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A look at some of the best documentaries at SXSW

Staff Writer
Austin 360
From left, Gordon Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Robert Noyce, Victor Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean Hoerni and Jay Last were on the ground floor of Fairchild Semiconductor, a company started by venture capital in the late '50s that is featured in 'Something Ventured.'

Documentaries will be one of the highlights at this year's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. The American-Statesman received early DVDs of many of the films and is highlighting some of the best as the festival kicks off today. More documentaries will be featured during the festival. Film times are subject to change. Check sxsw.com/film for up-to-the-minute information.

‘Buck'

"Buck" has heart and tack. Winner of the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at Sundance this year, the calm, appealing film trails a legendary horse trainer as he travels the country holding clinics for troublesome horses and sometimes troubled owners.

"A lot of times instead of helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems," Dan M. "Buck" Brannaman says in his soft, horse-whispery voice. "All horses are a mirror to your soul."

Buck and his brother grew up as trick ropers. Brutalized by a "terrifying" father after their mother died, they were beaten for imperfect performances. After a coach saw welts on his back, a sheriff took Buck to live with a foster family that loved him.

But instead of bitterness and rage, Buck turned his boyhood angst into empathy for horses. He understands what it's like to be scared. Following in the boots of Ray Hunt, one of the founders of the Natural Horsemanship movement, he learned to think like a horse, invoking compassion and trust instead of cruelty and fear.

Directed by first-timer Cindy Meehl of Redding, Conn. (4 p.m. Sunday, Arbor; 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Paramount; 5:30 p.m. March 19, State Theatre)

— Jane Sumner

"Where Soldiers Come From"

In "Where Soldiers Come From," director Heather Courtney returns to her rural hometown in Michigan's upper peninsula to document the lives of a group of high school friends who join the National Guard. They want to attend college eventually, but they need the signing bonuses as well as the tuition help they'll get.

Midway through their service, they discover that they'll be heading to Afghanistan to drive armored trucks along dusty roads, to look for bombs.

Courtney eventually embeds with their unit and follows them on their missions. She also films them in their barracks. Some suffer concussions from the bomb blasts. Some become hostile about Afghanistan.

And upon their return home, Courtney continues to track the men as they try to readjust, with difficulty, to civilian life.

Spanning four years, "Where Soldiers Come From" represents a remarkable commitment of Courtney's time and effort. It's also a significant, moving, saddening portrayal of the effects of war on the nation's young men.

(2 p.m. Monday, Vimeo Theater; 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Alamo South; 2:30 p.m. March 19, Paramount)

— Charles Ealy

"Something Ventured"

If you saw last year's Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job," you might have concluded that American capitalism has some big rotten spots.

"Something Ventured," an ambitious, well-researched documentary, makes the argument that there are at least some good guys — the venture capitalists.

Directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, "Something Ventured" takes us back to the beginnings of venture capitalism in the late 1950s, when a few people decided to take big risks in hopes of huge rewards — and helped restart the American innovation engine.

It's essentially the story of how such companies as Apple, Intel, Cisco, Atari and Genentech came to be.

Not one of those highly successful companies was a sure thing when investors began to lend them money.

But the actions of these investors were crucial to the development of personal computers, the Internet and biotechnology.

As with many documentaries, "Something Ventured" features plenty of talking heads. But the people who are talking are fascinating and inspiring. They include Arthur Rock, an early investor in Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple and Teledyne, and Tom Perkins, who helped fund Genentech and Tandem.

Some of these men talk about their great success. But just as many are willing to talk about big mistakes.

(8 p.m. Saturday, Alamo South; 9 p.m. Sunday, Arbor; 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Vimeo; 11:30 a.m. March 18, Rollins)

— C.E.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

For the legendary German director's first (and reportedly last) foray into 3-D filmmaking, Werner Herzog headed to the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains 32,000-year old cave paintings, the oldest known to man. The French government has made the cave virtually inaccessible to nonscholars, and getting in there at all is a big deal.

Herzog films the paintings lovingly, calling them the birth of the human soul and emphasizing the vast distance between their world and ours. Indeed, "Forgotten Dreams" contains some of the best melodramatic, mumbled rants of Herzog's career. On mapping the cave with lasers: "It like you are creating the phone directory of Manhattan, four million precise entries, but do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their hopes? What are their families? We'll never know from the phone directory." Also, he compares modern humans to radioactive mutant albino crocodiles and makes it work. That's our Werner!

(4 p.m. Sunday, Alamo South; 5:30 p.m. March 18, Alamo South)

— Joe Gross

"Tabloid"

After a decade-plus of relentlessly serious movies ("Mr. Death," "The Fog of War," "Standard Operating Procedure") the quixotic documentarian Errol Morris makes something a little more light-hearted: the story of Joyce McKinney, a busty pageant queen and occasional model who may or may not have kidnapped her Mormon husband in England in 1977, tied him to a bed and had sex with him, for which she was arrested.

Though all but unknown in the States, the story was, well, a tabloid sensation in the U.K., and Morris gets as many participants as possible on the record, exploring everything from Mormon teaching to paparazzi ethics to, yes, cloning. It helps that, in classic Morris fashion, McKinney is more than willing to tell her side of the story/ The filmmaker's knack for finding fascinating subject remains unerring.

(4:30 p.m. Monday, Paramount)

— J.G.

"Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone"

Poor Fishbone. The Los Angeles punk-funk-ska band was one of the most energetic live acts of its generation and inspired everyone from No Doubt to Primus. Too rock for a black audience, too black for white radio, Fishbone existed in a deeply frustrating genre netherworld. A devotion to musical democracy, an inability to generate a radio hit and internal strife, including everything from ego clashes to religious cults, meant this powerhouse never quite hit the big time.

"Everyday Sunshine" is told largely, but not completely, by band anchor Norwood Fisher and charismatic, mercurial lead singer Angelo Moore, the sole constants through the band's 30+ year life. The directors mix smart animation (the nods to "Fat Albert" are obvious) with live footage, celebrity endorsements (Ice-T! Gewn Stefani!) and revealing talking head chatter with most of the original members for a fascinating, sometimes achingly depressing ride through the potential glories and everyday indignities of a life struggling with the music business. Directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler.

(noon March 17, Carver Museum Boyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina St.)

— J.G.

"Convento"

The trailer for "Convento" makes it look like a mix between a contemporary Don Quixote and Frankenstein. But Jarred Alterman's doc/art film proves to be much more.

"Convento," convent in Spanish, actually looks at a day in the life of Geraldine Zwanikken's family. Geraldine is a former classical dancer from Holland. Her son Louis spends his time tending to his horse and enjoying nature promenades. His brother, Christiaan, on the other hand, creates works of art by collecting animal skulls and reanimating them by using robotics. He's also gone so far as to create entire robotic animals that eerily mimic their natural counterparts and hung them from the walls of the convent.

Together, the three of them live in a 400-year-old monastery, the Convento Sao Francisco, in the small village of Metrola in southern Portugal. They are a family of artists and naturists, and the film delves just as much into their daily work as it does into their personal philosophies regarding life, art and one's own dreams.

Alterman's film takes particular interest in contrasting the artificial — essentially Christiaan's work — with the naturally appearing patterns found in nature and the way animals naturally behave. With very little dialogue, the film focuses on the shapes and colors of Zwanikken's land, immersing viewers into an engaging world.

(9:45 p.m. Monday, Alamo Ritz; 8 p.m. Tuesday, Alamo South; 11:30 p.m. March 18, Alamo South.)

— Pierre Bertrand