Because it’s impossible to see everything at SXSW in Austin, I always limit my choices to documentaries. I find that even a mediocre documentary is so much more interesting than a mediocre narrative film- in a documentary there’s always the stray connection to a world that exists outside the one we (or the filmmaker) carry inside our heads, a touchstone that gets obscured in the pretend world of fiction films. For me, if the world of a fiction film rings false, there’s no recourse. The whole thing collapses into one big lie.
The documentaries I saw this year at SXSW were on the whole rather disappointing– poorly shot and edited films about fascinating subjects mixed in with beautifully produced films about superficially attractive subjects that I won’t remember next year.
A few films I saw did stand out, and two of them will be in the upcoming AFI Dallas film festival line-up.
At the Death House Door, made by Peter Gilbert and Steve James of Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, is a searing confrontation with state-sponsored death told through the eyes of the Reverend Carroll Pickett, a Huntsville prison chaplain who from 1982-1997 ministered to ninety-five death row inmates on the last day of their lives. After the screening, Pickett received a standing ovation from the Paramount Theater audience. Pickett is now speaking out against the death penalty, but the love fest turned a bit sour when during the Q and A someone asked him,
“What took you so long to change your mind?”
The bluntness of the question made me cringe a bit. Austin liberals are a tough audience.
Pickett’s answer was great. “Just hard-headed, I guess,” he said, going on to explain that at the beginning he thought he was serving both the state and God, but by the end was left with the feeling that he was serving neither.
Like Pickett’s answer, At the Death House Door encourages viewers to contemplate the difference between the kind of comfortable, rarely tested convictions most of us have and the more complex nature of a set of beliefs forged through a lifetime of soul shattering experience.
While At the Death House Door traces an unforgettable moral journey through a world of violence and institutionalized revenge, Intimidad, a documentary by local filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon of Carnivalesque Films, is an equally searing film about the demands of life and love. I’ll write about this film in my next post.