South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: Final Weekend/ Film: Bucking the System, One Documentary a
A Field Journal: Final Weekend/ Film: Bucking the System, One Documentary at a Time by Tobias Peterson and Terry Sawyer
Today's report by Tobias Peterson
Final Weekend / Film: Bucking the System, One Documentary at a Time
The final weekend of SXSW is most visibly the musical half of the festival. With the film awards handed out Tuesday night and the final "big" screening (an unfinished edit of Christopher Guest's latest mockumentary A Mighty Wind) held on Wednesday night, no cinematic events remained to lure people back to the theaters.
That is, of course, unless you count the films themselves. As festival-goers crammed into music venues all over in town, a full compliment of SXSW films continued to screen. This allowed those who were unable to catch everything they wanted to see in the first, frantic days of SXSW to more leisurely take in the films they missed. It also allowed the films continued exposure in their various bids for distribution. Although, in this final weekend, the cinematic acts might have taken a back stage to the musical ones, the screenings proved that a lot of talent remained to be seen on screen as well as on stage.
Among these talented films was Flag Wars, a documentary that spans four years in the life of a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The film tackles the issue of gentrification, but in a manner that complicates matters for its audience. Rather than the typical tale of white people pushing black people out of an urban neighborhood, Flag Wars documents the way this conflict is transformed when it's a predominantly white, gay group of people that attempt to move into a historically African American community.
Winner of the SXSW Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature, the film's greatest success is maintaining audience interest in the face of the highly technical, legal nature of its underlying conflict. Zoning regulations and building permits would not ordinarily make for a compelling story, yet Flag Wars manages to humanize a struggle that plays out predominantly in the otherwise sterile confines of circuit courts and city council meetings.
Initially, the film does this by giving equal -- and personal -- weight to both sides of the issue, making it hard for viewers to side with one marginalized group against the other. Scenes of anti-gay protests (including one in which a small boy dangles two naked Ken dolls -- glued together in simulated congress -- from a noose) are shown alongside scenes in which African American residents lament the loss of their community to wealthier outsiders. Both parties are legitimately put upon, the film lets us know, and the camera follows both gay house buyers and African American families to underline the respective discrimination and hardships each face.
Eventually, however, issues of race and class rise to the fore. While many African Americans in the film readily admit that they don't agree with the gay community's "choice" of lifestyle, these people's prejudice is blunted by the film's depiction of their steady unseating. One by one, black families move out to make way for gay whites, who then renovate the houses and drive up property taxes -- making it even harder for African Americans to remain.
As this exodus occurs, surprisingly little consideration is paid to those who are left to find more affordable housing. Discussing the state of the neighborhood, one new house buyer laments, incredibly, "We feel for the houses." Insensitivity such as this, and the stark economic disparity shown between the two groups, works to paint the new residents, despite their own experiences of marginalization, as simply more white folks shoving out African Americans for the sake of their upper class comforts.
This point is hammered home specifically as the film focuses on the struggle of Linda Mitchell, a fiercely independent African American woman who battles the courts and interested real estate agents to keep her house. Suffering from liver problems and scratching by on 500 dollars a month, Linda remains adamant throughout the film in her refusal to sell. Eventually, however, Linda succumbs to her illness at the film's conclusion. Flag Wars cuts from scenes of her funeral to a scene in which potential white buyers wander through her now vacant house. The film ends with this image of the buyers, picking like vultures through Mitchell's home and possessions.
This scene -- and the film -- leaves a lasting, powerful impression. Flag Wars, ultimately, points out that, though discrimination may have a multifaceted, at times contradictory, nature, the true measure of a group's power in society can be measured very simply: in dollars.
The Target Shoots First
The Target Shoots First
Another SXSW documentary concerned with the social impact of capitalism is The Target Shoots First. The film was among a select number of films to be shown from festivals past in celebration of SXSW's tenth anniversary. Target was doubly appropriate because it tackles many of the same "art versus commerce" issues that the festival, as a whole, is subject to: showcasing independents on one hand, yet supported by corporate interests on the other.
Christopher Wilcha is the "independent" in the film -- an NYU philosophy grad who takes a job with music industry giant Columbia House (a mail order club for CD sales) and documents his experiences in the belly of the corporate beast. Initially, Wilcha is bemused by his new place in the workforce, documenting his induction into a world of casual Fridays, cheesy office parties, even mandatory company picnics. Eventually, however, his "punk rock guilt" gets the better of him, as Wilcha grows increasingly alienated by his job and the company lifestyle he's adopted.
It's not that he's above the banalities his co-workers seem to enjoy, though. Wilcha smartly recognizes his own position in the capitalist chain and his own implication in the corporate machinery that so easily and efficiently translates the creative process into dollar signs. With a running commentary throughout the film, Wilcha comes to realize that it's not his street cred that's landed him this job as a "Gen X" consultant during the alternative music boom. Instead, it's his dedicated practice as a "committed consumer" of the kind of music Columbia House is trying to sell.
With this admission, Target offers powerful testimony to the all-encompassing nature of capitalism. Initially aghast at how the company pays out a pittance in royalties to artists in order to mass produce music and turn a profit, Wilcha comes to see himself as just an extension of this same enterprise. While he might have been buying CDs of lesser-known artists (Black Flag, Bad Religion, Minor Threat), the film shows that it's the same process as buying Mariah Carey or Justin Timberlake. Either way, music is commodified and its audience becomes a demographic statistic.
Target, then, speaks directly to SXSW in its bid to connect unsigned talent with corporate distributors. While many artists come to Austin for a week with the precise goal of hooking up with big business, the film serves as a reminder that, in many ways, big business always already has its claws sunk in.
Perhaps the best illustration of this unshakable fact comes at the film's conclusion, one year after Wilcha decides to leave his job. Walking to his mailbox, the camera shows Wilcha opening a mailing from Columbia House that features his own face on the catalog. Even after he's left, his likeness continues to invite consumers ("targets" in the company lingo) to spend. The film suggests, then, that we all, in some form or fashion, wear a bullseye.
While both Flag Wars and Target take on the pervasiveness -- and destructiveness -- of capitalism, Girl Wrestler does the same for patriarchy. Hitting home for many in the Austin audience, the film takes place in central Texas, and tells the story of Tara Neal, a young girl whose interest in wrestling is met with skepticism, disdain, and resistance at every turn.
The wrestling that Tara's interested in is not the fake, Vince McMahon, Rock, chest-shaving, body slamming kind of wrestling. Tara's participates in the collegiate and Olympic, Greco-Roman style of wrestling, where the contact is real, unscripted, and -- at times -- brutally physical. As such, Tara directly challenges stereotypes of delicate femininity as well as the antiquated notion of separate spheres in athletics: girls participate in passive, "safe" activities while boys play in "tough," competitive sports.
Title IX, a federal provision that mandates equal spending for men and women's athletics in schools, has done much to ease this distinction and raise the visibility of women's athletics as well as women as athletes. Much resistance remains, however, and Girl Wrestler provides a first-hand account of the ongoing debate that surrounds women's forays into the field of athletics.
Unfortunately for Tara, Texas is one of two states (Hawaii is the other) that ban girls from wrestling boys after the age of fourteen. To compete with other girls, then, she must travel great distances to national tournaments in the hopes that other girls who share in her predicament will be there to compete. When she is allowed to wrestle boys on local club teams, Tara must still contend with skeptical coaches, motivated opponents (none of the boys want the ignominy of losing to a girl), and rabid parents (even more bloodthirsty than the wrestlers). These harsh conditions combine with the already strenuous demands of the sport (Tara frequently fasts to maintain her weight) to make Tara's pursuit of the sport an extraordinary challenge.
To the film's credit, though, Girl Wrestler is not a glorification of Tara's accomplishments. She's shown losing several of her matches, as well as going to the mall, and arguing with her parents. In short, the film makes the point that Tara is a normal teenager inscribed by abnormal restrictions. The film is not building her up to be a champion, but simply advocating for her right to compete.
And, ultimately, this right to equal treatment is the film's foremost concern. Girl Wrestler offers an important -- if not discouraging -- measurement of gender equity in modern America. Though progress has been made, the film points out that women continue to face both institutional and social censure in their bid for equal standing. Tara, the film shows, is taking on more than her opponent when she wrestles, she's up against a history of segregation and the repressive weight of stereotypes.