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10 Highlights from SXSW

17 Mar, 2014 Posted in: SXSW

Film4 commissioning executive and head of digital Anna Higgs, Film4.com’s Catherine Bray (also co-producer of Beyond Clueless, which screened at SXSW) and freelance critic Caspar Salmon pick their highlights from SXSW (excluding, of course, anything they produced themselves – we thought that might seem a bit biased!)

 

1. The Possibilities Are Endless

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A critics’ favourite at SXSW, James Hall and Edward Lovelace’s The Possibilities Are Endless ostensibly tells the story of the singer Edwyn Collins’s recovery from a stroke with the love and help of his wife, Grace Maxwell. But the film also functions as an exploration of memory, identity and love, a hymn for Scotland and the sea, and a tender depiction of love and companionship. Hall and Lovelace have made the decision to represent Collins’s plight – his loss of language, of identity, of memories and movement – in a purely filmic way, immersing the spectator in a series of impressionistic images. It is a bold way to go about telling his story, and one that shows what an affinity the filmmakers have for their material.

– Caspar Salmon

2. The Raid 2

It’s always fun to try and find time to see a big action-y film at SXSW if you can, as there’s nothing quite like seeing one in a packed Paramount Theatre, with a whooping and cheering audience of fanatical film go-ers. The energy and passion with which audiences meet the film and filmmakers really sums up what I love about SXSW and means I have to come back every year. In previous years it’s been Cabin In The Woods or Kick-Ass, but this year it was Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2. This screening was made all the more intense as the night it was supposed to premiere (and I couldn’t make because we had one of our films playing) the subtitles failed and so the screening was called off part way through – the most gut-wrenching of horrors for festival heads and filmmakers alike, way surpassing the goriest of movies at the fest itself! But Gareth soldiered on and they fixed the problem and a midnight screening for the following night was put on. And it was well worth the wait for the assembled crowds. The film has a lot more hammer-death than the first, but it was wonderful to see the audience responding with such enthusiasm and great to see Gareth so happy with the results after the challenges of the night before.

– Anna Higgs

3. Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton

Influential LA hip hop label Stones Throw was founded in 1996 and has since released some of the most ground-breaking records in the genre. This doc features interviews with basically all the key players, from mastermind Chris Manak (aka Peanut Butter Wolf), artists like Madlib, Tyler the Creator, Flying Lotus and Kanye West, archive footage of much-missed talents like Charizma and J Dilla (to whom the film is dedicated), and some more contemporary performances, making for a delicious grab bag of all things Stones Throw. It’s possibly a little esoteric for a disinterested newcomer, but for everyone from curious dilettantes to die-hard fans it’s a real treat – a novice looking to learn everything about the label wouldn’t have to work too hard to thoroughly enjoy themselves, and likely end up with a wallet-shafting shopping list of must-own records.

– Catherine Bray

4. Boyhood

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Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an involving portrait of a child filmed over a period of twelve years, was a huge crowd-pleaser at the festival, and for good reason. In the naturalistic, searching vein of Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy, the film centres on Mason, who at the start of the film is a young, dreamy kid who lives with his sister and mother (Patricia Arquette) and occasionally sees his slacker father (Ethan Hawke). The film’s technical accomplishment in guiding its characters through this time-frame is exceptional: nothing feels forced, each moment seems to have some truth in it, and the relationships between the characters grow deeper as the movie proceeds.

– Caspar Salmon

5. Adam Buxton’s Kernel Panic

It’s always great to see Adam Buxton doing his stuff for a new audience, and the way he coped with technical issues at SXSW that staff were unable to resolve was a masterclass in British resolve in the face of chaos. One half of Adam and Joe in the 20th century, Dr Buckles has since become a brilliant live act in the 21st – if you’ve never experienced his unique brand of daft videos, YouTube comment curation and genuine passion for David Bowie (plus other stuff too), his new show Kernel Panic is an ideal place to start. (There’s a five night London run coming up in April – click here.)

– Catherine Bray

6. Sequoia

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With a punchy, acerbic script and performances treading a fine line between sardonic and charming, Sequoia tells the story of Riley (Aly Michalka), a suicidal cancer sufferer who crosses paths with an idealistic Christian banjo-botherer (Dustin Milligan) as she heads to Sequoia National Park to off herself. En route, the pair make a film diary of her last moments, with which to taunt her hated mother (Joey Lauren Adams). The movie revels in its gallows humour and finds moments of sass and beauty amongst the overall climate of despair – and if it occasionally falls prey to some indie traps (Instagram-style visuals, the hey-check-this-out kookiness of its premise), the leads are gorgeous and convincing, and it is a genuinely funny, sometimes properly gloomy film. Watch out for Demetri Martin’s entertainingly ghastly turn as the hideous stepfather.

– Caspar Salmon

7. Interactive Stories That Move Us presented by Caspar Sonnen, IDFA Doc Lab

Caspar Sonnen runs IDFA’s innovative and inspiring Doc Lab which works to explore documentary storytelling in the digital age alongside the prestigious festival. This panel was really insightful, looking at how digital storytelling can really move you emotionally and showcasing some great examples including Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine, Chris Milk’s immersive Sound & Vision project with Beck and Alma: A Tale Of Violence. The session was music to my ears and really nailed the opportunities and challenges that we’re trying to work in with Film4’s innovation work – particularly the key issue that in interactive projects the focus tends to settle on the technology and not what makes us think and feel as human beings.

– Anna Higgs

8. Music videos showcase

I love music videos, and it’s not often you get the chance to sit down and watch 19 of them in a row on the big screen with proper speakers. The selection curated by SXSW more than stood up to the challenge of screening in a cinema instead of on a laptop, with some mind-blowing VFX, engaging narratives and surreal concepts showcasing the work of new and established directing talents. I’d highlight Lesson #16 for Beatmaster V / Fun (directed by Kenneth Karlstad for Deathcrush), Mind Mischief (directed by David Wilson for Tame Impala), Cry Like A Ghost (directed by Daniels’ for Passion Pit) and Back To Me (directed by Ian and Cooper for Joel Compass).

– Catherine Bray

9. Frank

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It’s always great to see a film that you’re very close to go down well at a festival, and though the film enjoyed its world premiere at Sundance, this SXSW Festival Favourites screening was huge fun. The audience were all wearing their Frank masks and really went on the journey with the film that Lenny Abrahamson and his team so intricately crafted. There’s a bit of SXSW in the film itself, so it was a wonderfully meta moment to hear the audience cheer that part and really feel like part of the world of the film.

– Anna Higgs

10. The Straight 8 competition

This was my first time at SXSW and one of the things I took away from it was how much more hands on it is for festivalgoers than most festivals. An example: I was badgered into entering a one hour filmmaking competition by the irrepressibly enthusiastic Straight 8 team, who have created an app that replicates the ‘no editing’ feel of shooting on Super 8. One hour later, we’d all shot our mainly pretty awful shorts, but the quality wasn’t important – it was the fact that as well as turning up to watch and respond to films, we’d been forced to get our hands dirty and make one, however questionable.

– Catherine Bray

 

The Imposter director Bart Layton blogs for Film4 from SXSW as his film screens…

The Imposter screens at SXSW

The Imposter screens at SXSW

“You must be real excited” says the SXSW coordinator handing me my Filmmaker badge in the registration hall at SXSW, “You guys are playing the Paramount – that’s huge”. Huge as in massively prestigious or huge as in massively big? I wonder. I soon find out it’s the latter – the Paramount seats 1200 people and our film is due to play there on Wednesday afternoon. My mind immediately flashes up an image of us doing a Q&A in front of a colossal auditorium with about 5 people sat there, one of them’s asleep, another’s texting and the rest are ushers. I decide not to think about it but send an anxious text requesting more poster putter-uppers.

Austin is clearly a rocking town with or without SXSW coming to stay – so much so that it’s hard to believe that this is where George Bush chose to live. There are bars you’d travel miles for in London on just about every corner and in front of each stands a sizzling taco truck waiting for you to fall drunkenly in its porky arms. If you’re English, the locals are suspiciously lovely, enthusiastic and hospitable hipsters, all ink and beard, that make Dimitri (producer) and I want to cut the sleeves off our t-shirts, roll around in the dirt and go get some words tattooed on our necks. En route to the hotel I get an email from Miami Film Festival, where we’ve just arrived from, saying that we’ve won the Grand Jury Prize – we’re so stunned that we have to call them to check!

Buzzing from the news, Dimitri, Poppy (co-producer) and I head out toward 6th street where crowds are spilling out of cranking clubs – some with SXSW Film badges, some with SXSW Interactive badges (most of the interactives can be found staring at their phones, busily tweeting about what a killer time they’re having, whilst socially mobilising other interactives to gather together and stare at their phones en masse). Nevertheless, this tweeting thing has begun to obsess me – as soon as a screening ends twitter is alive with people giving their miniature verdict – the other day a girl twittered her irritation that I was wearing the same shirt/shoe combo for the Q&A that I had on at Sundance!? It seems I must have inadvertently acquired a special Q&A outfit, and, possibly also a stalker. At a screening at True/False I introduced the film then moved to a nearby bar while the film played. Unable to resist a quick twitter check for “the Imposter” – I find a 2-minute old tweet from someone actually sat in the audience watching the movie: “OMG – Watching the The Imposter at #TRUE/FALSE – totally gripped!!” – I wonder how gripped you can really be if you feel the need to tweet your state of grippedness.

Our first SXSW screening is at the Lamar theatre – why is there nowhere like this in the UK? In front of each row of seats is a long bench with slots for menus, paper and pencils. Then in front of the bench is a space for servers to steal up and down, take your order and return with burgers, beer or Mexican food! Now this is a cinema! The screening is packed out. I intro the film then lurk in the back as an audience of munchers, slurpers and belchers sits transfixed – quietly masticating in a darkness thick with burrito. Credits roll, an amazing response, a great Q&A followed by an outpouring of tweety enthusiasm. We are stoked! Hopefully word will spread and the Paramount will attract a smattering more takers.

The next day it’s back to back press interviews with everyone from Ain’t it Cool News to the Austin Statesman and even a somewhat questionable encounter with The Diabolical League of Awesome - friendly “journalists” who absolutely rave about the film, but who I’m not completely sure realise it was a documentary. We answer the same questions 30 or 40 times over the course of the day and do our utmost to sound interesting. Night falls and we attempt to locate the “hottest party in town” – this is pretty much a losing battle – kind of like all those rubbish New Years Eves you had as a teenager where you spend most of the night convinced you should be at the other party only to find yourself caught between the two, sat next to a sleeping tramp on a night bus as midnight strikes.

So we enlist the help of our handsome new Hollywood agent who drags us off to the 21 Jump Street party where we rub shoulders with Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow and a gaggle of agents, models and self-proclaimed actor-writer-producer-director-producer-cinematographers. The thing about these parties is that everyone wants to be there but no actually one looks like they’re actually having much fun  - with the possible exception of Jonah Hill, who’s wearing a police uniform and fending off blonde girls with skin almost the exact same colour as their hair.

Today’s the day of reckoning – 2:30pm at the Paramount Theatre – will it be empty, half-full or maxed out? I spend the morning with a churning feeling in the pit of my stomach – could be the steady diet of smoked brisket and grits but I’m wagering it’s nerves. We arrive early for a tech-check. The place is ginormous, the screen is huge, the picture looks phenomenal and the sound is trouser-shaking. By quarter to two the rush line is filling up nicely but what of the actual film-goers? Where are they? It’s a beautiful day, I’m convinced everyone will be out drinking in the sun. Anna from Film 4 notices me pacing, “The badge line starts round the corner,” she tells me. So we go look to see if anyone’s actually standing there. I take out my iPhone to record the terrifying evidence:

"The badge line starts round the corner..."

"The badge line starts round the corner..."

To our enormous shock and relief the queue stretches to the end of the block and beyond.

It’s pretty incredible, especially if you’ve only worked in TV before, to sit in a packed theatre as big and beautiful as that one – with hundreds of strangers staring silently at this thing you spent months and months working on, driving everyone you know round the bend, and then actually see an audience (a real audience!) from Texas, where the story takes place, responding to it in the way you prayed they might. Then the relief of finally hearing them erupt in applause because they have been on a journey for the last 95 minutes that absorbed them – one that hopefully entertained them, moved them and even made them question what they thought they knew about human beings. So thank you SXSW and Austin for one of those rare and ‘huge’ moments that we’ll keep living and reliving over and over again.

The Q&A was a blur but the audience, as is typical of Austin, were clever and generous and thoughtful. Some friends from London were there and along with a great bunch from Film4 we went to a rooftop bar around the corner to do the post mortem. I can’t resist the lure of the tweet – I surreptitiously type in “The Imposter”. One in particular catches my eye: “The Imposter = wow. Believe the hype. What a terrific doc-thriller. Could be one of the best docs this year. #SXSW” – ” turns out it’s by Matt Dentler, former head of SXSW Film Festival, now head of iTunes. We can go home happy.

 Read a Q&A with Bart Layton and producer Dmitri Doganis

Dreams Of A Life Director Carol Morley writes from SXSW: part three

22 Mar, 2012 Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Guest blog

This comes to you from near Manchester. Not Manchester, England, but Manchester, Massachusetts where I have come after Austin to visit relatives. At SXSW, in addition to watching lots of films, I became slightly obsessed with what we British call toilets, lavs, the ladies, the gents, but Americans like to call bathrooms or restrooms. Here, toilets flush themselves, the soap dispensers are automatic and paper unrolls in reaction to movement. I started to feel superfluous as a human being and slightly contagious. The first time I came to the USA I read a section of a guide book on Greyhound buses and how they were equipped with restrooms, which I thought were rooms where travellers could take turns laying down – some kind of pilgrim elegance.

 

Perhaps the Greyhound is a good way to begin to try to tell you about the strange sense of emotion I experienced on South Congress (a strip of road with lots of groovy shops and cafés.). All around street music was at full convergence and I had developed an ear infection and was in a bubble. I was browsing the packed shelves and secret corners of a second hand/ junk/ antique shop. Nothing in the shop was familiar; it was all Americana and as far away from the stuff of my past as anything can be.  But in the midst of it all I began to think of my mum, Dilys, who died towards the end of making Dreams of a Life.

 

I was unsure as to why this particular place brought on such powerful and strong thoughts of her, but connected it to the fact that Dilys, who had never been to the USA (though she did have an American granddad who ran away to Wales), would have loved rooting through all this eccentric ephemera. But then I began to think about how my mum actually wanted to own very little and that on her 60th birthday she announced that what she had always wanted to be was a bag lady. But perhaps these thoughts of my mum were caused mostly by looking through boxes of discarded sepia photographic portraits of people – faces looking towards the lens with wistfulness and hopefulness, futures ahead of them – long since dead.

 

I realised that in so many ways Austin and SXSW had surrounded me with death – so many shops had Day Of The Dead objects for sale: skulls and effigies of people in coffins. I’d also seen Kevin Macdonald’s fascinating film Marley, and wept for the untimely early death of Bob; I’d seen The Imposter, shadowed by the disappearance and possible death of Nicholas Barclay; and I’d watched Sean Baker’s Starlet, with death not far away in many ways. Also, I’d been reading Larry McMurtry’s book, In A Narrow Grave, Essays on Texas and in this he quotes Teddy Blue: “Cowboys loved to sing about people dying; I don’t know why. I guess it was because they were so full of life themselves…” Somehow, in the midst of SXSW, which is so full of life, of people revelling in the heady moments, and as far away from home as I’ve been in a long time, I was finding it easier than ever to think about my mum no longer being alive.

 

But the Greyhound bus does really have a part to play in all this. In the second hand shop I found an official Greyhound metal box, with an old ticket to ride inside from 1965 – way before my long ago travels, but it was a must have – and now the box will always remind me of this trip to SXSW and my bus travels through North America when I was twenty-one years old. I will look at it and remember when a young mother and her children got on the bus and urged the driver to hurry over the state line as her husband, in fast pursuit in a car, was not allowed to leave the area. The bus driver picked up speed, and we passengers all watched through the back window as the woman’s husband remarkably did stop at the border and was left behind. She had made her escape.

 

I paid for my Greyhound box and went and sat on a sidewalk and, shutting out the world around me, leant on the box and wrote postcards home until a woman’s hand clutched my upper arm tightly. Thinking my bag was going to be robbed I held it close. She crouched down, looked at me intensely and said: “You are such an awesome person writing postcards to people when all this stuff is going on around you – when there is just so, so, much to do.” This made me feel guilty for not doing more. There were films and music events and here I was sitting on a kerb writing postcards and then she said, “You are so kind. Would you be my Facebook friend? You’d be an amazing Facebook friend.” So, in the hope of being alone again, I instantly agreed and she gave me her card and happily strode away, making more Facebook friends as she went.

 

Across the road I saw two cowboys on horseback. I have no idea if they were real cowboys or dressed for the part, but it felt like a demonstration of a disappeared world- now we are in a digital age where writing postcards is quaint. But, as I watched the cowboys and my new Facebook friend make her way along the street, I thought SXSW has in so many ways been all about one major thing – telling stories. Such an old fashioned thing – but an enduring one. Whether it’s the singer-songwriter on the pavement or Bruce Springsteen (not that I saw him or anything, but he was at SXSW) singing his songs, or communally experiencing a film in a darkened room, we were all watching and listening to stories unfold. And there’s nothing more primal and necessary than that.

 

Our last screening was full, and people had to be turned away and according to the cinema staff that is unusual for a daytime screening on the last day of the festival. Mark, who saw the film in the UK, and who we had dinner with previously, brought a group of friends with him to watch, and the film played out – a London story- all the way to Austin. A universal story – with a nice review in the Austin Chronicle as proof!

 

As we left SXSW and hailed a cab to the airport from our hotel, a man asked if he could share our ride as he was also heading to catch a flight out of town – to Seattle. On the drive we got talking and it turned out, many years ago, he was Joyce’s friend’s husband’s friend.  He was two degrees of separation from Joyce. And so as I departed Texas, the sense came over me, that there really is probably less than six degrees of separation between us all and that it really, really is a small, small world.

 

Dreams Of A Life Director Carol Morley writes from SXSW: part two

16 Mar, 2012 Productions Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Guest blog

So Cairo the producer, Andy the distributor and I had dinner with Mark, who had seen Dreams of a Life in London with his daughter, apparently after hearing Robert Elms talk about the film on his radio show with Jason Solomons and me. He has indeed traced his old football team since watching the film, but they are yet to meet. There had been a long running rumour that one of them had died decades ago – but it turned out it was a complete myth and the man in question is still alive and still kicking. Andy now wants a Dreams of a Life reunion dinner with Mark every year during SXSW.

Cairo Cannon, Michael Hayden and Carol Morley

"Cairo Cannon, Michael Hayden (Programmer for London Film Festival) and me - we bumped into each other on the streets of Austin."

Afterwards we went to the Austin Chronicle Party. I didn’t stay long but spent enough time there to talk to two young women straight out of Ghost World, and a man who was making – or already had – a film about carbon.  Don’t know if it was the film pitch, jet lag, fatigue, or the large house vodka but I began to feel strange and I think I infected Cairo and Andy because we all decided to leave. As we were almost out of the door bumped into Erin, one of the SXSW official photographers. She’s been here seven years in a row and you know just by looking at her she has the complete lowdown on everything – she had come straight from a Jay-Z gig at some intimate venue. We first met Erin at a party for the documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, about the American artist Wayne White and afterwards she took us to the film distribution company Magnolia’s party- I didn’t stay long there: had a packet of crisps, realised everyone was about twenty and my stamina wasn’t what it used to be and left.
Our second screening of Dreams of a Life was on Tuesday morning.  Just before Cairo and I went into the Alamo Ritz cinema to introduce the film, a lorry (okay, truck) tore down a sizeable part of a tree – as we are in Texas where everything is supersized, I can’t call it a branch; it just wouldn’t do it justice. The cinema queue wrangler outside said, “That’s gonna make the local news tonight – we are all tree huggers here in Austin.” The film and Q&A went down really well. The screening was full – they are truly a committed audience here at South By.

Producer Cairo Cannon outside the Ritz

Producer Cairo Cannon outside the Ritz

Met Katie Ellen for the first time, she is over here from the British Film Institute, who, along with the British Council Film Department, have helped finance our trip here. We both went to see The Imposter, which was a hit with the audience. Director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis were faced with similar questions that are asked about Dreams of a Life.  The first question fired at them was, “what do you think really happened?” They answered all questions elegantly and managed not to close down the fascinating areas that their film opens up.
On a shuttle bus efficiently going from one cinema to another, Jeff and Jen, who had seen Dreams Of A Life that morning, introduced themselves to Cairo and me. Jen is a lawyer representing people on Death Row and Jeff programmes films for the Loft Cinema in Tuscon – he said he would love to show Dreams. We all went for a drink and I made them count up how many films they had seen in the festival so far. They’d seen seventeen, which averaged at three and a half films a day. It’s hard not to feel a little anxious that I’m not completely doing wall-to-wall activity and watching films all of the time- but I try and calm myself thinking, “quality not quantity”.  They gave their movie recommendations, which included Paul Williams Still Alive, a documentary about the singer songwriter who the director assumed had died.  We went to see it today and it’s excellent. Especially the bit where the director, Stephen Kessler, says, “if this was a PBS documentary it would be like this…” and then launches into a perfect pastiche of what PBS would have made with Paul William’s life. Priceless.
SXSW began as a music festival, so I’m excited about checking out the music. My brother and niece, once in shock that I went to see Kate Nash, have sent me a list of up and coming music that I should try and catch. Blood Orange were on the list, which we tried to see today at the Windrush Showcase, but I got the time wrong so we saw another band instead, Kindness. It was only the fourth time they’d played together and I thought they were very good. I am planning to listen to some more music. Maybe Dan Deakin, perhaps you and the whole world know about him already. If not, Google him, I just did, he sounds great.
So here I am, writing this in my hotel room and burning vanilla incense. I don’t usually light incense, but last night I went into an alternative/spiritual/ transcendental shop. I only went in to kill some time before a film screening, but felt obligated to buy something. I’m glad I went in though. I met Sharon who was working there and she asked me why I was in town. She was so excited that I’d made a film, I got a rush of remembering what an arduous journey making a film is and what a relief it is to finally be on the other side – meeting audiences, sending it into the world. I was touched by Sharon’s fascination with the process of filmmaking and her pleasure that we’d made a film. I invited her to our third screening tomorrow. I hope she comes.

Carol being interviewed for TV at SXSW

Carol being interviewed for TV at SXSW

Day 6 at SXSW

15 Mar, 2012 Productions Posted in: Festivals, Film4 staff, Film4.0

Today is my last day in Austin and although the film conference has finished there are still tons of movies to see and lots of people to meet.

The music conference is kicking off so the streets are awash with beardy guys in check shirts carrying guitars. All the little parks are booming with live bands and things are definitely getting turned up to 11 here – the interactive closing party yesterday even featured Kasabian!

I started the day with a screening of feature doc ITALY: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT directed by Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, the pair have to decide: should they stay in Italy, or leave it, like so many of their friends have done already? Looking for reasons not to do the same, the two Italians jump into their old Fiat 500 and go on a emotional trip through their country to find out. The film combines documentary and animation to present a witty and charming yet still incisive view of modern Europe at a time of crisis.

After that I got to catch up with Matt Dentler who was head of the film conference here before Janet Pierson took up the role 4 years ago. He’s just moved from Cinetic Media, which includes the brilliant FilmBuff, to work for iTunes to manage independent film relationships which is great news for indie films on such a big platform.

Then it was off to a screening of feature documentary SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN which tells the true story of the greatest ’70s US rock icon who never was, how he was rediscovered in a far off land and finally became the legend he always deserved to be. It is a story of hope, inspiration and the power of music.

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, and produced by British documentary supremos John Battsek and Simon Chinn (whose joint credits include PROJECT NIM), the film had the whole audience up for a standing ovation and the cheers only got louder when a very special guest was brought out on stage – but to tell you more would be one heck of a spoiler! There’s a pic of festival head honcho Janet Pierson on stage below.

SUGARMAN was my last film of the festival and a beautifully uplifting one to end what has been a fantastic week full of talent, ideas and an all-encompassing passion in everyone I’ve met for telling great stories and connecting with audiences. Can’t wait until next year …

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