The annual South by Southwest film and music festival was one of the earliest coronavirus cancelations, but — just like doctors, fitness instructors, and families — it has found a way to persevere in the digital space. From Monday until May 6, an online edition of the SXSW Film Festival will be available for free on Amazon's Prime video service, even for people who don't have Prime memberships.
The virtual festival represents a pared down version of what would have been shown for attendees in Austin, Texas. Many of the films that are screened at SXSW seek distribution, and filmmakers worry that offering their movie online for free will hurt its chances of getting picked up down the line; on the other hand, films that already have a form of distribution weren't necessarily interested in the program either. "I love 'South By' and I love Amazon and I love that they are trying to do something, but it feels like this might hurt the filmmakers in the end," one director whose narrative feature was not included in the package told The Hollywood Reporter.
Others disagree. In an op-ed for Deadline, filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer, whose film TFW No GF is included in the package, wrote: "[W]hile real-life, non-virtual festivals are a vital, important component of keeping cinema alive — incubating creativity and nurturing its participants — we as filmmakers ought to keep in mind the true spirit of this venture. We talk about the value of storytelling, but who are we making these stories for? Other filmmakers? The industry? No, we're making them for audiences."
Below is The Week's guide to the narrative and documentary features that are available to watch now with SXSW on Prime. (Note that an additional 29 short films are also available for free with SXSW on Prime, as well as episodic works Cursed Films, Motherland: Fort Salem, and Tales from the Loop). Browse the collection for yourself here.
You want … to watch the standouts
TFW No GF | Documentary | U.S. | Director: Alex Lee Moyer
Watch if you like: 4Chan; being way too online; memes; grappling with toxic masculinity
Anyone who's familiar with the term "incels," AKA "involuntary celibates," will likely come into TFW No GF with their own assumptions, ones that director Alex Lee Moyer deftly complicates in her documentary debut. Sure to be the most controversial film of SXSW on Prime just for that reason, Moyer interviews some of the internet subculture's most notorious characters to make the case that the one-dimensional portrait offered by the media is just that — an incomplete picture of a group of alienated and isolated young men. TFW No GF only lightly touches on the more troubling aspects of the movement. That's no small omission, seeing as what is "trolling" for some has inspired others' mass shootings; certain toxic ideologies have also taken root in the mainstream. Moyer's interviews are presented without any sort of comment from experts on extremism. Additionally, the director has credited the involvement of Cody Wilson in the film, a man who's cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an antigovernment extremist and the creator of Hatreon, "white supremacists' favorite fundraising site." TFW No Girlfriend should by no means be watched without this context (others have already demanded to know what Amazon Prime and SXSW are doing with this movie in the first place, presented as it is without counterbalance), but rather as a troubling glimpse behind the curtain.
Editor's note: This item has been adjusted from its original version to more accurately portray the context surrounding and reaction to TFW No GF's making and release.
Le Choc du Futur | Narrative | France | Director: Marc Collin
Watch if you like: The early 80s; electronic music; the color beige; a killer soundtrack
Le Choc du Futur (in English, The Shock of the Future) takes us to the turning point of modern music, on the eve of the 1980s, as acoustic instruments began to lose ground to sounds generated by machines. Director Marc Collin dedicates his film to the female pioneers of the synthesizer revolution, with the movie's fictional stand-in being a woman named Ana (Alma Jodorowsky, the granddaughter of Alejandro Jodorowsky, doing a bit of a Kristen-Stewart-in-Clouds-of-Sils-Maria pastiche). Rich in late-70s browns, smoky house parties, and thumping music, there's an alternate universe where this movie might have been picked up by A24; in it, Ana mostly lounges about listening to music by Throbbing Gristle, Aksak Maboul, and Suicide, or working at length on her own synth track. Sometimes this veers toward being a bit too insidery, a confirmation of your (and the filmmaker's) own hip tastes, but it also masterfully captures a place and time. Watch it loud.
You want … an arty foreign film
Cat in the Wall | Narrative | Bulgaria, U.K., France | Directors: Mina Mileva, Vesela Kazakova
Watch if you like: Immigrant stories; cats; social realism; laughing and crying at the same time
A small orange cat refusing to emerge from a hole behind a boiler becomes a kind of metaphor for Irina (Irina Atanasova), a Bulgarian immigrant who has a rocky relationship with her neighbors in a working class apartment building in London. Unlike many of the tenants who live in the building on benefits, Irina owns the apartment where she lives with her son, Jojo, and brother, Vlado (Angel Genov), who was educated as a historian in Bulgaria but can only find work installing TV antennas in England for pitiful pay. Cat in the Wall has already drawn comparisons to movies like I, Daniel Blake for its socio-political themes, but the nonfiction backgrounds of directors Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova give the story about the state of gentrification and European immigration in the post-Brexit U.K. extra heart.
Gunpowder Heart | Narrative | Guatemala | Director: Camila Urrutia
Watch if you like: Motorcycles; melancholy; Chekhov's gun; dazzling up-and-comers
Claudia and Maria are in love, but stifled by their lives in Guatemala City. Claudia (Andrea Henry) dreams of running away with Maria (Vanessa Hernández) to somewhere like Europe or the United States where they can live free together, but when disaster befalls the pair during a night at a carnival, Maria starts to spiral from the trauma. Urrutia's film aches with urgency and questions that don't have easy answers, and Henry and Hernández are dynamite together on screen.
You want … to learn about someone overlooked by the history books
I'm Gonna Make You Love Me | Documentary | U.S. | Director: Karen Bernstein
Watch if you like: 1980s New York; LGBTQ trailblazers; biopics; inspiring lives
Karen Bernstein tells the wonderful story of Brian Belovitch, who, now in his 60s, reflects on the many lives he's lived, including his decade as a transgender woman named Tish. During the 1980s, Tish was a "glamorous, busty lusty, Fellini-esque beauty," a former Army wife who had made ends meet with sex work and club performances in New York City. Tish later transitioned back to Brian, and now works as a substance abuse counselor for the LGBTQ community, happily married to his husband (and I'm Gonna Make You Love Me interviewee) Jim. Brian's life story is "neither political in nature, nor a polemic film," in the words of Bernstein, who summed it up best to Women and Hollywood. "It's about the universal desire to feel comfortable in one's own skin, and the reality that some of us have to work much harder to get there."
My Darling Vivian | Documentary | U.S. | Director: Matt Riddlehoover
Watch if you like: Celebrity memoirs; Walk the Line (2005); television exposés; redemption
Johnny Cash and June Carter were a made-for-Hollywood love story, a mythic relationship that sadly overshadowed the amazing life and unwavering love of Cash's first wife. My Darling Vivian helps revive the forgotten story of Vivian Liberto, a spirited woman and the mother of four of Cash's children, who nevertheless wasn't prepared for what life would have in store for the wife of this particular aspiring musician. With intimate interviews from Cash and Vivian's daughters, as well as gorgeous archival footage of the family and intimate letters between the young lovers, My Darling Vivian helps give a voice back to a woman who's been ignored for far too long.
You want … something you can watch in bits and pieces
Selfie | Narrative | France | Directors: Tristan Aurouet, Thomas Bidegain, Marc Fitoussi, Cyril Gelblat, Vianney Lebasque
Watch if you like: Your iPhone; complaining about "kids these days"; Black Mirror; Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story
While there are several episodic offerings included in the SXSW on Prime package, Selfie is slightly different in that it is an anthology film and intended to be watched in one sitting. The film is broken into smaller (mostly, but not entirely!) stand-alone vignettes which can be paused in between sections if you don't have time for an unbroken 108 minutes during the week. The stories largely share themes of taking technology to absurd and amusing extremes (think a French Black Mirror), from overly-committed parenting influencers to the perils of an omnipresent algorithm. Watching on your phone or laptop might be a little too on the nose.