Few film institutions, and certainly no film festivals, experienced a COVID trial by fire quite as SXSW did last year. The mammoth Austin event — which includes a film festival, a tech conference and its original smorgasbord of musical performances — was the first major film festival to cancel in response to the pandemic when the city of Austin shut it down on March 6, a week before it was supposed to kick off. It was also the first to experiment with streaming some of its programming online, when it partnered with Amazon to present a small selection from its lineup just a month later.
It’s a testament to how much things have changed, and how quickly, that SXSW’s first impromptu foray into virtual festival screenings only saw seven full-length features opt to participate, so new and untested was the model. This year, the festival, which runs virtually from March 16-20, boasts 75 feature films, the vast majority of them world premieres, and a glance at its programming reveals a slate that looks an awful lot like a strong SXSW lineup from the before times.
Janet Pierson, SXSW’s longtime director of film, has now had a year to reflect on the period of complete uncertainty that engulfed the fest, which she likens to standing in the midst of a tsunami.
“It was the weekend before where we realized things were really serious,” Pierson remembers. “We had a program that we thought was fantastic. The film festival was so strong, the speakers’ lineup was amazing, the activations were going to be super cool and were already being built. And then you started wondering, ‘wait, could we be in the middle of an epicenter for the entire world?’
“That week was so intense, and when we were cancelled it was almost a relief, like, at least we’re not going to be an epicenter. But then you’re like, oh my god, all these people who had so much invested in us, these filmmakers who spent years on their work, what are their options? There was so much investment that we had to cancel, and then we lost a third of our staff.”
After that initial shock, the festival attempted to salvage as much from the programming as possible, presenting the Amazon streaming series — “it was a great experiment,” Pierson says — and going ahead with the presentation of jury awards, even if many of the festival’s winners would wind up premiering elsewhere. Pierson and the rest of SXSW’s staff then spent the rest of the spring and summer months “planning for every possibility,” keeping an eye trained to the fall festival season to see how other events were weathering the storm. But easy answers were hardly forthcoming.
“We just never knew. Is this pandemic going to be over by July? By November? It couldn’t possibly last a year, could it? In the summer we didn’t open for submissions in June because things weren’t good then. But we knew we couldn’t be in a position where we cancelled again. That was the bottom line.”
The festival finally opened up for submissions in October, making clear to filmmakers that they should plan for an online-only event. In contrast to the chaos of March, when SXSW became something of a guinea pig for the entire festival world, this time organizers finally had the chance to watch and learn from others.
“We immediately started watching every [festival], thinking about, what does this feel like?” Pierson says. “If it’s in a European time-zone, are you getting up at 3 in the morning or just not bothering? How much can you handle watching when you’re also homeschooling your kids, and what’s your tolerance level for staring at your computer, and how much are you still using your OTT apps, and are you willing to pay, and how much are you willing to pay…?”
It’s been well over a decade since SXSW’s film component established itself as a top-tier date on the festival calendar, developing its own distinctive aesthetic all the while, and so it’s no small compliment to note that the 2021 film lineup looks very much like a typical SXSW program. True to SXSW’s origins, the fest will open and close with two music docs — the YouTube Demi Lovato docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” as opener, and the Charli XCX feature “Alone Together” as a closer — while recently unearthed footage of Tom Petty recording his magnum opus “Wildflowers” powers Mary Wharton’s “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free.” Beyond that, however, the lineup is as eclectic as one would expect.
Though the 75-film feature program is slimmed down from the hundred-plus features that the festival would present in a typical year, Pierson notes that the circumstances actually gave them a certain degree of freedom.
“Everything is different this year, so if we’d only seen 10 films that we liked, we could have just showed 10 films,” she says. “There was no quota, it’s not like in a real-life event where you have this many screens you have to fill. It could’ve been any number, but these were all films that we were 100% behind.”
One of the more obvious recurring themes that emerges through the program is COVID itself, with several films — both documentaries and narrative features — that take place entirely in the masked-up, locked-down world of 2020. “Alone Together” tracks Charli XCX’s attempt to record an album entirely in lockdown early in the pandemic; Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter’s “The End of Us” spotlights a recently broken-up couple forced to continue to cohabitate in quarantine; the Natalie Morales-directed “Language Lessons” stars the director herself as a Spanish teacher who develops a Zoom-based friendship with her adult student played by Mark Duplass; and Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek’s “Recovery” follows two sisters on a pandemic-era road trip to rescue their grandmother from an outbreak at her retirement home.
Of the COVID-themed submissions, “We were expecting to get a lot of unsuccessful films of people talking on their computer, so what surprised us was how really good these films were that we chose,” Pierson says with a laugh. “The fact that they worked so well, and that there were way more than we expected that were made during the pandemic and addressed it.”
Elsewhere in the program, spotlights on unusual strivers abound, from a documentary about a British bus driver’s amateur theatrical production of “Alien” (“Alien on Stage”) to a portrait of an obsessive domino-artist (“Lily Topples the World”). The Texas focus is felt in Jasmine Stodel’s “Kid Candidate,” about a 20-something Amarillo musician whose joke campaign for city council takes on a life of its own, as well as Liz Lambert’s “Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose,” which pinpoints a watershed moment in the gentrification of Austin’s South Congress district. Other promising festival premieres include Kelley Kali and Angelique Moon’s feature “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” about a homeless single mother; Rachel Fleit’s “Introducing, Selma Blair,” a doc about the actress’ struggle with MS; Dante Brasco’s “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers,” which offers multiple vignettes centered around a wedding; and Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” which stars Udo Kier as an elderly hairdresser. Nine films initially slated to premiere last year will be in the lineup this time around, including actor Justine Bateman’s directorial debut, “Violet.”
Presumably, some vestige of normal festival life will return to Austin in the springtime, and in that theoretical future, Pierson says she hopes several of the lessons from these most unusual times take hold.
“Everybody’s been saying that things will be different from here on out, and I feel that we can’t go through this experience we’ve had all year and not learn from it and evolve,” she says. “This has been a really challenging, awful year for so many people, but Zoom has been a life saver and it’s been great. It’s opened doors that we didn’t have before, and now we have that tool to do new things with. What I’m expecting out of the SX experience is that, as it’s always been, we don’t have all the answers, but we gather these incredibly creative, interesting people together, and there’s always a sense that things bubble up. People come together and figure things out, and new paradigms emerge from all of these people mixing it up.
“One of the things I’ve actually enjoyed about this year is there’s this sense in the industry that people are really open and vulnerable, like, ‘we’ve all made a lot of mistakes but we’re trying to figure stuff out, and we’re learning every day. We’re happy to share with you what works.’ I’ve found it industrywide that there’s this sense of how can we make this better? What would serve all of us? I’ve really appreciated that spirit, and I’m curious to see how that continues.”