The satirists got it right, when, last week, The Onion referred to SXSW as Sundance, "only without the celebrities." Which is a glorious affirmation of a fest that's a sort of industry 'tweener: not big enough for million-dollar acquisitions, not small enough to be ignored. There are lavish parties, yes, and red-carpet premières with their attendant hoopla, but they're more like DVD extras than main attractions. Folks here, many of them locals clutching big-dollar tix, line up hours early to see movies about the fabrications of Michael Moore (Manufacturing Dissent) and the machinations of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Running with Arnold) and about how slaves in the Dominican Republic (The Price of Sugar) and a Superman on Hollywood Boulevard (Confessions of a Superhero) struggle just to get by.
It's a documentary-heavy festival, blessedly, a week during which folks ignore Austin's beautiful weather to spend hours in the murky dark to watch film after film reveal ugly truths about how, for instance, the government subsidizes a corn industry that's all but guaranteeing we will be the first generation to live shorter lives than our parents.
That's but one revelation found in Aaron Wolf's elegiac but troubling King Corn, in which Boston boys Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis move to Iowa, plant an acre of corn, and follow its path from seed to corn syrup, cattle feed and the filler in damned near everything we put into our bodies. It's Super Size Me rendered as a tone poem a softer version of the hard truth that we eat shit because it's cheap and plentiful. (Speaking of Super Size Me, its maker Morgan Spurlock was also in town with his exec-produced What Would Jesus Buy. The answer, by the way, is, "Way less than you.")
Even before the fest began, folks had begun debating and berating Manufacturing Dissent, a sort of Dear John letter signed, sealed, and delivered with a heavy sigh to Michael Moore, whose Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 remade the documentary form in the filmmaker's shape-shifting image. Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, who once more prove that Canadians are kind even when trying to be cruel, initially set out to make a film that celebrated Moore, whose politics they agreed with and films they adored. But Moore would have none of it. He brushed off interview requests, his friends and colleagues refused to cooperate, and his handlers became outwardly hostile toward Melnyk and Caine when they turned up at public speaking events carrying the filmmakers' familiar weapons: a boom mike and video camera. At one event, they're unplugged from the soundboard through which other reporters are allowed to tape Moore's speech; at another, a publicist ejects them from an arena and throws Caine's camera to the ground.
The filmmakers don't cover any new ground in their movie. Moore's distortions and manipulations have been well-documented by both the mainstream media and in right-wing documentaries. It's simply a doc about docs the ethics of truth telling and the impact Moore's had on those who keep it real by faking it. ("Aw, c'mon. All documentaries are fraudulent," Ron Mann told me a few nights ago. He's a Canadian documentary filmmaker himself, best known for Grass and Comic Book Confidential.) Manufacturing is also a movie about disappointment, about finding out your truth-telling, fact-finding, shout-it-from-the-mountaintops leader is just another paranoid rich guy surrounded by a coterie of security guards and yes men.
"From our point of view, we do think there is a covenant between the filmmaker and the audience," Caine says. "The audience has a right to expect that when they sit down to watch one of these films, what they're seeing is the truth. And when the filmmaker abuses that, the audience has every right to turn on the filmmaker and the film. That may seem a little harsh, but . . ." He laughs. "And I'm not suggesting our film is the truth, but it's our truth."