Every spring, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, is a sounding board for what the media cool kids are into. Over nine days, they screen more than 100 films, from cute animated shorts to gory feature films, and the award winners are some of the most creative, thoughtful, and challenging films you’ll see over the next year. Here are five films premiering at the festival that we have our eyes on.
“I tell people I’m a 3-D wildlife artist. That goes over better on the first date than ‘I stuff dead things,’” one of the taxidermists in Stuffed explains about his job. That’s the biggest takeaway of the film—things get more interesting if you fight through snap judgment.
Director Erin Derham wanted to tell a story about conservation in a nonpreachy way, and she does so by tapping into the dorkiness and dutiful presentation of natural beauty that’s at the heart of taxidermy. The film challenges the stereotypes of what it is (not just dead deer heads on a wall), paints a giddy, gorgeous portrait of the people who do it, and shows how preserving animals can help preserve species and the spaces that sustain them.
We love following Alexi Pappas’s film career as much as her running career. Olympic Dreams, which she and her husband, Jeremy Teicher, produced (they also collaborated on the feature film Tracktown), is the first scripted film to be shot in the athlete’s village during the Olympic Games. It follows Pappas (who was an artist -in-residence at the 2018 Winter Olympics) as a fictional nordic skier navigating the awkwardness and emotion of being at the world’s biggest sporting event.
Pappas, who was a Rio Olympian in 2016, gets into the complicated feelings of being a top athlete and how fleeting that sensation can be. At the end of the Games, do you keep training, or do you let go of the experience, especially if it didn’t turn out the way you wanted? It’s quirky and goofily touching without being too earnest, and it’ll resonate with anyone who’s questioned their own obsessive drive in sports. Plus, two of our favorite Olympic athletes, Gus Kenworthy and Jamie Anderson, make cameos.
‘Any One of Us’
When mountain biker Paul Basagoitia crashed in what arguably could have been the winning run of the 2015 Red Bull Rampage, he shattered his T12 vertebra, leaving him paralyzed. Any One of Us tells the story of what happened after the crash, how he worked toward recovery, and what happened to him mentally when his riding career and sense of self crumbled.
The film is produced by Red Bull Media House, so it’s solid on the strength of its optics alone, but it also pulls on Basagoitia’s recovery footage and stories of other spinal-cord-injury sufferers to dig into how fragile our ability to move is, and what it might take to regain it.
‘The River and the Wall’
It’s 1,200 miles from El Paso, Texas, to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the entirety of that distance the border between the United States and Mexico. A group of five river guides, conservation biologists, and wildlife advocates traveled the length of it by boat, foot, and bike to try to understand just how remote and wild the borderlands are, and what might happen if the proposed border wall ran through the landscape. It starts as a story about place and becomes a film about people. The on-the-ground footage shows what might be lost if the land is physically severed and how fragile the largely untouched places are. The deserts and rivers of far West Texas are stunning, but so are the international interconnections they find.
‘Body at Brighton Rock’
If you’re someone who spends a lot of time alone outside, and you never want to sleep again, Body at Brighton Rock might be just the ticket. Part-time park ranger Wendy (played by Karina Fontes) stumbles across a dead body in the backcountry and is forced to spend the night alone with the corpse until help comes in the morning.
Filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin says her time spent solo wandering through national parks inspired her to dig into the creepy aloneness of feeling very small in a big wild space, as well as the resilience and toughness that comes from proving that you’re brave enough to handle the elements, real or imagined. Which is something a lot of outdoorspeople can probably relate to, even if they haven’t had to guard a dead body through the night.