After years of being overshadowed, Texas movies made a comeback this year at this month's 18th annual South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. For the first time since 2003's "Sexless," a Texas-made movie won the grand jury prize for narrative feature. "Natural Selection" also went on to win best director for native Texan Robbie Pickering, best screenplay, best editing and best score/music. "Natural Selection" stars Rachael Harris and Matt O'Leary also were honored for breakthrough performances.
But other Texas movies at this year's festival proved that the quality of "Natural Selection" wasn't just a fluke. Jason Hammond of Taylor chronicles the history of Texas-style fiddling with his lively documentary "The Devil's Box." Turk Pipkin traces the building
of the Mahiga Hope High School in Kenya with the moving "Building Hope." Billy Bob Thornton takes us inside the life of Willie Nelson in "The King of Luck." And teenager Ryan Akin of Plano emerges as a promising actor in "Five Time Champion," which was filmed in Smithville.
Though quality does not guarantee national distribution or financial success, these movies will undoubtedly screen again in Austin at various events, such as the Austin Film Society's Best of the Fests series.
Here's a look at some of this year's standouts:
'The Devil's Box'
Hallettsville, the county seat of Lavaca County, doesn't rate high on most Texans' radar. But every April, it becomes the center of the nation for fiddlers.
They all flock to town for Fiddlers' Frolics, which features competitions for musicians of all ages. And they're all celebrating a rich cultural heritage of music that has been passed down for generations in rural areas across the U.S.
The competition focuses on Texas-style fiddling, which is marked by fluidity and melodic elaborations. Fiddlers team up with guitar players, who lay down the rhythms for virtuosic renditions of traditional tunes.
Director Jason Hammond introduces us to the legends: Larry Franklin, a Texan who works in Nashville and comes from a long line of fiddling scions; Wes Westmoreland III, who learned to play from his grandfather; and relative newcomer Dennis Ludiker, an Austin resident who grew up in Spokane, Wash., and a former member of the South Austin Jug Band.
Hammond also profiles rising stars, including Mia Orosco, the Bistodeau Sisters and the Nugent Family.
Though it's fascinating to discover such musicians, it's even better to hear their music and to watch the joy on their faces as they bond with each other at the yearly festival.
With "The Devil's Box," Hammond and producing partner Beth Jasper have helped preserve a crucial part of the state's musical heritage.
— Charles Ealy
Turk Pipkin's followup to 2009's "One Peace at a Time" follows the construction of a high school in a remote Kenyan village, with generous help from the Nobelity Project, a nonprofit group run by the Pipkin family.
Much of the movie is set in 2010, as Christy Pipkin travels with her husband to meet the children of Mahiga, Kenya, for the first time.
Cameras follow the Pipkins as well as Greg Elsner, the architect of the RainWater Court, which features a basketball area as well as a rainwater collection system.
Elsner also helps oversee the construction of the high school, which has eight classrooms, a library and a computer room, stocked with Dell and AMD equipment.
The movie concludes with a rousing grand opening of the high school late last year.
As school principal Jane Wainaina says: "Mahiga means stones in our language, and stones are generally obstacles. This school had so many obstacles, but now we have hope."
"Building Hope," which won the festival's audience award in the Lone Star State competition, will screen again on April 6 at a fundraising event at the Paramount Theatre.
'The King of Luck'
The festival closed on a rich, warm, country note Saturday night, as self-described Texarkansan Billy Bob Thornton screened his Willie Nelson documentary, "The King of Luck," at the Paramount.
The Red Headed Stranger missed the screening (on the road, again), but many notable Nelson friends and family showed up to honor the Texas legend. They included Ray Benson, Kinky Friedman, the Pipkins and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett. Even late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, who was spotted around Austin all weekend, attended the closing-night film.
Doggett shared a Willie story of his own and, with a nod to a highly publicized private show at the Seaholm Power Plant, said, "We're glad Kanye West is performing here tonight, but Austin will always be Willie Nelson." Nelson's longtime friend then introduced the quick-witted filmmaker, who joked that he was a little nervous talking from the stage, as it was the first time he had been in Austin and not been intoxicated. By way of introduction, Thornton said that while some at the Paramount were in the movie, "in a way, all of you are."
Author and humorist Friedman encapsulates the film's theme early in the movie, explaining that Nelson is not a celebrity or a star, but a folk hero. Indeed, Thornton's movie is an unabashed love letter to the prolific singer-songwriter.
"The King of Luck" eschews the traditional chronological tale of the subject from birth to superstardom. Instead, Thornton breaks his movie into sections (The Band, The Family, Friends), allowing those who know Nelson best to share tales of the musician's kindness and achievements. The anecdotal style leaves some holes in the narrative, but one assumes that by now audiences are quite familiar with Nelson's time line.
Presented in black and white, which lends the film a timeless aesthetic, the movie lensed by Afshin Shahidi uses a treasure trove of historic video footage and still photographs to complement the stories. And what stories they are — decades of tales from the road and back home, colored with humor, heartache and a little bit of hell-raising.
While the movie offers some perspective on the unique musical legacy of the Texas troubadour, the lasting portrait left by the film is of a socially conscious man dedicated to a life of authenticity and a friend of undying loyalty. Of all the stories of hit songs, wild nights, endless laughs and devoted fans, Longhorn legend Darrell Royal's words resonate the most.
"He has a great memory when it comes to friends," Royal says of Nelson.
Nelson has said of the small Western "town" he built on his ranch, that you're either in Luck or you're out of Luck. Thornton's movie impresses upon audiences that we have all been lucky to have had Nelson in our lives.
— Matthew Odam
'Five Time Champion'
Ryan Akin has become a big fan of Smithville, where the new movie "Five Time Champion" was filmed and directed by Berndt Mader of Austin.
"It's just a great town," Akin says. "We never ever got the word 'no' from anyone" during the filming.
Though "no" is an everyday word in the movie business, Akin probably won't hear it too often if he continues on his current path.
He plays Julius, a scientifically gifted young man whose father has deserted the family amid rumors involving sexual identity.
"I fell in love with the character when I was reading the script," says Akin, who was born in Dallas in 1995. "He's curious, and he tries to find order in things. But he's not at all clear on who he is. And like me, he doesn't have a father."
Akin reveals that his mother had "serious substance abuse problems" when he was very young and that he eventually landed in a series of foster care homes. "My grandmother, Peggy, finally got me out of foster care about six years ago," he says.
Since then, Akin has been participating in all sorts of artistic ventures from his home in Plano.
In 2009, he won a singing competition that led to his being paired with Justin Bieber for a music video. And he says he has finally found a school where he won't be bullied — iSchool High, a charter school in Lewisville.
"People say that if kids don't have a stable home early on that they'll always be in trouble," Akin says. "I'm out to prove a point — that the future is in your own hands."