South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal

Today’s report by Tobias Peterson

Day One: Film

A decade. The word connotes a weighty sense of stability, permanence, tradition. This year, South by Southwest celebrates its tenth anniversary — a fact that festival attendees are reminded of by banners, stickers, and print ads appearing throughout Austin. And festival organizers have a right to be proud. After ten years, SXSW has remained a bastion of “indie” activity, a place where unsigned music and film artists are celebrated and supported. And while the festival is often a launching pad into the mainstream for said acts, it remains relatively untouched by the Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight-type buzz that surrounds festivals like Cannes and Sundance. Rather than fodder for fashion reviews and red carpet exposes, SXSW remains, by and large, of, for, and by the independents.

This is not, however, to paint the festival as some kind of grassroots utopia. The festival is certainly not immune to corporate presence (Miller Lite and Sony are just two of many sponsors), and it can be argued that the entire event is simply a way for the major record labels and studios to more easily pick the Next Big Thing to hurl up the ratings charts and line their own pockets. Like the city of Austin itself, home to both millionaire Dell executives and vegan co-ops, the festival is a tenuous and heterogeneous mix of interests and ideas. Despite the big business interests that invade the festival — and the city — a strong and determined, DIY undercurrent remains. And the film picked to open SXSW perfectly encapsulates this ethos.

Go Further

Director Ron Mann’s latest documentary was selected as the headliner by the screening committee essentially sight unseen. Introducing his film, an exhausted Mann confided that the final version of the film was finished just days before the screening after 48 straight hours of mixing and editing. Despite not knowing exactly what would end up on-screen, a festival spokesperson noted that Go Further was “perfect for Austin.” Chronicling the efforts of actor turned ecological activist Woody Harrelson, the film was, indeed, right at home in Austin, with its well-established history of ecological activism (like the Yellow Bike project and the anti-development Save Our Springs group).

The film documents Harrelson’s SOL (Simple Organic Living) Tour, a prolonged bike ride from Washington to California, with stops at college campuses along the way. Trailed by a tour bus, decorated with colorful artwork and powered by hempseed oil, Harrelson and a few dedicated friends set out to spread their message of natural living and ecological conservation.

In rereading this description, it may seem like Harrelson’s tour was an impractical, even irrelevant throwback to ’60s era idealism. Harrelson readily admits the influence of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who toured the country in a converted school bus during the Vietnam War in an effort to promote social change and nonconformity. (The group even stops at Kesey’s Oregon farm to visit the former radical and make a pilgrimage to the original bus, lying abandoned in a grassy field.) And while Harrelson himself embraces this bygone era, his activism, as the film demonstrates, should not be reduced to the cartoonish “Peace-Love-Dope” stereotypes heaped upon activists by the mainstream media.

Indeed, my own impressions of Harrelson going into the film were of a once-sensible actor who had slipped a screw, climbing the Golden Gate Bridge in a one-man crusade for hemp (read marijuana) legalization. This thumbnail sketch, however, is far cry from the thoughtful, earnest, and extraordinarily compelling environmental arguments Harrelson makes throughout the film.

Harrelson’s Earth friendly ideas (ranging from organic farming to alternative energy to agribusiness reform) are communicated all the more effectively by Ron Mann’s decision to focus mainly on a burger and candy bar-munching, hyperactive production assistant named Steve. He accompanies Harrelson simply, it seems, for the sake of novelty, but comes around to a greener way of thinking as he is exposed to healthier alternatives to his eating, drinking, and living habits. If Steve can ascend to a higher ecological consciousness, we’re meant to understand, than so can anyone.

Mann also, importantly, mixes in a healthy dose of humor with the tour’s Earth-friendly messages. Though the film could have easily slipped in to didactic moralizing, Mann avoids lecturing in favor of scenes like ones in which Steve invites confused onlookers to “Come see Woody Allen!” and confesses a crush on a newly recruited tour member: “She makes me feel organic!”

In the end, however, it’s Woody’s down-home charm and charisma that carry the film — and his environmental message. Whether he’s amiably chatting up a logging company guard in the film, or consoling an emotionally disturbed girl during the Q & A after the film was screened, Woody comes off as a Johnny Hempseed for his generation, spreading love in a cynical world, fighting the good fight, and all with an unflagging, infectious optimism. Go Further is at once a call to action and a portrait of an activist, wide-eyed and hopeful in the face of a world full of wrongs.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Much like Go Further, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised documents the efforts of a revolutionary opposed by powerful forces. The revolutionary in this case is Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. Much has been made of the recent and continuing unrest in the country since Chavez has come to power. As the fourth largest oil producer in the world, Venezuela’s difficulties — along with the impending war in Iraq — has sent gas prices skyrocketing and has the Western world grousing. The reasons behind the turmoil, however, have been little explored, and never with the depth or access that this film provides.

Shot by an Irish crew with intimate access to Chavez and his ministers, Revolution chronicles Chavez’s rise to power as a champion of socialism, putting forth a program of wealth redistribution and private enterprise reform. Chavez, the film reminds us, was democratically elected by a majority of poor and working class Venezuelans, who, despite the state owned oil industry, never received the benefits reaped by the aristocrats that held power before Chavez’s election.

The film begins rosily enough, as Chavez waves to a capacity crowd while parading victoriously through the streets of Caracas. We soon learn, however, that Chavez’s leftist leanings do not sit well with the Venezuelan upper class. In one scene, the crew visits what appears to be a neighborhood association meeting in a posh, hillside community on the outskirts of Caracas. An elegantly dressed woman denounces Chavez’s supporters as freeloaders before another man in a tailored suit cautions the group to keep an eye on their domestic servants, who might be passing messages of pro-Chavez support. While this seems a bit laughable, it’s clear how serious the situation is when he begins to give a lesson on how to operate a gun.

This scene foretells what comes next, as, a few days later, an anti-Chavez demonstration collides with a pro-Chavez group near the presidential palace. Shots ring out and chaos erupts. The crew is on the scene to capture the mayhem first hand, including the deaths of protestors as they run for cover. Over these scenes of violence, a narrator informs us that shots were coming from elevated positions, indicating the organized and pre-planned actions of snipers, not spur of the moment violence of the part of protestors.

Whatever the cause, blame for the violence that erupts is placed squarely at the feet of Chavez. While the film shows Chavez supporters running for cover and being shot, the United States, along with Venezuelan opposition, paints Chavez and his supporters as the instigator. Chavez’s opponents, consisting of business leaders, religious figures, and a handful of military leaders, use the violence as a pretext for removing the elected president, and a coup d’etat unfolds before the unblinking eye of the camera.

Revolution is remarkable for the unfettered access it enjoys as Chavez is forcibly removed from, and promptly restored to, power. The crew holes up with the embattled president and records, uncensored, the chaotic events that unfold. Beyond the human drama of the story, though, the documentary is also a study in media manipulation, tracing the battles Chavez fights on Channel 8, the only state owned television station, with the myriad private stations, which all clamor for his removal. In addition to these private stations, Western television is also shown to get it wrong. Statements made by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Colon Powell condemning Chavez are directly contradicted by the events recorded in the documentary. Disturbingly, US oil interests are frequently mentioned as the reason for this misinformation and CIA involvement is hinted at in the orchestration of the failed coup.

What might be even worse than the campaign of misinformation about Chavez and the goings on in Venezuela, however, is the utter lack of any kind of information in the global community. With Iraq dominating headlines and televisions, Revolution reminds us that crises loom elsewhere and bears important witness to the suffering of a country, the violence of repression, and the danger faced by those who would buck the system.