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Documentaries shine at SXSW

Charles Ealy

Amid all the glitz, red carpets and celebrities, the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival distinguished itself this year by presenting its strongest lineup yet of documentaries. And if any statement could sum up the festival from a critical perspective, it would be that all of the stars and their comedies and dramas took a back seat to portrayals of real life.

Of the more than 130 feature films at the festival, more than 50 were documentaries, dealing with just about every topic imaginable — rock ‘n' roll, art, architecture, dance, bird-watching, crime, sexuality, sports, spirituality, the environment and urban affairs.

Among the big titles: music features "Marley," "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" and "Charles Bradley: Soul of America"; the crime stories of "Jeff" and "The Imposter"; the cultural critiques of "The Source," "Welcome to the Machine" and "Sunset Stories"; the environmental tales of "Eating Alabama," "Bay of All Saints" and "Chasing Ice"; and the quirky — "America's Parking Lot," "Trash Dance" and "The Central Park Effect."

In "America's Parking Lot," Austin director Jonny Mars captures the tailgating culture at Texas Stadium in Irving, before the Dallas Cowboys' moved to their new football home in Arlington.

In "Trash Dance," Austin director Andrew Garrison documents the art event staged by choreographer Allison Orr, using sanitation workers and trucks to stage a symphony of movement.

And in "The Central Park Effect," director Jeffrey Kimball looks at the rituals of New Yorkers who have become fascinated by the variety of birds that descend on the green space of Manhattan's Central Park.

But one of the most notable trends in this year's documentaries was the insertion of fiction and re-enactments into the documentaries, which are typically full of archival footage and personal interviews.

For instance, the crime documentary "Jeff" explores the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer before his arrest in Milwaukee in 1991. But director Chris James Thompson uses actor/director Andrew Swant as a stand-in for Dahmer. Thompson initially intended to make a fictional film about Dahmer's life, but the movie morphed into a documentary when he started interviewing people who knew the killer.

In "Charles Bradley: Soul of America," director Poull Brien includes subtle re-enactments to depict the early life of the 62-year-old soul singer who's the subject of the film.

In "Amor Cronica," director Jorge Perugorria tracks the singer CuCu Diamantes as she tours her native Cuba, but it's clear that Perugorria is not just recording the concerts but creating a story — even staging a closing scene reminiscent of "Casablanca." So it's really a feature with documentary footage.

And British director Bart Layton intersperses re-enacted scenes throughout "The Imposter," which looks at the bizarre case of a French con man who passed himself off as the long-lost teenage son of a San Antonio family.

In an interview during SXSW, Layton acknowledged that the use of reconstructed events in documentaries can sometimes be off-putting, or, as he said, "slightly dirty."

But he stressed that he and producer Dimitri Doganis were dealing with memories and mysteries — and that the re-enacted scenes in "The Imposter" are clear to the viewer. "The intent is important," he said, "and there is no intent to mislead the audience."

Indeed, Layton uses re-enactments to help create a hybrid documentary that seems more like a noirish feature, revealing one surprise after another and offering differing versions of "truth."

In the case of "The Imposter," the strategy clearly works. It was one of this year's most acclaimed SXSW films.

This year's documentary bonanza comes on the heels of the 2011 festival that featured the world premiere of "Undefeated," directed by T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay.

The movie, which focuses on an underprivileged Memphis football team, went on to win this year's Oscar for best documentary.

And other documentaries from the 2011 version of SXSW have also gone on to success.

Austin filmmaker Heather Courtney won the Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award for "Where Soldiers Come From," which premiered at the 2011 fest.

And "Better This World," which also screened at SXSW last year, has won numerous honors, including the Writers Guild of America award for best documentary screenplay.

If last year is any indication, the directors behind this year's SXSW documentaries have a busy and rewarding year ahead of them.

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931, Matthew Odam at 912-5986