SXSWorld May 2014


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4 8 S X S W O R L D / M A Y 2 0 1 4 s SXSW's 2014 edition wound to a close, this year's Film Awards showed that eco-oriented docu- mentaries had made an impression on the landscape of the festival. Margaret Brown's e Great Invisible, a trenchant look at the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, turned many heads as it landed top honors as Grand Jury Award winner. Meanwhile, Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins' Visions entry, Yakona, and Travis Rummel and Ben Knight's Spotlight entry, DamNation, two films that lushly portrayed river eco- systems in notably different ways, both scored audience awards in their respective categories. ese films resonated with festivalgoers because, aside from being remarkably aesthetic, they opted for a "Big Picture" mentality. Instead of focusing singularly on a topical issue, these documentaries broadened and assessed the history and culture that would lead to a given environ- mental crisis. ey also spoke to the impact our actions (or inactions) as a culture will continue to have if intervention doesn't come quickly and boldly. In other words, these films favor the idea of a flowing continuum. Appropriate, then, that they are all largely about water, and what man- made inventions are poisoning it, in one form or another. DamNation looks at our country's relationship to dams, from their 20th century building boom to a more critical attitude in recent years, that sees these monoliths as increasingly obsolete. Acting more as artery cloggers than necessary power sources, the dams are causing grief, from Native American tribes to the rivers' animal populations, especially salmon, which try to migrate to the upper reaches of rivers to spawn. Co-directors Rummel and Knight use stunning cinematography of the towering dams and surrounding wilderness to communicate a land - scape with burgeoning potential that is interrupted in mid-stride. ey also take a hands-on approach. Instead of being content with talking head interviews and shots of rivers, they get down into the dam war zones. ey attempt a kayak trip through an area supposedly welcoming of recreational activities (spoiler alert: they're not so wel- come); they secretly film the explosion of a dam and its gushing aftermath; and they help one of their interviewees with his form of peaceful protest in which he scales a dam with paint buckets in the dead of night, to paint an unmistakable message. e most avant-garde of these three films, Yakona, is a film to wash over you. For cinephiles, it has shades of Terrence Malick — both e Tree of Life and e New World. Almost entirely word- less, Yakona is set from the perspective of the San Marcos River in Central Texas. rough arresting cinematography, both above and underwater, images are conjured of the river's long and literally turbulent history, from the human battles waged there to the smaller victories and losses witnessed only by nature. One of these is a strategic fight between a duck and a snap- ping turtle, which is hypnotic, but not for the faint-hearted. e film cross-cuts between time periods and species — a Native American woman gives birth in a cave, a human fossil is found, fish lurk at the river's reedy bottom, nearby construction threatens the equilibrium. In this way, we get to see the best approximation of a river's "stream" of thought. It doesn't unfold chronologically, but fragmentally, swirling together like the bubbles, eddies, soil and animals of the San Marcos. If not as sumptuous-looking as Yakona or DamNation, e Great Invisible boasts the most skillful chops in terms of dynamic storytelling. Brown shows us that the story of Deepwater Horizon goes beyond what we saw on the news back in 2010, when the gargantuan oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 men and causing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil to spill mercilessly into the waters of the surrounding area and nearby coastlines, wreaking havoc on both the environment and local economies. Instead of the headline grabbing events, Brown focuses on long term subject matter, choosing her subjects in order to provide a full-spectrum view of the catastrophe. She visits with former oil rig employees who survived the explosion, and are still clearly suffering from the trauma, whether struggling with survivors' guilt, physical injuries or major income depletion. She spends time with locals who dedicate their efforts to helping those barely staying afloat years after the disaster. She also interviews the attorney in charge of BP's Victim Compensation Fund. Brown documents that, years after Deepwater Horizon has subsided from headlines, this is a long-haul crisis you have to look closely to see. In many ways, this is the point of a quality documentary: bringing the invisible to light. It makes sense that these films choose water as a main focal point, as water is the bedrock of communities, whether human, animal, cultural, spiritual or economic. In the fight for restoring various bodies of water, DamNation, Yakona and e Great Invisible all make the case for restoring communities back to their original func - tions. In these flowing eco-systems, the right ripples can have large effects. n Restoring the Flow: Eco Docs Resonate at SXSW Film 2014 by Beth Hanna A The Great Invisible DamNation N A M C H A U

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