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SXSW 2014—Day 5: DamNation; The Possibilities are Endless; Housebound; Beyond Clueless
From 'DamNation'

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, the second here, thethird here, and the fourth here.

DamNation, directed by Travis Rummel and Ben Knight
The Possibilities are Endless, directed by Edward Lovelace and James Hall
Housebound, directed by Gerard Johnstone
Beyond Clueless, directed by Charlie Lyne

After Monday, film screenings continue at SXSW, but the festival's focus definitely turns to music. I spent the day at "satellite" locations—theaters not in the downtown loop, often featuring niche films for slightly smaller audiences.

Not surprisingly, the quality varies a little. Two strong documentaries started the day on a high note, but the evening sessions were big disappointments.

Did you know there are over 75,000 dams over three feet high in the United States? I didn't, until I screened DamNation, an educational and provocative documentary about the history of dams and their environmental impact.

At first the film looks like it might turn into a standard taking sides/issue film, with proponents of dams touting the wonders of hydroelectric power and critics lamenting their effect on wildlife. Gradually, however, the film follows (and advocates) the rising movement to remove obsolete or inefficient dams. It makes a strong case that doing so is a public good, preserving the renewal of wildlife while having a minimal impact on energy creation. The film argues that energy created by the Condit Dam could be replaced by as little as three windmills.

Issue documentaries often forget that film is a visual medium, but this one doesn't. Ben Knight's photography is stunning. He told the audience his background is in still photography, and he tried to approach each shot of the film as though it were a still photo. Nature shots are to photography what sonnets are to poetry—so ubiquitous it takes an extremely skilled craftsman to breathe new life into a tired form.

Also, most environmental films are downers, infected by the apocalyptic despair of An Inconvenient Truth or Surviving Progress. But DamNation chronicles some successes in removing dams, shows the remarkable resiliency of salmon species, and evidences the miraculous (I use the term deliberately) ability of nature to be renewed if given "half a chance."

Humans are also resilient. Witness Edwyn Collins, a musician whose stroke robbed him of memories and language. Able only to say "the possibilities are endless" and "Grace Maxwell" (the name of his wife) after his stroke, Collins experienced a cocoon of isolation that the film The Possibilities Are Endless represents experimentally.

Gradually, through his wife's ministration and the miraculous power of music to stir his heart and spur his imagination, Collins was able to regain much of what he assumed had been lost forever. As much a testament to Grace's faithfulness as Edwyn's talent, The Possibilities Are Endless gives new life to the reminder that love is patient. After the screening, Edwyn and Grace played a song for the audience. She still strums the guitar for him since his motor skills are not fully recovered, but his voice is clear, haunting, and beautiful.

SXSW is definitely skewed towards a younger demographic. That demographic likes its horror films, and for the first hour or so of Housebound, I thought I might be able to share the audience's delight in a creepy ghost story without the gory sensibilities that saturates American horror porn.

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