It started out, as so many things do these days, with a Facebook post.
On March 6, the announcement came that South by Southwest Film Festival wouldn’t happen, after Austin declared a local disaster over concern about the spread of COVID-19. Movie producer Giorgio Angelini asked through social media, "Any Austin friends want to screen our film in your living room next week?"
The film that he produced, "Feels Good Man," premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where director Arthur Jones won the U.S. documentary special jury award for emerging filmmaker. The film had been scheduled to screen twice during SXSW as part of their "Festival Favorites" programming.
While it was well-received at Sundance, the documentary has not yet been picked up for distribution. The additional attention and coverage from the SXSW screenings could have helped make that a reality.
A few days later, Angelini (a University of Texas alumnus) still planned to make the trek to Austin to host Q&As for two screenings at Violet Crown Cinema, going ahead despite the fest’s cancellation. The first of those screenings happened March 14.
Concern over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has led to many more event cancellations and empty venues around town; the city on Saturday prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people. But at Violet Crown, the seats were just shy of full for the film's Texas premiere.
The movie made it to Austin, but Angelini didn’t. He stayed in Austin after starting to feel sick. Co-producer Caitlin Ward was on hand to introduce "Feels Good Man" and talk to the audience after the screening.
The film, from first-time director and animator Arthur Jones, tells the story of Matt Furie. He is an underground artist who created a comic called "Boy's Club," scans of which he posted to social networking site MySpace in the mid-2000s. The comic had four characters, but one called Pepe the Frog, whom Jones described as a "chill frog-dude," took on a life of his own over the years.
Also known the "sad frog" meme on the internet, Furie's innocent creation was co-opted by denizens of an online message board called 4chan around 2008. Anonymous users would constantly use and alter Pepe's image, often in discussions tied to the hateful ideology of the self-described "alt-right." This eventually led to Pepe's likeness to be deemed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
Furie, who looks and acts like any skateboarder or surfer you've ever seen in a movie, was not at first fully aware of this second life that Pepe had taken on. Focused on his art and family, he occasionally would hear about what was happening with his creation but mostly regarded it as something about which he couldn't do much.
And that was true, until a man tried to publish an anti-Muslim children's book using Pepe as the main character. Furie enlisted a team of copyright lawyers to fight back against the book's publication. That team kept on fighting to protect his creation, even taking Austin-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to court for selling a poster bearing Pepe's image on his InfoWars website.
The "Feels Good Man" team filmed for more than two years, interviewing Furie along with other artists and journalists who cover internet trends and online hate movements. It's a fascinating portrait of how easy it is lose control over something you created once it is out in the world at large.
Austin resident Pascal Barczak attended the screening on Saturday. He said that he had never gone to SXSW Film Festival, thinking it was inaccessible to people without a badge. (In fact, single tickets are available for almost all SXSW screenings in a normal year.)
Despite not knowing anything about the movie, Barczak thought that going would be a good way to support a local business and an independent film he might not otherwise have been able to see. He loved that a Daniel Johnston song was used and thought that the movie "highlighted a new and perhaps confusing cultural landscape we all find ourselves trying our best to navigate. It put into sharper focus a previously blurred line between internet playground creativity and outright propaganda."
"Feels Good Man" screens again at 1:30 p.m. March 17 at Violet Crown.