From AI technology to new films, here’s what to look forward to at South by Southwest

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Karen Bernstein is helping breaking it all down.

By Laura Rice & Jesus VidalesMarch 8, 2024 2:07 pm, ,

The annual South by Southwest Conference & Festivals have thousands of visitors and hundreds of sessions. The event can feel overwhelming – but journalist and documentary filmmaker Karen Bernstein is breaking down what to look out for at this year’s SXSW in Austin.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So as the name implies, South by Southwest is both a conference and some festivals. Let’s start with the conference. Is there a theme you’ve come across?

Karen Bernstein: Well, it’s pretty obvious that artificial intelligence, or AI is its most commonly known, is very definitely the theme of this year’s conference. And there’s a range of conference panels that go kind of from the sublime to the ridiculous, all dealing with AI.

One that I particularly liked and I might actually attend is about AI and productivity, and it’s called A Workplace Love Story? So that sort of gives you an idea. But there’s a lot of attention and a lot of concern, certainly for AI and the future of film, television and all the industries in between.

So the challenging thing about covering film festivals is that it can be a while until folks who don’t attend the festival have access to the content we’re talking about. So that’s why you’re going to put together what we’re calling a sneak peek or preview of coming attractions. Which Texas-related films are you following?

I highly recommend seeing “Shaking It Up: The Life and Times of Liz Carpenter,” which is directed by her daughter Christy and Abby Ginzberg, a filmmaker friend from New York. Liz Carpenter is best known as the press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson, as well as being a very strong-willed and humorous voice in the White House during the Johnson administration. She’s known and beloved all through Texas, born and bred here.

Ren Faire,” which I have to admit was also a documentary film that I was involved in as a producer, is a wonderful hybrid look at a beloved festival, the Renaissance Festival in Todd Mission, which is just outside of Houston. It’s the largest Renaissance festival in the country. And Lance Oppenheim, a director that I’ve grown very close to, did a really fascinating job. I call it a hybrid documentary because he really worked with the subjects who are not necessarily actors in their own right, but he really worked with them to enlarge bits of their own life that Lance himself had witnessed

Also, we have “The Truth vs. Alex Jones.” The director, Dan Reed, received complete permission, which is remarkable for any producer, to film from many different angles within a courtroom here in Austin. So the entire damages trial, conspiracy trial.

We have the more classic educational documentaries and ones that I would term verité based documentaries, and there are many of them at this festival that relate to Texas. One is “Plastic People,” which is really, very much an educational documentary, but produced quite elegantly about the infusion of plastic in our everyday lives and the dangers in.

And then finally, “An Army of Women,” which is very much based here in Austin. A group of women had filed a lawsuit with two local attorneys towards the police department in Austin to force them to deal with a spate of rape cases, sexual assault cases that had been completely overlooked.

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Is there anything on the narrative side you’re watching?

There are few films with very definite Texas connections. I will be interviewing Monique Walton, who is both a University of Texas graduate and producer of the year at the Indie Spirit Awards, and she’s just produced a narrative feature called “Sing, Sing.” It is a look at that infamous prison through a theatrical presentation. So very, very interesting.

Also, I’ve interviewed today Elizabeth Avellán – known as the producer we all know and love, with Robert Rodriguez, of all the “Spy Kids” films – executive producer for “Switch Up,” which is directed by a colleague of hers, wonderful young woman who she really brought up in the production business, Tara Pirnia. The film is completely shot in South Texas, Padre Island mostly.

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