As we all know, jumping into the Interactive portion of SXSW is the best possible way to get your festival bearings because, for a myriad of reasons, pretty much every official and unofficial event of Interactive is low-risk, high-reward. It doesn’t have the public caché of Music but it’s also way more social (interactive?) than Film and the budgets for companies hosting events and parties is…uh…substantial. You’re not elbowing a thousand teens high on ecstasy trying to sneak into a secret party in a space that’s normally considered an alley/garage/bar/parking lot/”that weird patch of grass, you know”/Smoothie King/etc., you’re just taking your friendly attitude where you can, formal invitations and RSVPs be damned, gently listening to very clean young men with Hitler Youth haircuts talk about how they’re disrupting the [literally anything] in exchange for free drinks and food, a resting spot on a futuristic piece of furniture, and some Instagram pics you’ll brand with the company’s hashtags.
SXSW Interactive is a very inclusive atmosphere, with everyone wanting to share and talk and nod at you to acknowledge they really hear you. Plus you get to play with fun tech toys and boys (someone’s always 3D printing something!) One time I got a manicure sponsored by Yahoo.
One time I somehow left a party I didn’t belong at with hundreds of dollars in fitness wearables. They were party gifts, they had extras, I had a nice smile and a willingness to follow them on Twitter.
So, long story short, the first half of Day 1 of Interactive for me looked a lot like everything I just said, plus sun and also rain and also Chris Baio and also light-up swingsets–shoutout Deloitte Digital! Y’all are so much more than just taxes and audits.
Then it was time to watch some movies and describe them to people, since that’s a thing we’re really good at doing here at Loser City.
High off the Interactive buzz and wanting to Feel The Innovation, I was planning to take in the first screening of Silicon Cowboys, a film wisely trying hard-but-not-too-hard to associate itself with the “untold stories of white dudes in tech” boom in media, but the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar seemed to be having real troubles getting itself organized for Day 1 of Film–there’s only so much a fresh new seventeen-year-old volunteer can do to confidently manage a swarm of folks who make twenty times as much as their favorite English teacher and dress better too–and I didn’t get a spot in that theater. Morgan Davis did, though, so if you want to know more about that film, read his review!
Instead, I caught Cameraperson, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s memoir-style film, in which she links together previously unused footage from dozens of the documentaries she’s worked on over the years as a way to represent her experience behind the camera and examine the nature of documentation as a concept and profession. The premise is intriguing and the execution is exactly as you’d hope–understated and thoughtful. We see funny moments such as Jacques Derrida warning Johnson not to trip as she follows him or Johnson sneezing and shaking the camera as she tries to get a steady shot, but mostly there is serious gravity to the film, as Johnson’s work has been focused, for much of her career, on harrowing, devastating parts of the human experience. We see her struggle not to cry as a young boy recounts the bomb that killed his brother, we see the hands but not faces of an anonymous survivor of rape and a young woman seeking an abortion–and we also hear Johnson urging that young woman not to call herself a bad person. There are too many remarkable, disparate moments of connection and confession to tell them all, but I was so shaken by this collection of experience that I spent the rest of the evening recounting to others as many of the stories from Cameraperson as I could.
Ultimately, the film did struggle slightly with knowing how to manage the progression of footage and when to simply say “this is the end.” That’s an understandable flaw, given the framework and the personal nature of subject. Watching someone show you a record of their private moments and their outtakes feels at first like a very special privilege, where each title card announcing a new setting feels like being handed another treat, but after a long while of the same newness over and over, you start to develop too much of an awareness of the structure to be able to really focus on the content. As a viewer, all of the content was engaging, but without a solid narrative guide there was simply too much of it. A small quibble, though, considering how much insight and humanity Cameraperson had to offer. I left the theater deeply moved.
From there, it made the most sense geographically for Morgan and I to end the night, filmwise, with the documentary Beware the Slenderman, which was playing at the ZACH Topfer Theatre. This was terrible news for me because I am afraid of both the Slenderman meme/myth and also children who almost succeed in stabbing their friends to death. My nightmares are varied and elaborate.
The film itself, examining the circumstances both societal and personal that seem to have led twelve-year-olds Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier to stab their best friend nineteen times and leave her for dead, is extremely long and extremely unsettling. I wanted to know everything about these girls in order to try to put the pieces together, and Beware the Slenderman provided a lot: probably forty minutes of interrogation and trial footage in which every single detail of the stabbing is revealed, plenty of home movies of the girls growing up, drawing upon drawing, internet post upon internet post, a deep dive into the rabbit hole of Anissa’s YouTube history. And of course an examination of the Slenderman myth and all its community-made artifacts. I’d argue the examination was too thorough, taking a good portion of the film to introduce and exemplify Creepypasta to a viewership that almost certainly is Creepypasta-familiar. This was all miserable for me because I think the Slenderman concept is terrifying and I got really tired of having to squeeze my eyes shut or look at the ceiling of the theater to avoid image upon image and video upon artistically-manipulated video of this tall spooky murder man haunting children. The real-life story of children willfully and intentionally almost successfully murdering their friend with mom’s kitchen knife is scary enough.
Beware the Slenderman wanted to make statements about technology, myth, psychological disorders, society as a whole…really it wanted to make a lot of statements. And all of the interviews with the girls’ families and the girls’ themselves were absolutely engrossing and very upsetting–reminders of how volatile a time childhood and adolescence really is from an emotional and psychological perspective. But the more political statements felt muddled and weak in comparison, and the running time could have been cut by about a quarter, easily.
Still, if you liked to get scared but are pretty sure you aren’t going to feel obligated to stab your friend, it’s definitely worth catching on HBO eventually.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh has written for Pitchfork, Ovrld and xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.