As SXSW Film Festival roared through Austin, I was pleased to see the wide range of talent walking among us. SXSW Film encompassed movies, television, VR, AR, and motion capture film, full length features, and excellent shorts.
The programming for SXSW in general is mind-boggling, most especially because it’s run so efficiently. Kudos to the SXSW team! Another thing I loved was seeing so many badass women at the helm of Austin-based films, and speaking on panels.
Here is a sampling of the Austin-focused female filmmakers who really caught my attention this year. I want to add that I also loved another female-focused hilarious film, Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” though there’s no Austin connection.
1/ Amy Bench, “A Line Birds Cannot See”
Filmmaker Amy Bench’s animated film opens your eyes, breaks your heart, and ultimately touches audiences with its true story of a 12-year-old immigrant girl’s journey from an abusive home in an impoverished village in Guatemala, to her current status as a DACA work visa holder in the U.S.
The simple animation by Steve West and Thomas Kilburn is stunning, a muted palette full of blue, rose, and mauve. The animation follows the story in a somewhat abstract way; we don’t directly witness the horrors this pre-teen girl faces. In this way, Bench lets E.L.’s personal story resonate with the audience. The abstraction lifts the weight of the trauma of E.L.’s journey. “Her journey was so horrific, and the animated format helped me not look away,” one viewer told Bench.
From the perspective of being a decade or so removed from the events, E.L. narrates her tale in a mainly matter-of-fact voice. There are points in the story that stir up strong emotions in E.L. and, thus, in the viewer. You can sense the release she must feel to finally share her story. “I wanted to tell my story because it’s so easy to forget where I came from,” E.L. told Bench.
The time that’s passed and her own job and every day life keeps her from dwelling on the past. However, her vulnerability at having such an unknown future makes it difficult to plan that future. E.L. hopes the story uplifts and inspires people, as she made it through the worst part of the story and is now “blessed to be where I am, and that I’m still alive. I think about that every morning,” she says, despite the uncertain future she and her mother face.
Bench wants people to relate to E.L.: her strength, and both the struggle and beauty in the story. The filmmaker spent a year traveling across the country speaking with refugee women, to find a woman’s story she could tell via the high-impact format of a short film. She found Guatemalan refugee and DACA recipient E.L. here in Austin.
After listening to E.L.’s story, Bench decided E.L.’s journey would be the first in what will eventually be a series of films chronicling the stories of refugee women.
“A Line Birds Cannot See” won the SXSW Special Jury Recognition for Texas Shorts. As this is the world premiere, I’m not sure where you’ll be able to see the nine-minute, 27-second-long film next. Bench is in discussion with someone interested in distributing it widely. She knows she’s taking the movie to other festivals and will have at least one more Austin screening.
Trailer for “A Line Birds Cannot See:”
2/ Kestrin Pantera, “Mother’s Little Helpers”
“It’s kind of a death and drugs and rock and roll movie…It has this really hard core edge to it,” filmmaker Kestrin Pantera began. Pantera created, co-wrote, and starred in “Mother’s Little Helpers.”
This relatable, difficult, humorous film about a family saying goodbye to a fun-loving, hot mess of a mother at the end of the mother’s life was based on actual Austinites, and filmed in and around Austin. However, this mother was “*barely* a parent. More like someone who was your friend’s drug dealer,” according to the promotional materials.
Joy Pride, the dying mother in the movie (played by Melanie Hutsell, best known for her SNL roles as Jan Brady and the Tri-Delt girl), put the FUN in dysfunctional–as the old saying goes.
Her children (played by Pantera, Sam Littlefield, Milana Vayntrub, and Breeda Wool) come together awkwardly, angrily, and ultimately with compassion for a mom who wasn’t there for them.
Pantera spoke of Austin’s role in the movie, “I took all of those years of inspiration of being in and around Austin, and falling in love with my family and the culture, getting to make a movie inspired by actual stuff and Austin people, inspired by the life and death of a dude who had a wristband to SXSW year one.”
Pantera also came up with the idea after being involved in three different end-of-life group situations, with friends and her father-in-law, who was the inspiration for the mom in the movie.
The female filmmaker has a long history with SXSW. Around 2006, she was a cellist in a rock band, couch surfing with friends through SXSW. The following year and every year since, Pantera brought the party with her, a karaoke RV called RVIP. The week before her father-in-law died, she found her muse.
She started writing her script, setting the scenes up, and making sure the action moved the way she ultimately needed it to. During production, she realized her talented actors were great at improvising parts of the dialogue. Unlike the industry standard, she chose to give them all co-writing credits. “Sometimes the best lines are ad-libbed, and I believe in giving credit where it’s due.”
While it’s tough subject matter, the humor comes out of necessity. Kestrin explained, “You get to a point when everything’s so intense that you have to laugh. It’s a little manic, but it happens. When you realize that person isn’t going to die in the next five minutes, you think, hmmm, right, I’m going to Torchy’s for tacos.”
This movie seems to hit a nerve, for we all know someone who has a complicated relationship with family. Speaking with Pantera, I could see how the film eased that discomfort with necessary moments of lightness. Facebook reviewer Sherry Shamrock summed it up by saying, “This movie seeps into your soul and will marinate your bones for a long time to come.”
Keep your eye on the movie’s Facebook or Instagram pages to see where “Mother’s Little Helpers” will play next, ideally in wide distribution. Follow Kestrin Pantera’s Instagram to see what this talented multi-hyphenate creative does next!
3/ Yvonne Boudreaux, Production Designer
Production designer and SXSW Film Festival panelist Yvonne Boudreaux came to SXSW to talk about “Design Concepts to Execution in Television: The Production Design of ‘Yellowstone’ and ‘Russian Doll.'” The female film professional spoke about the former, a popular television series she works on as art director, while her counterpart, Michael Bricker spoke about “Russian Doll.”
Boudreaux contributes her expertise to films, TV shows, theater, and dance. She also teaches Production Design for Film and Television at The University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her Master’s in Theatrical Design with a concentration in Set Design.
The resume continues, with Boudreaux serving as art director on Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone,” AMC’s “The Son,” and NBC’s “Revolution.” She did production design for Nia Dacosta’s “Little Woods,” Bob Byington’s “Harmony & Me,” and Mike Dolan’s “Dance With the One.”
In addition, Boudreaux was the set designer on Laika’s “Paranorman,” John Ridley’s “American Crime,” and Austin local Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete.” And as though that wasn’t enough, Boudreaux is production designer at Sundance Institute Director’s Lab.
Boudreaux’s SXSW Film panel was geared toward “those seeking to learn about production design for television, in particular the role of the production designer and art director, the development of visual themes, and strategies for execution.”
She and Bricker used “Yellowstone” and “Russian Doll” as case studies to show “how both a drama and a comedy series address design, environment, character, and color. Research, design strategies, before-and-afters, and budget realities (were) discussed so that participants walked away with a fresh understanding for how a television art department translates words into worlds.”
Keep up with Yvonne Boudreaux’s latest projects on her website.
I hope you make time to watch these movies and TV shows, masterfully crafted by these wonderful women brought together by SXSW Film. It’s fantastic to see Austin’s local festival supporting women and inclusivity in the arts, and to have so much high-quality, Austin-proud content out there in the world.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Which of these films or shows are you most excited to see?