Michael Bergeron
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SXSW Film preview

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Here are some fun facts about SXSW. In 2013 the conference brought in $218-million to the Austin economy. The attendance of the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and Conference was 16, 297. This years SXSW Film will feature multiple keynote speakers from Saturday, March 8 through Tuesday, March 11: Marc Webb (3/8), Jason Blum (3/9), Lena Dunham (3,10), and Casey Neistat (3/11).

This years films include 133 features, with 89 of those world premieres and 70 first-time directors. And of course there are also parties and lots of free shit. My next-door neighbor in fact was asking me about the conference because he got hired by a big soft drink company to work the entire 10-days handing out promotional samples of their product. He proudly informed me that he was told he would “meet a lot of celebrities.” His gig will be home based out of Round Rock and I told him to expect heavy traffic. Regarding the celebrities, everyone you meet at SXSW is some kind of celebrity, because we’re all stardust baby.

A plethora of great panels are schedded daily and with so many films premiering it’s a natural that I’ll see something great while I miss something equally as awesome. If someone wanted to attend SXSW just to attend parties there’s more than enough of those to keep you vibrating around the clock.

In the first of a series of SXSW updates, here is a look at a couple of documentaries that I caught up with earlier this week. No No: A Dockumentary gives the viewer an unblinking look at the relation of baseball and drug use in the 1970s. The Legend of Shorty chronicles the life of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman the Mexican cartel kingpin who was arrested just a couple of weeks ago.

When you talk about being in the zone, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis (1945 – 2008) knows just what you mean. Ellis threw a major league no hitter while he was high on LSD. “I was gone, I was in the wind,” Ellis states in a series of interviews conducted before his passing six years ago. No No: A Dockumentary deals with specifics. Ellis became clean and sober after he’d retired from baseball and spent much of his time afterwards counseling other in sports as well as men in prison. But his life, which he reveals with candor, in the big leagues was fraught with drugs, rage and a one-time ERA of 2.10. At one point Ellis purposely hit the first three batters in a game with the Cincinnati Reds (including Pete Rose). The fourth and fifth batter ducked because they knew what was coming. Ellis was pulled from the game after the fifth batter and eventually put on suspension and then traded to the New York Yankees (where he then had one of his best record years). Fascinating at every turn, No No: A Dockumentary will appeal to fans of baseball as well as those looking for an intriguing story. joaquin-el-chapo-guzman.jpg

The Legend of Shorty feels literally ripped from the headlines and considering authorities apprehended El Chapo a few weeks ago this documentary is certainly current. At a press conference in Chicago law enforcement name El Chapo the Number One Enemy, a title that hasn’t been used since Al Capone. What is the truth about Shorty? At five-foot, six-inches El Chapo isn’t really that short.

At times the director and his team are seen getting into single engine planes, or vehicles in remote mountainous regions of Mexico and not knowing where they are traveling to. They know this is the only way they can make contact with those who will talk. Interview subjects include detractors and members of El Chapo’s inner circle. Is Guzman from “humble peasant stock” or is he a ruthless killer? Or, maybe a combination of both? The film concludes with footage of his arrest but then switches to a lengthy and heartfelt interview with El Chapo’s mother.

Communicating with producer Simon Chinn (whose credits include Searching For Sugarman, Man on Wire, and Project Nim) by email FPH was able to ask a few questions about The Legend of Shorty.chapo_arrest_2014_02_27

FPH: What structural changes were made to the film when El Chapo Guzman was arrested just a few weeks ago? And how long had the film been in production?

Simon Chinn: The film has been in production for the best part of two years.  Two intrepid filmmakers, Angus Macqueen and Guilermo Galdos, had set off on a journey into the forbidden lands of Mexico to try to find Guzman - apparently the most wanted drugs lord in the world. If they could get to him, what would that say about the combined efforts of the US and Mexican authorities to find a man who has supposedly been on the run for over a decade? In the end, Guzman decided not appear on camera for us - but that doesn’t mean we didn’t find him. In a way, Guzman’s recent arrest doesn’t change anything - as one of the interviewees in our film says: “they’ll get him when they need to”… His recent arrest is now seen by many as more of a triumph of public relations than anything.  The news of the arrest now ends our film but it is substantially the same film and packs a bigger punch as a result.

FPH: In The Legend of Shorty there are people who state that the authorities always knew where he was, and the description of his life in prison (until his escape in 2001) suggests that he was in control all the time anyway. Will his arrest really have any effect on drug smuggling from Mexico?

SC: I think it’s highly unlikely that much will change in Mexico as a result of El Chapo’s arrest. As many people in our film attest, the corruption and vested interests at all levels of Mexican government and society is too deep for this one event to have much effect.

FPH: We see the director and cameraman traveling by plane and by car with the suggestion being they don’t really know what’s going to happen at the end of the ride. How tangible was the danger these men were in while making the film?

SC: Angus and Guilermo always downplay the danger they were in - and, though it sounds paradoxical, they say they felt safest when they were the guests of the cartels.  In fact, there were moments of very tangible danger, like when they were being chased away from the tomb of El Chapo’s dead son by men sent by his ex-wife.  The reality is that you can’t go to the kinds of places Angus and Guilermo went without considerable courage - though they would never acknowledge this themselves and won’t thank me for saying so.  Very few, if any, filmmakers go to the places they went to and the access they have been able to get into this forbidden world is entirely without precedent.

Stay tuned throughout next week as Free Press Houston updates readers with must see events from SXSW.

— Michael Bergeron