Female Filmmakers at SXSW 2021 Preview – Valerie Kalfrin reports

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The 28th annual SXSW Film Festival is ready to roll out what it calls the “digital red carpet,” granting access to its extensive program online and on mobile and premium TV platforms.

Although the ongoing coronavirus pandemic prevents filmmakers and audiences from gathering in person, SXSW Online spotlights 75 feature films, including about 40 from women directors. Its special events include a keynote address from political leader and New York Times bestselling author Stacey Abrams (Our Time Is Now and Lead from the Outside) in conversation with bestselling author N.K. Jemisin (The City We Became).

The online pivot revives the film, tech, and music festival, which shuttered its doors in 2020 for the first time in 34 years because of health concerns about COVID-19. This year’s lineup promises a “fantastic treasure trove of programming … that everyone can access on their laptops, phones, and TVs,” Janet Pierson, the festival’s director of film, has said.

From March 16 through 20, SXSW will launch seven films every two hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT, with most films released on March 16 through 18. Films will remain available on-demand until the festival ends or they hit audience capacity. (Certain films are restricted to access only in the United States because of distributor or filmmaker discretion or rights issues.) Visit the SXSW website for the full lineup.

The festival’s headliners include three music-centered films. On opening night, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil from director Michael D. Ratner explores the pop singer’s nearly fatal 2018 overdose and its aftermath. Director Mary Wharton spotlights musical icon Tom Petty in the centerpiece film, Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, using archived footage of Petty at work on his landmark 1994 album Wildflowers. Pop star Charli XCX closes out the festival with Alone Together, a documentary feature from directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler about her making an album in quarantine over 40 days.

Narrative Features

The Narrative Feature Competition includes eight world premieres including Here Before, a psychological thriller written and directed by Stacey Gregg (The Innocents) and starring Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion and Mandy) as a grieving mother questioning her reality. Director Kelley Kali (The Adventures of Thomasina Sawyer) and director Angelique Molina (Quinceañera) team up for the comedic drama I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) about a widowed mother who becomes homeless and convinces her 8-year-old daughter that they’re only camping on the streets for fun. Kali and Molina also co-wrote the screenplay with Roma Kong, and Kali co-stars.

In the narrative feature Women Is Losers, writer, director, and producer Lissette Feliciano goes inside a 1960s San Francisco Catholic school where Celina (Lorenza Isso, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) sets out to rise above poverty. Writer-director Megan Park in The Fallout tells a modern-day story about a high-schooler (Jenna Ortega, Elena of Avalor) navigating the emotional aftermath of a school tragedy. Shailene Woodley (Big Little Lies) and Julie Bowen (Modern Family) co-star.

Documentary Features

The Documentary Feature Competition includes intriguing portraits as well as political issues. Director Rachel Fleit (Surveillance Cinema) gets close with actress Selma Blair (American Crime Story, Lost in Space) in Introducing, Selma Blair, following Blair after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and her efforts to slow the disease’s progression. Meanwhile, in Kid Candidate, director Jasmine Stodel introduces Hayden Pedigo, 24, an experimental musician who found himself running for city council in Amarillo after his spoof campaign video in the style of Harmony Korine went viral.

In The Return: Life After ISIS, director Alba Sotorra Clua (Game Over) highlights two women, Shamima Begum of the United Kingdom and Hoda Muthana of the United States, who triggered worldwide headlines when they left home as teens to join ISIS. When they want to return home, their countries won’t allow it. Director Jennifer Holness (Speakers for the Dead) examines race and cultural standards of beauty in Subjects of Desire through the embrace and appropriation of Black features and aesthetics. Director Sonia Kennebeck (Enemies of the State) shows the hunt for whistleblowers in United States vs. Reality Winner, about the 25-year-old NSA translator who disclosed a classified document to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Narrative Spotlight

In its “Narrative Spotlight,” SXSW Online presents the premieres of several features including director, writer, and star Leah Purcell’s The Drovers Wife (The Legend of Molly Johnson), an Australian Western thriller that reimagines Purcell’s play based on Henry Lawson’s short story. Director Natalie Morales (Room 104) teams up on the screenplay and in front of the camera with Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) for Language Lessons, about a Spanish teacher’s unexpected friendship with a student.

The COVID-19 outbreak plays into the plot of Recovery from directors Mallory Everton (Studio C) and Stephen Meek as two sisters decide to drive across the country to rescue their grandmother from her nursing home after an outbreak of the virus there. Director Mari Walker brings together a former couple who years later catch up on each other’s lives, relationships, and the transition of one of them in See You Then.

Documentary Spotlight

The female directors in the “Documentary Spotlight” tackle social issues as well as the intensity of live theater. In Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, directors Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe) explore the legacy of white supremacy using ACLU lawyer Jeffrey Robinson’s talk on the history of racism in the United States as inspiration. Director Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) unravels family secrets in The Lost Sons, a mystery that entwines the kidnapping of an infant from a Chicago hospital in the 1960s and a toddler’s abandonment months later. Director Emily Cohen Ibañez looks at immigration in Fruits of Labor through a Mexican-American teenage farmworker who dreams of high-school graduation amid the threat of ICE raids in her community that could separate her family.

Several boundary-breaking women of stand-up comedy, including Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster, Kathy Griffin, and Rachel Feinstein, take director Andrea Nevins backstage for a frank look at their paths to success in Hysterical. Meanwhile, on the sci-fi/horror end of the spectrum, director-producers Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey show what happens when a British bus driver’s amateur stage production of Ridley Scott’s Alien happens to land at a famous London theatre, awkward special effects and all.

Midnighters and Festival Favorites

For its “Midnighters,” SXSW Online offers provocative features such as the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror from director Kier-La Janisse follows the history of folk horror from the 1960s to the present day. Its “Festival Favorites” highlight acclaimed films from festivals around the world, including In the Same Breath, a personal account from director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the Wuhan Province of China and its later rampage across the United States.

How It Ends follows a young woman (Zoe Lister-Jones, who directed the film with Daryl Wein) on an odyssey through Los Angeles to reach her last party before the world ends. Helen Hunt, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Bradley Whitford, and Charlie Day co-star. In Ma Belle, My Beauty, writer-director Marion Hill revives the jealousies and passions of two women who had been polyamorous lovers. Madeleine Sims-Fewer stars in Violation, which she wrote and directed with Dusty Mancinelli, as a soon-to-be-divorced woman who embarks on revenge against her younger sister and brother-in-law.


In its “Visions” category, SXSW Online celebrates filmmakers for innovation and risk-taking. Writer-director Mei Makino follows a teen who turns to secret hookups after her parents’ divorce in the narrative drama Inbetween Girl. The documentary Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose from director Liz Lambert examines the gentrification of a hip Austin neighborhood. Fans of Doctor Who likely will appreciate Delia Derbyshire—the Myths and the Legendary Tapes, a documentary from director Caroline Catz about the legendary and eclectic electronic sound pioneer who wrote the science-fiction show’s theme song.

Among its “24 Beats Per Second,” the festival gathers documentaries that highlight music and musicians, including Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, where directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell follow the daughter of X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene after the punk icon’s death. Director Gracie Otto (The Last Impresario) sits down with Sting, Nick Rhodes, Jimmy Buffett, Mark Knopfler, and other music legends to tell the story of George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat in the documentary Under the Volcano.


A selection of international films receive a showcase in the “Global” category. Directors Paola Calvo (Violently Happy) and Patrick Jasim in Luchadoras show the female wrestlers of Ciudad Juárez who want to redefine the image of women in Mexico. Director Hannaleena Hauru (Metatitanic) co-writes and stars in Fucking with Nobody, about a film director who creates a parody romance on Instagram after losing a dream job to a rival. In Ninjababy, director Yngvild Sve Flikke (Home Ground) portrays what happens when a twentysomething learns she’s pregnant after a “not-so-romantic one-night stand.” The diverse stories of seven women in enclosed spaces unfold in Trapped from director Manal Khaled.

2020 Spotlight

SXSW Online also presents its “2020 Spotlight,” featuring Violet from writer-director Justine Bateman (Desperate Housewives) about a film development executive (Olivia Munn, The Rook) who realizes that her inner voice has been lying. Writer-director Elle Callahan (Head Count) creates an America where witches are real, witchcraft is illegal, and a teen must face her own prejudices in Witch Hunt.

The category also includes several musically themed stories. Directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield tell the true story of Texas songwriter Guy Clark in Without Getting Killed or Caught. In the teen musical Best Summer Ever, directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli integrate a cast and crew with and without disabilities, and the musical documentary We Are the Thousand, director Anita Rivaroli delves into the story of a thousand musicians who gathered to convince the Foo Fighters to perform in their small town in Italy.

See you online at the movies!

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.