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Real reels: 8 SXSW documentaries to watch for

Staff Writer
Austin 360
"The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" screened at South by Southwest Film Festival 2019. The film tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos. [Contributed by Drew Kelly]


I doubt many people in Zilker Park at the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival realized the long-haired man joining Mickey Raphael on harmonica duty during Willie Nelson’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” was a future Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

Leave it to a kid who spent part of his childhood tapping into his love of science to create bombs to blow up our image of a scientist.

It seems they broke the mold with Dr. Jim Allison, the Alice native and groundbreaking scientist profiled in filmmaker Bill Haney’s documentary, “Breakthrough,” which made its world premiere Saturday at South by Southwest.

Haney’s documentary takes a fairly standard chronological look at the early years of Allison’s life, growing up the hard-headed and mischievous youngest of three brothers. The rote format works in this case, as most viewers will likely need an introduction to the subject’s life. Allison’s childhood, and the rest of his life and work, would be informed by the loss of his mother to cancer when Allison was just 11 years old.

Following a childhood spent exploring and pushing back on teachers that didn’t appear his intellectual equal, Allison eventually graduated from the University of Texas in the late 1960s, where his love of science and books was equaled by his love of music and good times.

The free spirit eventually landed in San Diego, a stint which doesn’t serve the movie much outside of an awesome Willie Nelson anecdote, and would have a career that saw him spending time working in Smithville; Berkeley, California; and New York City. During that time, Allison made some fascinating discoveries about T-cell development and CTLA-4 that would lead to the development of immuno-oncology drugs that have been used to successfully treat almost a million cancer patients.

His research and hypothesis were often met with pushback from the scientific and pharmaceutical communities, but Haley’s doc shows that the independent mind and creativity that marked Allison’s childhood are the same characteristics (along, undoubtedly, with some inherent genius) that propelled him toward one of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries, along with the Nobel Prize.

Fellow outsized Texas character Woody Harrelson’s voice appears to guide the film through the scientific details of Allison’s research, giving a layman’s vibe and simplicity to dense material, while reporters, Allison’s ex-wife, friends and former colleagues help paint a picture of a charismatic, dogged and passionate man whose right and left brains seem to fire with equal intensity.

Haley weaves into the narrative a story of a cancer survivor saved by Allison’s discoveries, though the sly way in which he attempts to pay off the touching angle could have benefited from a more direct telling.

The film stays more or less on the surface of what must have been a surely fascinating life, skimming over details of the sacrifices demanded of Allison and his loved ones (his son’s almost non-existence is a bit confusing), but it does good work of revealing a colorful character whose contributions to science and the modern world make him a first ballot Texas Hall of Famer on par with other greats, like his pal and fellow outlaw legend Nelson.

— Matthew Odam, American-Statesman staff

"Building the American Dream"

A proliferation of cranes, master-planned communities popping up like rapidly growing Chia plants, lanes of roads blocked off for truck passage ... you can't avoid the signs of growth across Texas. The state is home to four of the fastest growing cities in the country. And while politicians are quick to point to limited regulation and low taxes as the drivers of the economic boom known as “the Texas Miracle,” there is something much more sinister and sad at work. Filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez’s documentary, “Building the American Dream,” pulls back the curtain on the widespread mistreatment of the thousands of undocumented workers who are helping grow Texas into a global economic force.

Undocumented workers account for about 50 percent of the million-person construction workforce in Texas, according to the film, which made its world premiere at SXSW. A dearth of regulations, combined with fear of deportation and lack of empowerment, contributes to poor working conditions and outright economic fraud. Twenty percent of those undocumented workers have been cheated out of rightfully earned money as part of this system of intimidation and exploitation.

The doc traces the stories of several families who have been victimized by the system, including the Granillo family of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, who lost their son to a heat-related medical crisis after he worked without breaks through the hottest summer in Texas. Roendy Granillo was one death in a year that saw about three construction worker deaths a week.

“Building” follows the Granillo family as it works through its grief, bonding together to press an initially unsympathetic Dallas City Council to adopt mandatory breaks for these at-risk construction workers. The callous, business-first response from several council members shows not just the struggle of the Granillo family but the entire construction community.

El Salvador native Claudia has worked as an electrician with her husband for years, and when they are not paid their owed wages of $11,000 from a subcontractor, they turn to the Workers Defense Fund to help make a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission. The fight of Claudia and her husband coalesces around the stories of fellow workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights activists that depict the uphill battle at hand. These individual stories are set against the larger, shifting narrative around immigration, and Claudia’s concerns become heightened beyond finances, as the federal government announces its plan to end DACA.

The tight and moving but not emotionally exploitative film smoothly navigates the complicated waters in the immigration debate by focusing not on every aspect of immigration but on the specific story of these workers, who are contributing to building the state while being shortchanged by businesses, the government and regulators. The families included in the film respond to their tragedies and crises with dignity and a fierce sense of familial and community love. For a group of people who have contributed so much to so many others’ dreams, it certainly seems like they are asking for only the minimal human compassion in response.

— M.O.

"Well Groomed"

If they're smart, Netflix or Hulu will rush in and snatch up this film. This is exactly the kind of thing that you watch and then tell all your friends that they have to watch it, as well. In a culture where streaming titles have the capacity to go viral in a weekend, "Well Groomed" is an absolute no-brainer, and hopefully it will find its way to a bigger audience soon.

I walked into Rebecca Stern's film expecting a movie strictly about the rigors and methods of pet grooming, and I had never even heard of competitive creative dog grooming. What is it all about? Simply put, it is a process where the groomer uses a variety of non-toxic hair dyes and scissor techniques to transform their animals into works of art. You'll see it all on display here. Dinosaurs, E.T. and Alice in Wonderland are just some of the characters that appear on the sides of these dogs.

We follow Adriane, Angela, Cat and Nicole, four women at various stages of their careers. Nicole is an upstart, on the verge of taking over the grooming shop she's worked at for several years. Cat and Angela are more established groomers and have a fair bit of success in creative contests. Adriane has been working hard to establish herself in the creative field, but a first place trophy has eluded her.

It all leads up to the Groom Expo in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Standing as the world's largest grooming show, we watch as these women and their dogs compete to take home the top prize.

Backed by a whimsical score from indie musician Dan Deacon, this delightful documentary making its world premiere was one of SXSW's most charming offerings.

— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman

"The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley"

There’s a sucker born every minute, and the new Alex Gibney documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” takes us through a long list of people — journalists, scientists and investors — who bought into the allegedly fraudulent technology pushed by Elizabeth Holmes. She was on the cover of major financial magazines like Fortune. She was profiled by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker. She recruited such political notables as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger to sit on her board. And she was hailed as a genius: the 19-year-old founder of Theranos who said she was going to revolutionize health care by developing a portable device that could inexpensively diagnose infections and illnesses by using only finger-prick samples of blood.

As Gibney makes clear, Holmes was a zealot, and she might still believe that what she was doing was right. She declined to speak to Gibney for the documentary. But the fact of the matter is that Holmes, who became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire and was heralded as the next Steve Jobs, ended up making her company worthless. How did this happen? Gibney lays it all out, and it’s almost unbelievable. But Holmes kept her company private and developed a secretive culture around a blood-testing device that apparently didn’t work as advertised.

This won’t be the last movie about the whole affair. Director Adam McKay (“Vice”) is planning a feature film based on the book by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, whose investigative reporting first raised questions about Holmes and her company. And the actress to play Holmes? Jennifer Lawrence.

— Charles Ealy, special to the American-Statesman

"Human Nature"

This documentary from producers Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner and director Adam Bolt is bound to be one of the most talked about from this year's SXSW. It deals with gene editing and engineering and the rapid advances being made by biologists around the world. It doesn't take sides about whether this is good or bad, but it lays out the ethical issues, and they are whoppers. The technology promises to offer cures for genetically inherited diseases, possibly saving millions of lives. It's also being used to grow organs in pigs that can be transplanted into humans. But it can be used to do much more. In fact, the technology might allow us to alter the DNA of the human race, in essence messing with human nature.

Prospective parents might be able to have embryos edited to highlight certain desirable characteristics like intelligence, looks or athleticism, leading to so-called designer babies. And when science starts messing with such complicated matters, there might be unintended consequences. This documentary is a clarion call for public debate.

— C.E.

"State of Pride"

Academy Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman team up with engaging TV host and activist Raymond Braun to ask a simple question: Fifty years after Stonewall, are gay pride events still relevant? It's a question that is more likely to be asked by people in metropolitan areas that have thriving LGBT scenes. We may have marriage equality, but in most states, people can lose their jobs or be evicted from their homes just for being gay. What about all of the people who are queer across the country who fear that kind of discrimination all the time?

Braun sets off to several different cities for this documentary to see what gay pride looks like today. He attends a pride event in Washington, D.C., headlined by openly gay pop star Troye Sivan and heads out to San Francisco, where — as you might imagine — things are out, loud and proud.

Not all gay people are lucky enough to be near that type of city. That really hit home when Braun visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a city where pride events have only been happening since 2014. There we meet a large contingent of transgender women of color who have formed their own support system to survive the deep South. We also meet a lesbian couple who traveled for hours just to get to the relatively small Tuscaloosa pride parade. It's a lot harder to celebrate when many queer people are hiding.

We wrap things up by visiting the heavily Mormon population in Salt Lake City. The Mormon church, after all, spent millions of dollars years ago trying to defeat gay marriage. On the surface, it doesn't seem like the most friendly place to be gay. But then we meet Carson Tueller and his family. Carson, who has almost 60,000 followers on Instagram, is a ruggedly handsome man who suffered a spinal cord injury five years ago. His devoutly Mormon family held strong through his paralysis but now have had to come to terms with his coming out. There is a really special moment when his family marches at the local pride parade with him and his mother gets tearful afterward, overwhelmed from all of the support and positive reactions.

The movie shows that as more and more people come out and share their stories, gay pride events will continue to hold relevance. Epstein, Friedman and Braun deliver a call to action to never forget the past while celebrating our present. "State of Pride" had its world premiere at the festival and will be released as a YouTube Originals film later this year.

— M.S.

"We Are the Radical Monarchs"

With all of the chaos in the world today, people often believe it's best to leave children out of the conversation and shield them from what is being discussed on TV and in the news. But what if they were encouraged to ask deeper questions about these topics and become more engaged?

"We Are the Radical Monarchs" answers the question. The Radical Monarchs organization provides a space for young girls of color to build a community, to support each other as they are and to learn more about social justice and activism.

The documentary follows the very first troop and its two leaders and co-founders, Anayvette Martinez and Marylin Hollinquest, as they work to shape the organization. Throughout the film, the girls attend meetings together where they ask questions and learn about everything from LGBTQA+ rights to the Black Lives Matter movement to policies being proposed in their own community. As they bond, the group's members take part in marches and protests and speak with officials and politicians. The film is an enlightening and impressive look into how the girls become more than just socially conscious individuals but poised as public speakers and advocates for themselves and their communities. It's a striking depiction of how kids are more adept at handling complex issues than you might think.

— Natalie Mokry, special to the American-Statesman

"Apollo 11"

If you've ever wanted to experience space travel or relive the 1969 moon landing, then watching "Apollo 11" might be the closest experience possible. It is an extraordinary film.

"Apollo 11" deploys remastered footage from the July 1969 Apollo 11 voyage, accompanied by an excellent score that sends thrills and chills. Director Todd Douglas Miller's latest, which is best seen on the biggest screen possible, begins at the lead-up to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins' departure and goes all the way through to their return. While this might be a story recounted time and time again, the documentary creates a fresh experience since it chooses to dive further, into moments not often retold. It doesn't exactly place emphasis on any specific moment. Rather, it allows you to absorb all of it, as captivating and frightening as it can be to take in at once.

Space travel in our culture has always been romanticized, but through the intimate experience that the film fosters regarding the process and the journey, it's terrifying, beautiful and surreal. It's something that we haven't truly had the opportunity to see up close until now, which makes "Apollo 11" necessary documentation of a cherished and endlessly fascinating moment in history.

— N.M.