Flashback – Wrestling with Perception: How Documentaries Found a Home in Austin

Originally published in the Daily Texan on April 25th. The photo above is from Diane Zander's 2003 SXSW entry "Girl Wrestler."

Truth is stranger than fiction.

In Austin, that maxim is something that has certainly not gone unnoticed by the city's filmmakers. Those lurking around with digital cameras and lighting equipment haven't run out of subjects thanks to the odd nature of a town born of the union of hippies, a university and a state capital. But since documentarians grow from their surroundings regardless of where they're from – though Austin certainly hands them a broader canvas to work with – Austin's uniqueness comes from its desire to encourage documentaries to be made and (gasp!) actually projected onto the big screen.

"I've told a lot of people that it was a great honor to have 'George Wallace: Setting the Woods on Fire' at Sundance three years ago," said Paul Stekler, the UT professor who heads the school's radio-television-film production program. "But even though they treated us great, and we won the award, and it was a fabulous time to be there, we had been getting 100 to 200 people to see the film at each screening. We had a screening here at SXSW three months later at the Paramount where there was 1,000 people there. And this isn't unusual here."

Stekler is widely credited with reviving the production program at the University, along with fellow filmmakers Ellen Spiro, Andy Garrison, Diane Zander, Mitko Panov and Don Howard. But since his arrival in Austin, he has dedicated himself to promoting documentary filmmaking in a town where the only documentarians were Paige Martinez, who has since moved, and Hector Galan, who has been in Austin since 1984, concentrating on making films about his Mexican-American heritage, AIDS, farm workers, drug addiction and child advocacy.

"He's good. He's very, very good," said veteran documentarian Albert Maysles ("Gimme Shelter," "Salesman") of Stekler.

When Maysles came to Austin to talk with professors from around the country about documentary filmmaking, he was impressed with the response he got. "I had a very good time there. I introduced a few controversial ideas that I think got things going very well. I think it's important that teachers of documentary lead the students towards of the kinds of subject matter that's more suitable for documentary. And often times, I think students take on subject matter that can only be handled by just interviewing people because by the very nature of its subject matter, you're just looking for information. But that information isn't as cinematic as an unfolding story of somebody's experience. I think when it comes to documentary, that's documentary at its strongest, is when you're filming people experiencing something."

While Maysles' visit to Austin shook everything up for the film department, the legendary filmmaker was also here as part of Stekler's other contribution to the Austin documentary scene – the Texas Documentary Tour, an event that happens on the second Wednesday of every month. Sponsored by the Austin Film Society, the Documentary Tour is the rare opportunity in which a documentary is presented at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown with the filmmaker in attendance. Rebecca Campbell, the executive director of the Austin Film Society, thinks the documentary tour is one of the strongest connections the organizations has with the University.

"A couple of UT professors serve on the committee and help us choose the documentaries," said Campbell. "They help us attract strong documentarians because they come to present their film to the community, and they present a master class, so it makes it more attractive to get the top documentarians to actually come to town."

Stekler thinks the city is an attraction of its own, with theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse in town.

"We were having a party at my house, and Dennis Grenia and Louis Black and I were talking, and I had just gone to the Alamo. It had just opened, and I was just talking about how great it was to go to a movie where I could get something to eat and something to drink while I was watching the film, and I said, 'This is a fabulous place.' And I think Dennis said, 'Why can't we have documentaries there?' You know we could get an audience, and we could get some publicity, and maybe we could do it once a month and Louis Black, who is the head of The Austin Chronicle and was then president of the Austin Film Society, 'Done, we'll do it.' And that's another one of the nice things about being over here is that three guys like Dennis, Louis and me can, just by talking, say that 'Oh, we're going to do this.'"

Out of such informal beginnings, one of the Austin Film Society's most enduring programs was born. A list of the past screenings at the Texas Documentary Tour reads like a who's who of documentary filmmaking history with legendary names like Maysles, Robert Drew (Primary), the godfather of cinema verite, D.A. Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back"), and even Todd Phillips (Old School), whose first film, the documentary "Frat House" was shelved by HBO and played to sold out audiences in Austin, who couldn't see the film anywhere else. R.J. Cutler, executive producer on such groundbreaking documentaries as the PBS series "American High" and "The War Room," came with the latter film to the Texas Documentary Tour last year.

"On Sept. 11 of all days, 'The War Room' was scheduled for a screening at a local theater, and the place was packed," said Cutler, who recently shot his next project about college freshmen for Showtime on UT's campus. "It was quite a delight for me to see – on a night when so many people in America were staying home and watching specials on television commemorating the events of a year before – that hundreds of people showed up for a screening of a movie that was 10 years old. And it was a great night and a great experience, and I loved meeting people and talking with them about the film and hearing what they thought 10 years later. And so the community seems to be extremely vital and vibrant and very engaged in documentary filmmaking."

"I really didn't know very much about the number of people that were very passionate about filmmaking here and were also sort of a big film audience," said Stekler, who knew only of Paige Martinez, Hector Galan and the movie 'Slacker' before he came to Austin from New York, "so it was a very pleasant surprise. I think I probably had some sort of an inkling, but I had no idea what a fertile area this was for filmmaking and also for building audiences."

It's easy to build audiences when you're turning out good product and since Stekler arrived, the awards have come rolling in. Most recently, Lauren Banta took home the George Mitchell UT Co-op Award, a $20,000 prize reserved for the best creative or scholarly achievement on campus that is open to the whole University. The department can also chalk up two student academy awards in the last two years, a Documentary Association David Wolper Best Student Film of the Year Award and a high success rate when it comes to getting documentaries into the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the country – Full Frame in North Carolina, and not surprisingly, SXSW right here in Austin.

"If somebody had four or five festivals to attend anywhere," said Albert Maysles, "and one of them was in Austin, then, by all means, include that in your itinerary."

While those in Austin already know why, the rest of the world is beginning to take note.

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