Texas films get the SXSW treatment in the festival’s biggest year ever

In 1994, South by Southwest sprouted its cinematic festival tentacle. In the time since, “There’s never been one that I’ve not gone crazy at,” says aintitcool.com founder Harry Knowles.

2011 is a milestone year for South by (and by extension, Texas), now a 25-year-old annual event, and also for Texan Knowles, whose film website is turning 15. In honor of the anniversary, festival powers-that-be tapped the cinephile to program one of the coveted SXSW Film night slots at the historic Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue — a first for Knowles. It just so happens that he’s simultaneously recovering from a spinal surgery that should enable him to walk for the first time in about 15 years. “No pressure there,” he chuckled.

“From my hospital setting, I’ve been chasing down studios and filmmakers,” Knowles said. The acquired film is a top-secret preview, something that Knowles — an Austin film fixture and self-described Willy Wonka type — is famous for. This will be his first-ever preview (SXSW or otherwise) to be held at the Paramount (March 14), he said, excited at the prospect of having more than 1,000 people in one room wondering what he has up his sleeve.

Attempts to winkle clues are fruitless, and appropriately so. This much Knowles will say: The film is a summer release; it has a pleasant balance of the “Holy shit, I can’t believe Harry got this” element, and the “this movie deserves the attention it might not otherwise get” factor; and at least one special guest will be in attendance.

Knowles is credited in zombie flick Pathogen (2006), the first feature-length film made by Emily Hagins, one of this year’s SXSW Film Lone Star State category participants. Legend has it that Pathogen was inspired by a screening of Undead (2003) at Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon 24-hour film festival. Hagins was but a 12-year-old girl when she made the film, which, in turn, inspired the 2009 documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie.

Now 18, director-writer Hagins’ third film My Sucky Teen Romance, which premieres March 15 at the Paramount, features another paranormal species: vampires. “It’s sounds kind of bad with where pop culture is right now. But being a teenager, I really wanted to tell a teen vampire movie from a real teenager’s perspective.” In the film, she says, friends attend sci-fi convention “SpaceCON” where real vampires turn up, and the protagonists have only their pop-culture-derived knowledge with which to defend themselves. “We literally just finished the movie yesterday and turned it in ... We had to stay up for almost three days straight. In the middle of all that I thought, ‘This really is what I want to do.’”

Even though Hagins avows having strong support from her community, she is already aware of the celluloid ceiling, where “women and young filmmakers and anybody who might have something that’s unique about their situation” are likely to hear, “‘Oh, that’s good for a kid,’ or ‘That’s good for a girl.’ I think there will always be things that will challenge how people see my movies, and maybe particularly this one, but I hope that people get invested in the story and try and let that stuff go.”

Five Time Champion, another featured film in the Lone Star State category, was shot entirely in the town of Smithville, where Terrence Malick filmed parts of his upcoming movie The Tree of Life. Champion — which premieres on March 13 at the Paramount — was written and directed by Berndt Mader, whose credits include cinematography for Winnebago Man (2009), a documentary directed by his The Bear Media business partner, Ben Steinbauer.

Mader’s 2011 film originated from two separate narratives whose characters came to co-mingle as the filmmaker developed them. Julius, a scientist, is “trying to discover what it is to be a man, and what it is to be himself” at the same time as his grandparents “struggle with monogamy and fidelity,” said the director. Though Mader intentionally left the setting of the film vague — rural, Southern — he loves filming in Texas. “I love the very landscapes it offers.” Smithville was particularly excellent because of its “friendly, traditional, classic,” and film-facilitating residents. “I basically never heard no the whole time I was there.”

One of the major benefits of SXSW Film, a major “third coast” cinema fest, is the attention that regional shooting locations and filmmakers — both professional and amateur — are able to garner. Students from SA’s own Saint Mary’s Hall have three films showing in South by’s Texas High School Shorts category — Volition, Sun and Moon, and Circuit Breaker: Episode III. The music video for local band Buttercup’s song “Superior,” directed by Julian Moreno-Peña of SAY Sí’s media arts program, was also selected for the category.

Indeed, there’s plenty to “go crazy” for at this year’s fest, from the international to the hyper local. “There’s a lot of stuff that I’m dying to see this year,” said Knowles, a little glumly, acknowledging the “medical fights and miracles” it will take just to get on stage for his own landmark preview.

Related: SXSW films to flock to: The Current picks the key U.S. and world films of SXSW 2011.


See complete schedule at sxsw.com/film/screenings