The Austin Chronicle

Real Austin Stories

Austin's Exploding Documentary Scene

By Jerry Johnson, March 13, 1998, Screens

Clockwise from left: Ellen Spiro, Kyle Henry, Richard Lewis, Don Howard, Ramona Diaz, Hector Galán, and Paul Steckler.

photograph by Kenny Braun

First things first: Can we finally agree to remove the phrase "third coast Hollywood," and all its implications, from our vocabulary when discussing the Austin film scene? It bespeaks the terminology of the outsider, a cliché that trivializes the cultural and technical parameters of our city. The film scene here in Austin is actually on fire and poised to go in any number of different directions - the possibilities are as broad as the elements in place: Super-8, independent features, cutting-edge video, a variety of film programming as diverse as any in the country, and, yes, large-budget feature films and television productions. But the area that really seems to be causing local eyes to spark with true excitement and genuine interest, as well as recognition of the limitless possibilities of our very potent film culture, is documentary. And newcomer Paul Stekler has some ideas on how to bring it all about. "Paul Stekler kind of serves as a poster child for how to use and foster the Austin film community," says Elizabeth Peters, managing director of the Austin Film Society (AFS), a cornerstone of the local film culture. "AFS brought Paul to Austin in the fall of 1996 to present a preview from Vote for Me; he used the visit to both introduce himself to and get a handle on the Austin film community. Austin is not like New York or Los Angeles - and it's not trying to be. What people like Paul realize is that we're not a wannabe or ersatz Hollywood; we're a really tight-knit community and therefore can offer something unique to working filmmakers."

Stekler was hired last year by the University of Texas as head of production for Austin's Department of Radio-Television-Film. Currently one of the most successful documentary producers in the country, his works have included two highly acclaimed PBS series, Eyes on the Prize and Vote for Me: Politics in America (for which he was awarded an Emmy and a Peabody), and he carries with him a reputation for being able to bring together disparate elements and meld them into cohesive working units (i.e., he gets things done). And then there is the eclectic mix of documentary practitioners who join him on the RTF faculty: Richard M. Lewis, whose piece Snow Monkeys of Texas brought a new scope of wit and humor to National Geographic documentaries; Andrew Garrison, former member of the ground-breaking Appalshop collective (a group that produced a string of successful documentaries out of a little town of 1,500 in Eastern Kentucky), who now works in narrative fiction; and Ellen Spiro, who revolutionized the possibilities of small-format video and lone-gun, guerrilla-style shooting with her brilliant Roam Sweet Home about the so-called "Geritol Gypsies."

American Cowboy

This merry band of outsiders (except for Lewis, they are all newcomers to Austin) have two things in common. First, they are committed to living, working, and producing here. Second, they have a goal: to develop Austin into a thriving, working documentary center. Lofty aspirations, indeed. Why should we listen to them? To begin with, they have approached Austin on its own terms.

"What I found when I got down here was that the film community, which I had heard a little bit about, was just much more vibrant than I had ever dreamed possible," says Stekler. "I realize we may take it for granted when 400 to 500 people show up for an AFS screening of a Cassavetes movie on a Tuesday night - this doesn't happen in other places." Our community has for a while now given a mind-boggling amount of audience support to a vastly diverse array of film programming organizations: SXSW Film Festival, Austin Film Society, Chicano/Latino Film Forum, CinemaTexas, Cinemakers' Co-op, Austin Film Festival, Paramount Theater, Reel Women, in*situ, Dobie Theatre, Alamo Drafthouse, Funhouse Cinema, Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival... the list goes on and on. And if there were ever any doubt about Austin's willingness to support documentary programming, it's been put to rest by the Texas Documentary Tour.

Snow Monkeys of Texas

Started by AFS in conjunction with SXSW Film, The Austin Chronicle, and the University of Texas Department of Radio-TV-Film to showcase in-state and out-of-state documentary filmmakers and their work, the Texas Documentary Tour has bucked the chute with six consecutive sold-out events. Even after finally expanding to two screenings for last month's Girls Like Us, they still had to turn away almost 300 people. "The Tour has blown the visiting filmmakers' minds," says Stekler. "People up in New York are still telling me that Alan Berliner [who brought his Nobody's Business here in January] cannot talk enough about how amazed he was about the response he received down here." Stekler sees the Tour as a first step in building an audience who will eventually support an expansion of indigenous documentary filmmaking. As Ellen Spiro points out, local audiences would have a natural craving for such an expansion. "With documentary, it's still the content that is the biggest draw. I had many elderly RV'ers come to the screening of Roam Sweet Home. Girls Like Us attracted lots of multi-racial teenage girls. When Kyle Henry shows American Cowboy there will be a huge turnout from the gay community. That's the power of the series. And maybe when Richard Lewis shows his National Geographic piece, all the Texas snow monkeys will show up! So of course Texas audiences will line up for Texan documentaries."

If content is indeed the draw for documentaries as Spiro says, then Austin would appear to be the ideal place for a mecca. We're in Texas, after all - who the hell has bigger content? That's what ultimately defines our state and sets it apart - the stories that are so remarkably diverse and so often find themselves at irreconcilable cross-ends from one another, yet seem to spring from a very specifically defined sense of culture, history, and place. Andrew Garrison, having spent nearly 10 years with the grassroots-oriented Appalshop, notes, "This is a huge state with so many different cultures and experiences. As a documentary filmmaker, it is important to become connected with your place, your surroundings."

For Stekler, it was exactly those stories that convinced him in the end to come to UT. "Austin really has a particular quality - there are a lot of good stories and a lot of good storytellers. It's in the middle of this wild place called Texas; as a documentary filmmaker you're always looking for stories, especially accessible stories that a million filmmakers aren't already covering. People are drawn to a place like this. If you take a look at the documentary community here right now, for a place which is not New York or Los Angeles, a lot of stuff is going on. There's Don Howard who achieved great success with Letter From Waco and is currently working on Nuclear Family. Richard Lewis is on his second project for National Geographic. Susanne Mason's underway on her piece on Texas prisons, Karen Kolker's working on her Barton Springs project, Sandra Guidardo's working with me on the George Wallace film. And then, of course, there's Hector Galán...."

Hector Galán. Austin's documentary filmmaking maverick. He has run his own independent production company for 14 years, produced 35 national prime-time PBS specials (including Chicano!, Songs of the Homeland, and Vaquero: The Forgotten Cowboy), and was a founding board member of ITVS, one of the country's leading funding sources for non-commercial documentary cinema. And he's done it all as a Latino filmmaker who, through a shrewd business acumen and sheer force of will, has successfully fought to tell traditionally underrepresented stories the way he wants to tell them. "I have a passion for particular subject matter that's close to my heart - `that' being I'm Latino," Galán explains. "A lot of these stories that I've been involved in would have otherwise never gotten made, or certainly not had the perspective that I can bring to this material because I'm close to it. You also bring the craft to the material, what the mentors have taught you, and by combining all of these elements into the piece, you end up with a wonderful film that becomes part of the national record. These projects are evergreens: They can air forever."

Galán began operating from Austin during a time, in 1984, when there was no local documentary scene. As Richard Lewis remembers, "There were many years during which commercially viable documentary began with Hector, and ended with Hector." In fact, during those early years the production talent in the area was so sparse that Galán was forced to fly in crews from Boston or Chicago to work on his films, but doing so became too difficult and expensive, and he soon began to search for an alternative. "I decided to start developing local people; giving them a shot and just working with them. And there was an attitude by people in Boston and New York toward us, almost condescending, about whether we could meet their technical specs. Of course, we not only met their specs - we went beyond what they ever anticipated." The list of now-successful filmmakers who worked for him early in their careers is stunning: Vance Holmes, Tom Taylor, Henry Miller, Lee Daniel, Clark Walker, Paige Martinez, Susanne Mason, and more. So you thought there was only one film university in town? Welcome to U. of Galán.

"10 years ago - five years ago even - I avoided talking about the documentaries I was doing because my sense was that most people I came across wouldn't be interested," says Don Howard, remembering the time when the term "isolated" was better applied to the documentary scene than "community." Howard, the Austin veteran whose Letter From Waco has been widely hailed as one of the best Texas documentaries ever made (it picked up the best documentary award at last year's SXSW), is happy about the arrival of Stekler, Spiro, Garrison, and Lewis at UT, as well as the emergence of other local talent. "Just to be able to run across some of these filmmakers and discuss their work with them can really expand your sense of what you can do." But he rightly resists my suggestion that the local talent are on the verge of becoming some kind of Unified Force for Good. "I won't even use the word `scene.' In any world that's starting to emerge there is an impression when you write about it that it is more unified than it is. In reality, there are probably documentary makers in Round Rock and Dripping Springs creating great work, and we know nothing about them," Howard says. "Filmmakers tend to be on their own trip and that's a good thing, so I don't see us forming a club with a president or anything - and I wouldn't join if there was one!"

Stekler, who refers to Howard as "perhaps the best editor in Texas," brought him on at UT this semester to teach non-linear editing. "It's good to see that a lot of this new energy is focused at UT," Howard notes. "It should've been that way for a long time."

Vote for Me: Politics in America

Howard is dead-on. If you take a look at the thriving documentary communities around the nation, the older ones like Boston and San Francisco, the newer ones in Tucson and Albuquerque, they all have one thing in common: the active support of their public institutions. And as anybody around here knows, the largest public institution in Texas is the University of Texas system. None of this is lost on Paul Stekler, of course. It is the integral component of his plan to create the infrastructure necessary for Austin to become a full-fledged documentary haven. At a time when more and more filmmakers are going after less and less money, increased institutional support becomes mandatory. "I don't know if the opportunities for the younger generation of filmmakers are there today as they were for me when I was getting started," says the stalwart Galán. "The funding landscape has changed. I know how difficult it is for me right now and I can only imagine how difficult it is for them."

Nobody is better positioned than Stekler to push forward the foundational elements that UT is capable of offering. As Spiro says, "Paul is great at creating a forum for collective brainstorming and he knows how to navigate from concept to action." In fact, this navigation has already started. "We have a university here that gives filmmakers a base of support from which they can do their work. This is important for students - to have active, working filmmakers as instructors," Stekler says. "The College of Communication just bought 12 more Avids [the latest in editing technology], bringing the total to 16. That's a lot of editing machines that you can train a ton of people on. We're also going to take our documentary and small-format classes and try to go completely digital by next year. Essentially, you're upgrading the entire program and giving these students the latest training in documentary methodology. So you have the opportunity to keep Texans (and people who got to Texas as soon as they could) in a place where they can do stories about Texas."

Kyle Henry, an RTF production graduate student whose pre-thesis documentary on the gay rodeo circuit in Texas, American Cowboy, will premiere at SXSW this year, is a prime example of the types of students Stekler is talking about. "I've just met so many people here, made so many friends that I can rely on," Henry says. "Even if I had the opportunity to work somewhere other than Austin, I'd be hesitant to accept."

KLRU, the local PBS affiliate, is another public institution that could (and should) play an important part in the development of the Austin film scene. But local filmmakers have long viewed the station as being essentially non-supportive of locally produced work. This discontent erupted into an outcry last year when KLRU decided not to air Howard's Letter From Waco during its scheduled prime-time national feed, although every other major PBS affiliate in the country (including those in New York and Boston) did choose to run it. Recently, however, Stekler approached KLRU and received a very positive response about an idea for a Texas Documentary Series, in which the station would regularly air Texas-produced work and possibly package it together for national feeds, similar to the model that WGBH in Boston has so successfully built. New KLRU CEO Mary Beth Rogers seems genuinely committed to forging ties between the station and local talent. Spiro, for one, sees the potential series as a tool of empowerment: "It would be a big boost for Austin. It won't be outsiders looking in but insiders looking out, showing the world how Texans see themselves. Public TV's biggest asset is its non-commercial identity. It is positioned to take the risk and to show engaging and challenging work that is not simply reproducing the status quo."

Stekler has one more iron already in the works, his ace up the sleeve if you will, to firmly establish the Austin film scene at the forefront: The Texas Center for Documentary. Loosely modeled on the late James Michener's highly successful Texas Center for Writers, TCD would serve as an intensive training for documentary filmmakers of the future. Around 10 students a year would be accepted and supported for a three-year program, studying intimately under distinguished documentary filmmakers from around the country, as well as UT faculty, who would be brought in to teach on one-year fellowships. "Ellen Wartella [dean of UT's College of Communications] has been very supportive of this idea, and that's very important," Stekler says. "The whole prospect of raising $10-20 million to endow such a center is quite daunting, but the payback would be large. The work produced there by students and filmmakers would be done so in association with the center. All of a sudden you will have a large body of distinguished work from filmmakers both local and from around the country that will have been produced under the auspices of a Texas-based institution."

So there you have it. Sold-out crowds at the Texas Documentary Tour. One of the country's leading documentary showcases in SXSW. Dozens of talented filmmakers producing locally and on a national scale. A major local funding source in AFS' Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund. A renewed commitment from that largest of public institutions, UT. A PBS affiliate that seems poised to jump on the bandwagon. A proposed documentary center to push it all over the top. And most important, all around us, stories and stories, and stories galore. It would appear to be our destiny - this documentary mecca. Not quite, you say? Then I'll let you in on one more story.

Ramona Diaz, a documentary filmmaker from the Philippines, has line-produced and edited an award-winning, 24-part documentary entitled Apple Pie, served as associate producer on the major PBS documentary Cadillac Desert, produced and directed the multiple award-winning and internationally screened Spirits Rising, and is currently in pre-production on a piece about former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, which she will begin shooting in April. Why am I giving you all these details? Because last month Diaz moved to Austin when her husband began teaching at nearby Texas A&M. Of all the cities in all the countries in the world she could have landed, she fell in our lap. "I really had no clue as to what to expect from the film community here," says Diaz. "That is, not until I tried to attend the screening of Girls Like Us and was told along with a hundred other people that it had sold out. I was glad to be turned away." Another talented documentary filmmaker amidst a scene ready to make a difference.

Just our good luck, you say? Then I'll call it destiny.

SXSW Film Festival showtimes for films mentioned in this story:
American Cowboy: 3/13, Dobie 2, 7pm; 3/16, Dobie 2, 10pm; 3/21, Union, 7pm
Snow Monkeys of Texas (in Shorts 2 program): 3/14, Dobie 2, 9:45pm; 3/17, Dobie 2, 4:45pm; 3/19, Dobie 2, 4:30pm Vote for Me: Politics in America: 3/15, Union, 4pm (this will be the first time the four-hour-long Vote For Me has ever screened in its entirety.)

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