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10 Picks for SXSW Documentaries/Short Films

Story by Jennifer Launer

Many people head out to SXSW full of enthusiasm about seeing their favorite bands, snarfing their favorite tacos, or drinking their favorite Texan beer. But there are also many new films being premiered in our state capital worth seeing. Did you know that SXSW offers a host of new documentaries and short films every year? Here is my list of the Ten Must-See Documentaries and Short Films of 2012.


5. Seeking Asian Female, directed by Debbie Lum

Lum decided to do a full-length documentary about an oft-mocked but largely hidden topic: mail-order brides. In this film she strips the taboo of its secrecy and shame to reveal Steven, an aging American man who is obsessed with finding the “perfect” Asian bride. After writing to “hundreds” of different women in China he finds Sandy, a petite young woman who speaks broken English at best, and flies her back for marriage. Sandy and Steven use Lum to translate for each other and through this, we see that not all stereotypes are true and not all intentions are pure.

4. The Central Park Effect, directed by Jeffrey Kimball

If you’re an average person, bird-watching probably doesn’t rank high as your idea of awesome. Or at all.  But this film explores a whole world inside New York City that most people don’t even know exists. Various species of colorful birds are mysteriously migrating to Central Park to live. Captured by Kimball’s intelligent use of cinematography we follow the bird-watchers, with their self-proclaimed uncool binoculars, stealthily documenting these feathered city-dwellers. Take a gander (pardon the pun) at this film and you’ll discover the quiet storm of birds in Central Park, and the bird-watchers, who are actually pretty darn cool.

3. Beauty is Embarrassing, directed by Neil Berkeley

“I’ve been trying to make beauty my whole life,” says Wayne White, the offbeat but brilliant subject of this film. White is the mastermind behind the PeeWee’s Playhouse sets and has contributed to Beakman’s World, The Weird Al Show, and “Tonight, Tonight,” the award-winning Smashing Pumpkins video. Stocked with cool people like Matt Greoning, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this film explains that by following his dreams and talent, White’s genius led him to be one of the greatest pop culture influences of the 20th century. “Do what you love. It’s gonna lead to where you want to go.”

2. Girl Model, directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

Hauntingly lovely, this film draws a fine line between innocent modeling and creepy societal voyeurism. Girls as young as thirteen are being exported from Russia to Tokyo because of the insatiable demands of Japanese society. Young, tall, and bone-skinny, these girls are dropped into a foreign world and expected to “make it big” or fall into obscurity. They are promised fortune and fame if they can deliver, but of course not everyone can. The model scout is the catalyst in this film, moving girls like cargo crates into a city where the odds are stacked against them. For these girls she is the motivator, but not the mentor.

1. WIkileaks: Secrets & Lies, directed by Patrick Forbes

From the United Kingdom comes the first documentary as told by the people involved. Hotly contentious and highly controversial, this documentary is the first to record an exclusive interview from Julian Assange himself. The film is already stirring up accusations of unfairness because of the fact that Assange’s interview is cut to just 8 minutes, while The Guardians’ five employees receive 29 minutes of airtime. Critics argue that Assange gets no right to respond to libelous lies thrown at him, while others maintain he is the one whitewashing the truth. Whatever your opinions about the Wikileaks controversy, this film is sure to keep you guessing.


5. Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, directed by Kelly Sears

Kelly Sears is a talented animator and director from Galveston, whose work has been shown at big-name galleries across the nation. For this year’s SXSW she brings us this animated short about an alternate view of high school, culled from discarded school memorabilia. It is filmed with plenty of old-school sepia backdrops and Seventies clothing; student body pictures clipped from decades-old yearbooks. An unknown force is consuming the student body and the events begin to mimic real-world tragedies. In Sears’ eyes, the scene is both terrifying and mysteriously familiar.

4. Little Boat, directed by Nelson Boles

Taken from the title of a Cleo Laine song, which plays during this short, this jaunty little film is an exploration of what can happen to a boat throughout its travels. As one of the 135 short films selected from a pool of 3306, it takes us on a journey of the far-reaching world of a simplistic little boat: storms, lush flocks of birds, war, the loneliness of night. Each scene takes its toll on the little boat until nothing seems to be left, until the same elements who stripped it give it new life again. Special attention should be paid to the wonderful sounds in the film.

3. Machines of the Working Class, directed by James and Robert Dastoli

For anyone who loves Clerks, this is the SXSW short for you. Featuring two robots on an assembly line, the film follows their banter and daydreams of world domination and bank heists. The directors, the identical twins James and Robert Dastoli, have created a visually appealing hypothetical conversation between blue-collar robots that is incredibly funny and shockingly profane. This two-minute short continues the robot theme that the Dastolis started with in 2006, but rather than create a second CG film, the brothers decided to build the robots themselves and shoot them against a greenscreen.

2. Other, directed by Daniel DelPurgatorio

“This was never about death. It was always about life,” Patrick says. Patrick is a brilliant doctor in a race against time to find a cure for his terminal disease. Finding a scientific loophole during his weird experiments, Patrick repeatedly risks his life and sanity in attempt to use it to save his life. DelPurgatorio follows in the great footsteps of Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher both in his directorial direction and his dark subject matter. Part of the Midnight Short Competition, viewers will admire this film for its macabre sets, restless cinematography, and blood-curdling soundtrack.

1. My Friend Kills Time, directed by Jakob Rørvik

This is my most eagerly-anticipated short film premiering at SXSW this year. Beautifully and hauntingly shot, this is the story of Thomas, a disenchanted man who decided to live in the confines of a small cabin in the countryside in search of solitude. Rørvik takes his time to unfold and develop each scene of Thomas’ visual diary to emphasize the slowness of the days that pass. He uses the moody landscape and dark waters near the cabin as a reference to Thomas’ emotional journey into himself. Dario Swade deserves special mention as the film’s sound designer.

About Bradford D Harrison

Bradford D Harrison is the co-publisher, managing editor, and webmaster at Playmaker Magazine. He covers the Houston Texans and Dallas Mavericks, as well music and film festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. He currently lives in Houston.


  1. I heard somebody talking about this on the radio yesterday, but I can’t remember what station it was.