritanical conservatives and hedonistic liberals, and their respectively embedded attitudes toward obscenity in our culture. Drawing from a wide range of interviews that covers the cultural and political gamut from Alan Keyes to Hunter S. Thompson, the film is careful to give equal weight to arguments from both camps. Keyes and his ilk seem wholeheartedly convinced that the world is being ruined by obscenity, while Thompson and others point to more immediate causes, such as George Bush (who, by the way, has been quoted using the “f” word on more than one occasion).
Given Fuck‘s balanced treatment of its subject, it’s highly unlikely to change any minds about the presence of obscenity in our culture. But isn’t this precisely the point that a film like this will always make? It’s virtually impossible these days to stage sensible debate between the left and the right, since all decisions have already been made a priori. Instead, discourse is increasingly embedded and unproductive to the point where Vice President Dick Cheney is telling Senator Patrick Leahy, in an exchange on the Senate floor, to “fuck himself”.
Still, the film is useful in its exploration of the visceral enjoyment that the word provides. While we may never get along about when and where to use the word, we can all agree that there’s no substitute when it comes to being cut off in traffic, stubbing your toe, or describing your reaction to having to come in to work on the weekend. Perhaps, in this, there is hope for unity after all. Maybe, just maybe, we can build for a better tomorrow and a brighter future. Yes, let’s all cast aside our differences and strive to come together, one nation under fuck.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/peterson-060316/