The Real Deal

The Texas Documentary Tour

Paul Stekler

photograph by John Anderson

Say what you will about Austin-at-large -- one thing the capital city will never lack is innovative film programming. Alongside the various festivals and competitions, and the screenings and premieres, cinephiles can expect to see a new series -- the Texas Documentary Tour -- curated by Paul Stekler, the award-winning producer of such documentaries as those instant PBS classics, Eyes on the Prize and Vote for Me.

The Texas Documentary Tour plans to bring a new documentary film to town on the second Wednesday of each month. As if that weren't enough, the program will also be bringing in the filmmakers to discuss their work and "offer advice and inspiration to Austin's up-and-coming and already established documentary filmmaking community." But wait! That's not all: The whole shebang's going to be held at the Alamo Drafthouse, offering attendees a chance to quaff a few cold ones while enjoying some of the best documentary films around and fielding volleys of Q's to the filmmaker's A's. Now how much would you pay? Try five bucks. Really now, could it possibly get any better than this?

Stekler, whose documentary series Vote for Me: Politics in America recently nabbed a Peabody Award, explains the genesis of the Texas Documentary Tour this way: "We just decided that there's such an amazing audience for different kinds of films here -- you go to Austin Film Society screenings and you can have like a Fifties Western, or an experimental film, or something new, or whatever, and fill up the auditorium. We were talking about the fact that a lot of the best stuff at SXSW last year was documentaries, and thought it might be neat to have a series throughout the entire year, bringing filmmakers in from Texas and outside, once a month, to show their work. Everybody thought it was a pretty good idea, so we decided to do it." Created under the combined auspices of South by Southwest Film, the Austin Film Society, The Austin Chronicle, and the University of Texas Department of Radio-Television-Film, the project is the brainchild of Stekler, who is the department's new production area head. Stekler will coordinate and curate while working with the Film Society's Elizabeth Peters and Jerry Johnson, and SXSW Film coordinator Nancy Schaffer.

Although the series will be co-sponsored by the University's film department, it will not be recognized as an official UT event. Stekler notes that "a lot of the screenings here [in Austin] are co-sponsored by different organizations," and he prefers to think of the Documentary Tour as a sort of "cross-pollinization between the department, the Film Society, and the University. Obviously, this sort of organizational hybrid is not rare; Film Society managing director Peters also teaches at UT, and Stekler, as the department's new head of production, hopes to bring in more professional documentarians like himself to teach at the University as well.

When asked how the idea for an all-documentary program came about, Stekler says, "Literally, this idea was suggested by Dennis Grenia [former publisher of Athens, Georgia's Flagpole] and then expanded in a conversation between Dennis, myself, and [Chronicle editor] Louis Black. We were talking about just how great the documentaries at SXSW had been -- Don Howard's film Letter From Waco, this really wonderful film about bowling, Pin Gods, Susan Levitas' film The Music District about music over in D.C., Battle for the Minds about the Southern Baptist Convention -- there were a lot of really good films. There were also big audiences for it, and so we thought that well, we've got all these big audiences for all sorts of things over here, we could have some sort of monthly series about documentaries so that people could know that on a certain day a really good documentary film with the filmmaker in attendance would be here. We thought it would probably be quite easy to build an audience for that and just give people that are interested in that kind of filmmaking a place where they can always see this stuff.

"There are so many good documentaries coming out right now, and a lot of them are being filmed right here in Texas and are by Texans, and this seemed like a really good idea."

The series opens Wednesday, September 10, with The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer, a piece from Stekler's Peabody Award-winning Vote for Me series, and then continues with an October 8 screening of 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee and Sam Pollard's acclaimed documentary about the girls who were killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Executive producer and editor Pollard will be there to introduce and talk about the film.

"That's a wonderful film," says Stekler, "and hopefully at some point it will get a theatrical release, but, you know, in this kind of a series you get to meet the filmmaker as well as see the film. Sam's a really wonderful filmmaker; he produced a couple of the Eyes on the Prize films, edited a number of Spike's films, and he's really a very fine filmmaker and a nice guy, too. And so the audience will be able to see a film that hasn't been theatrically released yet and discuss it with the filmmaker. I think, we can make this a pretty good series, pretty quickly."

Also lined up is Ellen Spiro's Roam Sweet Home, described in press materials as being "a hilarious portrait of people who make their homes in RVs across the Southwest." Spiro also currently teaches at UT. Stekler also hopes to attract documentarians such as Alain Berliner, Andy Garrison, and others, reeling off a list of films that the Tour's coordinators would like to see screened as part of the Texas Documentary Tour.

"Our tastes are diverse but still pretty similar," he says, "and it's been fun putting together the first couple of months. There's sort of a list of films that we've heard about, that I think will be films that we'll try to bring down. There's a film that was shot here in Texas -- maybe Longwood? -- called something like Hands on a Hardbody, and it's a film about these people who are all competing for a car, and the contest is that they all hold their hands up against it, and the person who holds their hands up against it the longest wins it. It sounds great, right?

"There's a really good friend of mine -- Alain Berliner -- who's just an amazing filmmaker. His film Nobody's Business -- about his dad -- was the lead film on the POV [television] series this last year. Then there's another film that was on POV this year, Girls Like Us, which follows four teenage girls over four years of growing up in Philadelphia, and these folks are really good friends of Ellen Spiro's. It's kind of like there's this wealth of material out there, and basically we're going to try and build the series so that we get a big audience until the series can begin to pay for itself eventually, and then as it gets more successful -- I think we'll do pretty well right off the bat -- we'll be able to bring in people a little bit more easily."

The program's unique title -- the idea of calling the whole process a "tour" -- comes from the co-sponsors' vision of eventually having the whole event actually tour statewide from city to city.

"I think the general idea," says Stekler, "is that somewhere down the line, what we'll try to do is to have people who are coming from the outside show their films in Austin and try to coordinate so that they can do sort of a tour of Texas and then show their films in Houston and San Antonio and wherever."

Does Stekler have any reservations about using the sometimes stodgy term "documentary," with its inbred connotations of "dull, educational programming," in the program's title?

"I think in terms of the series, a lot of times, people hear the word `documentary' and they think of something that's really serious and earnest. Something that's `good for you,' like medicine. Sort of the kind of thing you see on PBS. It's good for you but maybe it's not that compelling, you know? I think people who really know the field and see a lot of documentary films realize that the best documentaries have all the same qualities of a really successful narrative film. So often they're a lot better, because there's not the need for bringing in the big bucks or sticking to a formula.

"For real, I think the best films I saw at SXSW last year were clearly the documentary films. For people that haven't seen a whole lot of documentaries the kind of stuff we're going to show is really going to surprise folks. It's a really good filmmaking experience, and I think it's going to be really important for us to show films that do have a mass appeal, the sort of things where you can learn something, or you can enjoy something, or you can be moved by it. They're not just `documentaries' -- they're also really good films."

The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer, the inaugural screening of the Texas Documentary Tour, screens Wed. Sept. 10, 6:45pm at the Alamo Drafthouse (409 Colorado).

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