How the SXSW Film Festival can counter Texas Legislature’s conservative agenda

A woman in a purple shiny dress runs her hand against a forested rock with a man behind her and a waterfall in the background
Sandra Bullock will mark her first visit to the SXSW Film Festival with Paramount’s “The Lost City,” a comedic adventure also starring Channing Tatum.
(Kimberley French/Paramount Pictures)

The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, has been the scene of countless raucous, ecstatically received movie premieres over the years. As the venue for many of the South By Southwest Film Festival’s most anticipated movies, the theater has been full of wild applause, rowdy cheers, cathartic tears and uproarious laughter.

Just a few blocks away is the Texas state Capitol building, where legislators have recently worked to strip residents of abortion rights, voting rights and have attacked trans children and their families. Coupled with the somber mood surrounding the war unfolding in Ukraine, this year’s SXSW looks set for a stark contrast between the joyful, embracing events unfolding inside the Paramount and the world outside it.

The film festival, which convenes in person for the first time since March of 2019, kicks off today with the world premiere of “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the A24 release stars action icon and “Crazy Rich Asians” matriarch Michelle Yeoh and boasts a notable comeback for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” co-star Ke Huy Quan in a head-spinning, heart-wrenching story of an immigrant family fighting for their survival across multiple dimensions of reality as they try to finish their taxes.

A woman, left, and a man hold a woman in the middle back
Stephanie Hsu, left, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

“It’s the eternal dilemma of staying in Texas,” said Richard Linklater, of the recent moves by the state government. A filmmaker long associated with Austin and founder and artistic director of the Austin Film Society, Linklater noted that he has turned down honors from the state of Texas in the past.

“That’s just how it is here. You go to a rally, you go to a protest, you vote in the primary. You just try to stick it out and make your voice be heard and you do what you can,” Linklater said.

“People say, ‘Oh, how can you live in that place?’” said Janet Pierson, SXSW’s director of film. “And we’re sort of like, ‘Well, you can’t run away — how can you try to effect change by being here? Can you try to support what you need to support and bring up other points of view?’ We feel like we’re trying to do that.”

There is a strong showing of Austin-affiliated talent premiering new work this year, including Linklater’s “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood,” an animated fusion of memory piece and sci-fi fantasy; “The Lost City,” an action-comedy starring self-declared “honorary Austinite” Sandra Bullock; and “The Last Movie Stars,” a six-part documentary on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward directed by Ethan Hawke, who was born in Austin.

Bullock’s SXSW debut

“The Lost City,” directed by Adam Nee and Aaron Nee and opening nationwide March 25 from Paramount, stars Bullock as a romance novelist taken captive by a billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) convinced her latest book holds the secret to a lost city of treasure. It’s up to her frequent cover model (Channing Tatum) to save her. After a few dramatic roles, the part squarely returns Bullock to broad big screen comedy.

“I need comedy. I’d say this now, I’ll probably change my mind, but everything I do from now on will be about the joy of comedy,” said Bullock, who produced the film along with Liza Chasin and Seth Gordon, in a recent call from Austin. “We all need the joy. We all need the adventure, the escapes, we need comedy so badly right now. We didn’t realize how timely this film would be when we made it. We just knew we wanted fun and joy and to make people laugh their asses off and have escapism. We didn’t know it would be this needed, given all the things that are happening in the world right now.”

For all her ties to Austin, “The Lost City” is Bullock’s first film to actually play at the SXSW festival, though she has attended many events and parties over the years. Bullock said she voted in Texas in the last election, and acknowledged the tension that can exist between Austin and the rest of the state.

“You look at Austin, it’s this tiny little enclave of progressiveness and open-mindedness and love and community,” said Bullock. “I never thought I’d find myself here, but I found myself here because of its diversity and its inclusivity. And it is surrounded by values that I don’t have, on many levels.”

Among the documentaries in this year’s program is “Mama Bears,” directed by Daresha Kyi, which explores a group of conservative Christian mothers who fight for the rights of their LGBTQ children. “Bad Axe,” directed by David Siev, is a portrait of an Asian American family in Michigan facing down anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. “Shouting Down Midnight,” directed by Gretchen Stoeltje, tells the story of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ fight to defend women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

Other documentaries include portraits of such notable figures as politician Gabby Giffords (“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”), singer Ronnie James Dio (“Dio: Dreamers Never Die”), skateboarder Tony Hawk (“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off”), baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan (“Facing Nolan”) and the cartoon icon Mickey Mouse (“Mickey: The Story of a Mouse”).

An animated image of schoolchildren standing around a toy rocket launching
An image from Richard Linklater’s semi-autobiographical animated film “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.”

Linklater, Hawke get personal

With its roots in Linklater’s own childhood in Houston, “Apollo 10 ½” is full of warm and vivid recollections about growing up around the time of the 1969 moon landing, but with the fanciful and conspiratorial addition of a tale about a young boy sent into space earlier as a top-secret test. Linklater admitted that while he is of course excited to premiere the film in Austin, he is really looking forward to when the film screens for NASA in Houston. (And also a planned screening for the International Space Station.)

“I mean, Austin isn’t as NASA proud as Houston. It’s really more of a Houston movie. Houston is NASA, you know, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” said Linklater. “Austin’s just far enough away to be a little aloof from NASA.”

Hawke’s “The Last Movie Stars” draws from a memoir Newman worked on with screenwriter Stewart Stern (and eventually abandoned). The memoir included interviews with friends and collaborators such as Elia Kazan, Gore Vidal and Sydney Pollack and Newman’s ex-wife Jacqueline Witte. Reading from the transcripts of those interviews for the documentary are a string of notables including George Clooney as Newman and Laura Linney and Woodward.

“If you had asked me five years ago, ‘Are you gonna direct a documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward?’ I would’ve said absolutely not,” said Hawke. “I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, but I’ve managed somehow to stay open in my life to new experiences. And I find that they just keep being rewarding. When I was a young actor, Paul and Joanne were the North Star. I mean, they were what everybody dreamed of being.”

Hawke noted that his parents still live in Texas and he has done some of the most important work of his career with Linklater. Of recent political events in Texas he said, “One doesn’t abandon their community when they disagree with it. I’ve found the divisiveness of all the conversations and the hostility has led us to see gangsters in positions of power all over the world. Hopefully we bring some sanity to the dialogue. And I look forward to it, I really do. I look forward to those conversations.”

Other noteworthy premieres include Jeff Baena’s “Spin Me Round,” starring Alison Brie, Alessandro Nivola, Molly Shannon and Aubrey Plaza; Ti West’s “X,” starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi; Eli Horowitz’s “The Cow,” starring Winona Ryder, Dermot Mulroney, John Gallagher Jr. and Brianne Tju; and Tom Gormican’s “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” starring Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal.

A woman with a little blood on her face stands next to a blue car
Winona Ryder in “The Cow.”
(SXSW Film Festival)

Ukraine connections

Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine continues to dominate headlines, there are two films from Russia in this year’s program. Vasilisa Kuzmina’s “Nika,” playing as part of the narrative feature competition, and Kirill Sokolov’s “No Looking Back,” premiering in the Midnighters section. Kuzmina is scheduled to attend the festival in person.

Ron Howard’s documentary “We Feed People,” on chef José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, is also premiering at the festival. Andrés was scheduled to attend, but he is now on the border between Ukraine and Poland feeding refugees.

“Given the extraordinary history of José Andrés and the WCK leadership, it is not surprising at all that they are there in Ukraine finding ways to provide support and relief to those in duress,” said Howard in an email. “The only constant is that they are there to make a difference, starting with plates of food but extending to whatever gap they can quickly fill.”

A woman wearing a beanie outside in a city looks scared
Rosario Dawson in “DMZ,” a HBO Max limited series executive produced by Ava DuVernay.
(SXSW Film Festival)

The streaming series boom

South By Southwest was among the first film festivals to also feature work made for television, and this year’s event will close with the much anticipated third-season premiere of FX’s “Atlanta.” Among the other major TV titles on tap: Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed,” starring Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto; Showtime’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris; and Paramount+’s “Halo,” starring Pablo Schreiber and Natascha McElhone.

Rosario Dawson stars in “DMZ,” an upcoming HBO Max limited series executive produced by Ava DuVernay and Roberto Patino that will be premiering its first episode, directed by DuVernay. Dawson is also executive producer of the documentary “Split at the Root,” directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, which premieres at SXSW on the same day and looks at efforts to reunify families separated by U.S. immigration policies.

Dawson, who noted she is close to celebrating 30 years in the entertainment industry, said she finds her own activism work intersecting more regularly with her acting.

“I used to feel like I really had to compartmentalize a lot of my activism, but it also felt super important.” she said. “I was trying my best to navigate all those spaces. And now it feels like the lines are blurring and those spaces are coming together in really powerful ways.”

A SXSW veteran, Dawson finds Austin “invigorating” and said she had no reservations about attending the festival this year.

“I’m one of those folks that feels like you gotta lean in,” she said. “And we need to take a hard look at all of it and we need to have some serious dialogues and we need to reach out to people. The misinformation and the disinformation that’s online is creating such a disconnect. And I think this such an incredible opportunity to really bring the message home, so to speak.”

To go or not to go

Danielle Solzman, a freelance critic based in Chicago, had been at the SXSW Film Festival in 2018 and 2019 and had been planning to return this year. Solzman, who is trans, decided not to attend when Texas passed its antiabortion legislation last year, a decision solidified by the recent moves toward antitrans laws as well.

“Austin’s one of the bluest cities in Texas,” Solzman said, “but still, I do not feel safe stepping foot in Texas.”

Writer and educator Jonathan P. Higgins, who identifies as gender non-conforming, plans to attend the larger SXSW event to participate in a panel discussion on inclusive media and intersectionality.

“Two things can exist at the same time. We can say that this legislation is terrible and then ultimately say, ‘I’m still going to go because my visibility is what is going to give power to other folks to be seen and be visible as well,’” said Higgins. “We have to still show up even in moments where things are not aligning with what we feel is valid or equitable.”

Three men and one woman sit on a couch. Empty cans and food takeout containers are on a table in front of them
Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz and Donald Glover in “Atlanta.” The third-season premiere of FX’s Emmy-winning series will launch at SXSW.
(Oliver Upton/FX)