The unveiling of a film festival roster is, at its essence, the lifting of hopes – hope that one will discover a new filmmaker, hope that a favored filmmaker’s new work will be as strong (or stronger) than the films that previously caught one’s attention.
We know going in that these hopes may, in fact, be dashed. Or that they should have been, at least, tempered.
Going into SXSW 2009, one could be excused if one had lowered expectations from the start. After all, Sundance 2009 was a bit of a disappointment (I know, I know, you hate hearing it, and yet…) and this was the Austin fest’s first year under new (while obviously capable) leadership. Similar caution is assumed for this year’s Tribeca and Full Frame, both under the reins of new keepers in one form or fashion.
But in her first year at the helm of SXSW Film, Janet Pierson has crafted a lineup that lives up to SXSW’s role as the perfect pop companion to Sundance’s bleeding heart. Together the two festivals offer a compelling overview of the state of documentary film – particularly (but not limited to) American documentary film – and if it’s possible that the lineup in Austin is perhaps a bit stronger than the one in Park City, well, that’s quite alright too.
And while new filmmakers made their mark in Austin – particularly Bill Ross' 45365 and the much buzzed about BEST WORST MOVIE (Michael Paul Stephenson) – a veteran SXSW director returned with a film that not only delivered on one’s hopes but affirmed his place as one of America’s most interesting, contemporary nonfiction filmmakers.
The American notation is purposeful, for Bradley Beesley is one of the few true regionalists working in documentary film. He has continued to return, film after film, to his Oklahoma, digging through that state to find stories that reflect on our times, as viewed through the lens of the southern plains. OKIE NOODLING, THE CREEK RUNS RED, THE FEARLESS FREAKS – these have not all been epics. Beasley is prolific and some of these films have been stories in miniature (neither complaint nor insult), but as someone who loves the middle of America, I’ve been waiting for the film where Bradley’s talent as a filmmaker (on display so vibrantly in SUMMERCAMP!, with co-director Sarah Price) and his focus on the Sooner State would coalesce.
By continually returning to Oklahoma, Beasley has made a promise to his audience, a promise that is fulfilled, magnificently, in his triumphant SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO, a gorgeous, insightful, hilarious, emotional look at tradition, criminal justice, hope and regret. It’s as pure a piece of movie-making that you will see in nonfiction in 2009, commercial as hell, and certainly one of the best films of the year.
Producer James Payne, Director Bradley Beesley and Producer Amy Dotson following Saturday's world premiere in Austin.
Before I get your hopes raised too high, let’s counter the doubters. Yes, we’ve seen prison films. We’ve seen beauty pageants, we’ve seen death row appeals, we’ve seen MSNBC's Doc Block (boy, have we). It’s a well-worn genre, no doubt, and others have done the genre proud long before Beesley entered the rodeo stadium that lives inside the walls of the Oklahoma State Prison – one of only two such prison rodeos that still exists.
We’ve been inside these walls before – or one’s like them (is anyone making Angola action figures yet?) – but rarely with such deft ability to move between such light comedy and high emotion and almost never with this degree of skill at such a degree of difficulty.
Beesley skillfully walks a tightrope here – SEE as he ably identifies with a large ensemble, even when they’re wearing headgear!; WATCH as he makes an audience identify with convicted criminals while not apologizing (or excusing) their crimes!; GASP as men and women alike are gored by bulls!; LAUGH!; CRY! and, oh yeah, there’s that whole women in prison thing (what? you expect us not to notice?).
We jest, but in a film that’s as entertaining as any as we’ve seen in 2009, we also learned – and there’s a lesson for bleeding hearts in Park City and elsewhere – that women in Oklahoma are locked up at rate high above the national average, largely for drug (read: meth) crimes; that more than 80% of these women are mothers; that a woman can be locked up for murder (extenuating circumstances or no) and still manage to get pregnant.
Yes, Virginia, the wonders of SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO are many, not least the fulfillment of Bradley Beesley’s Oklahoma promise. No survey of the best of nonfiction in 2009 is complete without it.