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Canceled by coronavirus outbreak, SXSW Film Festival names award winners

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Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse.”
(Rachel Klein / South by Southwest Film Festival)

The South by Southwest Film Festival announced its jury prize winners Tuesday. Of course, the juries that decided on those prizes are among the only people to have seen the winning films, because the festival, originally scheduled to run from March 13-21, was canceled by the city of Austin on March 6 amid growing concerns over the growing coronavirus outbreak.

The narrative feature competition award went to Cooper Raiff’s “Shithouse,” while the documentary feature competition award went to Katrine Philp’s “An Elephant in the Room.”

With more than 100 feature films and episodic projects programmed, the festival was set to open with the world premiere of Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island.” Among other high-profile titles scheduled to have their world premiere was Spike Jonze’s documentary “Beastie Boys Story.”

Michael Showalter’s “The Lovebirds,” starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, was initially set to open theatrically by Paramount on April 3 following its world premiere at SXSW. It was recently announced the film will now be released via Netflix.

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The festival had already planned to have the juries for their short-film prizes and special awards view their programs via online screening links. In the days following the cancellation of SXSW, festival organizers realized it would be possible to do the same in the main categories and reached out to the filmmakers in the feature and documentary sections — there were 10 films in each competition — to get them all to sign off on moving forward on a plan for awards without a festival to screen the films. Jury members deliberated via a variety of conferencing platforms.

“I’m happy that we could do this. And it seemed like there was gratitude from both the filmmakers and the jurors, just that something was happening,” said Janet Pierson, director of film at SXSW, in a phone call from Austin on Monday. “But then of course, while I’m happy for some of the films that are getting recognized, I’m immediately like, ‘What about all these other films?'“

“I’m just feeling for every single film and hoping that there will be some way they will find their way and connect with audiences,” said Pierson. “I’m glad people care about the fact that we were able to get the jury awards and the special awards going forward, but it’s just a fraction of our program.”

Having just turned 23 years old, Raiff wrote, directed, co-edited and stars in “Shithouse,” the story of a college freshman dealing with feelings of loneliness being away from his family, while falling for another student (Dylan Gelula).

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“I’m just so excited right now. Honestly no part of me is thinking about the weird circumstances when I read an email that says, ‘You won.’” said Raiff in a phone call from Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. “But then upon reflection, I’m so excited about the award and I also just feel so grateful, it’s so awesome that Janet and South by Southwest are continuing to highlight the 2020 South by Southwest films despite this angry virus.

“I’m someone who has never been to a film festival in my entire life,” said Raiff, “so I am not thinking about all the things that I missed out on.”

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An image from the documentary “An Elephant in the Room,” directed by Katrine Philp.
(South by Southwest Film Festival)

The documentary feature winner, “An Elephant in the Room,” is a stirring look at children dealing with grief, focused on the Good Grief counseling center in New Jersey. The winner of last year’s documentary prize, “For Sama,” went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“I was so excited to premiere the film at the South-by, to invite the audience into this magical world of the children,” said Philp on the phone from Denmark on Tuesday. “The families from the film would also have been there and I was so sad not to reunite with them there and to have them watch the film on the big screen with the audience.

“Of course it would have been amazing to receive the award at the festival,” Philp said, “but we’re so happy that the team at South-by decided to move forward. This is a really strange time and strange days all over the world.”

In the narrative feature competition, special jury recognition for directing was given to Celine Held and Logan George for the drama “Topside,” in which Held also stars. A special jury recognition for acting went to Kofi Siriboe and Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing in Angel Kristi Williams’ romance “Really Love.”

In the documentary feature competition, a special jury recognition for achievement in documentary storytelling went to Alice Gu and “The Donut King,” a portrait of immigrant entrepreneur Ted Ngoy. A special jury recognition for breakthrough voice was given to Jiayan “Jenny” Shi for “Finding Yingying,” the story of the disappearance of a female Chinese graduate student in America.

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Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing and Kofi Siriboe in “Really Love,” directed by Angel Kristi Williams.
(Bill Gray / South by Southwest Film Festival)

The festival also gave out a handful of special awards.

The Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, named after the late Beastie Boys member, is given to a filmmaker from the festival’s adventurous Visions section. The award went to Frank Oz, the venerable filmmaker and puppeteer, for his documentary “In and of Itself,” which captures the stage show of conceptual magician Derek DelGaudio.

The festival’s editing prize went to David Darg and Price James’ documentary “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” edited by Paul Rogers with additional editing by Darg. The film chronicles actor David Arquette’s attempt to break into professional wrestling.

Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli’s “Best Summer Ever” took the screenwriting award. Written by Randa, Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, Andrew Pilkington and Smitelli, the musical, about a young couple who unexpectedly find themselves at the same high school following a summer romance, was made with a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.

The cinematography award went to “Echoes of the Invisible,” directed and shot by Steve Elkins.

The Lone Star award for Texas filmmaking went to Channing Godfrey Peoples’ “Miss Juneteenth,” with special jury awards given to actor Rob Morgan for his performance in “Bull” and also to the documentary “Boys State.”

Awards were also given in multiple short film categories, the episodic pilot competition and for poster and title design.

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As for the continued, unraveling complications of the cancellation of this year’s festival and what that means for the event moving forward, Pierson said the situation is “unfolding.” She added, “We discovered it’s much harder to cancel an event than to put one on.”


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