South by Southwest traditionally features a strong documentary program, particularly showcasing those that deal with politics or music; the latter even have their own category entitled 24 Beats Per Second. Curious to see some of the nonfiction films outside of these highlighted topics, I ended up discovering my first unexpected gem of the festival, Marwencol, a portrait of a strange and gifted man in Kingston, NY. One night after leaving a local bar, Mark Hogancamp, an outgoing but troubled artist, was attacked by five men and beaten to within an inch of his life. The resulting brain damage left him unable to draw and deeply afraid of the outside world. Mark built a 1/6 scale WWII era Belgian village in his backyard, populated it with alter egos of real people in his life, and began developing incredibly complex storylines about his town, allowing him to work through his anger and keep his imagination alive.
Director Jeff Malmberg’s sympathy coaxes Mark into several shockingly intimate confessions about his life, and his creativity brings his subject’s eccentric, original spirit to the fore. Marwencol features frenetically shot 8mm, home video, old photographs, and Mark’s own still photos of his beloved town; the variation in visual technique mirrors Mark’s traumatized mental state and fractured memory. Marwencol won the SXSW Documentary Award at this week’s ceremony, and it was a pleasant surprise to see its accomplishments thus recognized, as docs as offbeat and low-key as this one often fly under the radar.
The Canal Street Madam follows former New Orleans brothel owner Jeannette Maier after the high-profile police raid of her business, which, at the time, was co-owned by her mother and employed her daughter as an escort. As with Marwencol, Madam’s protagonist is its primary strength: Maier is smart, eloquent, and disarmingly straightforward. Director Cameron Yates, in his documentary film debut, lacks aesthetic finesse (one wonders about the preponderance of slow motion shots and a particularly shaky car ride), but shows promise as a storyteller and interviewer. Apparently The Canal Street Madam took several years to film, and his intimacy with Jeannette and her family is apparent, and he arranges events to unfold in ways that are by turns touching and suspenseful.
Actor James Franco’s first documentary directorial effort, Saturday Night, follows the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live for one week, providing a rare behind-the-scenes peek into how a single episode of the sketch show is made. At its best, Saturday Night is informative, at its worst lackluster, and overall it provides few real revelations about the program and its cast. Some of Franco’s choices are odd or distracting—the use of poor-quality grainy black and white video from time to time, the tunnel-vision fixation on Bill Hader. It’ll be intriguing to follow the trajectory of the film; while far less compelling than Marwencol or The Canal Street Madam, Saturday Night has the benefit of a built-in audience of fans of the television show, and the combined star power of filmmaker James Franco and popular SNL cast members like Kristen Wiig and Will Forte, making some sort of theatrical release seem likely. —Farihah Zaman