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SXSW 2014—Day 4: Beginning with The End; Silicon Valley; A Night in Old Mexico; Cesar Chavez; Participant Films Session
Image: Participant Media
Michael Peña in 'Cesar Chavez'

This week is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, and we're lucky enough to have updates from the festival every day.You can read the first here, thesecond here, and the third here.

Beginning With The End, directed by David B. Marshall
Silicon Valley, directed by Mike Judge
A Night in Old Mexico, directed by Emilio Aragón
Cesar Chavez, directed by Diego Luna

Surely a candidate for most unlikely feel-good documentary of the year, David B. Marshall's Beginning with The End follows a group of high school students who volunteer as hospice workers. Marshall shadowed two classes over a period of two years, taking months to build relationships so that hospice residents (and their families) might feel comfortable letting him turn on the camera during some of the most intimate moments a person can experience.

Marshall, who sat down with me for an interview at SXSW, called the student volunteers "all kind of brilliant," and justly praised teacher Bob Kane for organizing a class that "taught kids a bunch of skills involving physical touch" to help them overcome the fear of interacting with the dying while creating a space where they could expose and process emotion and experiences that our youth-based culture tries its best to repress.

Teens today are one of the most stereotyped demographics, too often thought of as shallow, disconnected, cynical, and materialistic. Nearly every senior at Kane's school elected to take the hospice class; it was not a required course. Marshall said bluntly, "The kids want it."

Why? Perhaps a scene in which a boy raised Baptist talks about caring for a dying Roman Catholic nun gives us a hint. When approaching another human first as a servant, one finds the core values of love, compassion, and humility often have a greater power to unite us than does our theology to separate us. Those involved in Christian education take note: values are instilled through practice as much if not more than they are learned through indoctrination. If, as the song says, children are our future, give Marshall sixty-four minutes and he may just convince you that there is hope for us yet.

SXSW has a number of panel discussions as well as screenings. The only one I have attended so far was Participant Media's panel discussion about using narrative as an instrument for social change. It featured (among others) directors Diego Luna (Cesar Chavez) and Margaret Brown (The Great Invisible). Participant's motto is "Entertainment that Inspires and Compels Social Change."

Can entertainment have a social agenda? What lessons might Christian media take from a successful company with an avowed mission to provoke change as well as provide pleasure?

Both directors spoke of the challenges of getting stories they are passionate about made and heard in an industry that constantly asks them if their films can be sexier, funnier, or more pleasurable. Brown admitted that in most cases, a good documentary is only the beginning of a discussion that might eventually affect people's hearts and minds, stating that change "has to come from the audience wanting things to be different." Both she and Luna emphasized film's ability to connect with an audience emotionally, not just rationally, as a key to its power. Luna commented wryly that spending three or four years of your life making a film "will haunt you if you don't know why you are doing it."

Luna's biopic, Cesar Chavez, played later in the same day. It boasts an exceptional cast, with Michael Peña in the title role, America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, and Rosario Dawson as Delores Huerta. It's a well-made film, but . . .

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