More than 150 feature films screened at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, among them dozens of documentaries spotlighting people and places from around the world and throughout recent history. While it was impossible to see them all, these seven especially piqued our interest, and are all guaranteed to leave you feeling more informed and inspired. You’ll find some familiar names and faces below, along with international journeys, a look at the underbelly of the internet, and a document of the collapse of a retail empire. Tell us which ones you’re looking forward to the most, and share any other personal favorites from the festival in the comments below!
Following its debut at Sundance, Montage of Heck was one of the more high-profile films screening in Austin. While it’s far from the first cinematic portrait of Kurt Cobain, it is the first made with the Nirvana frontman’s family on board — which meant that director Brett Morgen had access to a wealth of previously untouched material. Among those artifacts was a box with more than 200 hours of Cobain’s personal recordings, some of which have been brought to life as animated sequences in the film. Combined with archival material and interviews with family and friends, it helps create the most intimate look at the man you’ll ever likely to see — even if it’s one featuring far more pain than glamour.
You won’t have to wait long for this one either: it screens in theaters around the world beginning next month, prior to debuting on HBO on May 4.
Alex Winter has been popping up in the news with stories about a much talked-about Bill & Ted reunion with Keanu Reeves, but in the meantime, he’s been focusing his efforts behind the camera on far more serious fare. Deep Web delves into the murky world of the online Silk Road and the case of Ross William Ulbricht, the man alleged to be its founder, aka Dread Pirate Roberts. Like Morgen and the Cobains, Winter also had his subject’s family at hand, who help to ensure that the only thing that’s clear here is that nothing is clear at all. It’s a film that’s both fascinating and frightening in the things that it reveals about what lies beneath the surface, and what it all means for the future.
Deep Web will screen at the Chatanooga Film Festival, Full Frame, and Hot Docs, before premiering on EPiX on May 31.
Less than two years after becoming an Internet sensation for their precocious take on metal music, New York trio Unlocking the Truth are signed to a major label and the subjects of this new documentary from director Luke Meyer. Considering none of the three had even hit their teens when they started drawing international attention, that’s no small feat; and, as heavy as the band’s music is, the band members’ ages also mean this is a very different kind of rock documentary. On stage, they can easily stand up to the antics of their elders, but offstage, they’re still kids at heart. Or not just at heart — in all senses of the word.
Breaking a Monster is currently seeking distribution, but considering the reception to both the band and the film, it shouldn’t be long before it gets it.
They Will Have to Kill Us First
Making its world premiere at SXSW, this film explores what happens when something we often take for granted becomes a matter of life and death. Three years ago, religious fundamentalists overtook Northern Mali, imposing an extreme take on sharia law that included a complete ban on music. Following the struggles of the artists and organizers who resisted and ended up in exile — including those who formed the much buzzed-about Songhoy Blues — it’s a stirring exploration of the power of art to transcend adversity, and the lengths to which people will go to fight for personal expression and creativity.
Director Ondi Timoner (Dig!, We Live in Public) has built her reputation on creating revelatory, no-holds-barred documentaries spotlighting complex personalities and the inner struggles of those who wield them. Taking over this look at comedian-turned-political-provacateur Russell Brand from the abandoned attempts of other filmmakers, Timoner insisted it become an intimate look at the man himself, rather than a simple document of what the public has already seen. As with almost anyone having a mirror turned on themselves, the result was discomfiting to Brand — so much so that he canceled his plans to attend SXSW himself. However, it’s far from a negative portrait; instead, it’s an often inspiring look at a conflicted man battling his demons and striving to prioritize the greater good of the world ahead of his own well-being.
Brand is currently seeking distrbution, but in the meantime, you can pre-order your own copy of the film and receive an additional short film as a bonus.
British director David Reeve began work on this film with Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every after becoming enamored with the sheer variety of music they discovered throughout Thailand — a nation where modern urban culture often stands in stark contract to the traditions of more rural areas. By turning their cameras on nine different artists making music in drastically different ways and for equally different reasons, they paint a striking portrait of a country with a sonic future as promising as its past. You’ll definitely find something you want to hear — and see — more of here.
Information on upcoming screenings is available on the film’s Facebook page.
Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Dave Grohl all make appearances in Colin Hanks’ tale of the rise and fall of the Tower Records empire. Hanks originally turned to Kickstarter to fund the film, which also made its world premiere in Austin. For anyone who grew up roaming the aisles of their local Tower Records, it’s an amazing glimpse behind the scenes of the international supernova success story, while for the less musically obsessed — or those too young to remember — it provides an engrossing cautionary tale of how quickly even the mightiest of modern kingdoms can fall.
Information on upcoming screenings is available on the film’s official website.
Top image: Songhoy Blues photo © Andy Morgan
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