Opening night for SXSW film for me was spent watching the two documentaries at the Paramount, Go Further and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Wow! What challenging films to start the festival with. Both of them ran counter to what I consider a good documentary — find a group of interesting subjects, and objectively film who they are and what their motivations are. In both of these cases, I found the films to be quite biased in how they portrayed their subjects, rather thin in their pursuit of their subjects’ motivations, and yet still extremely engaging and interesting.

Ron Mann’s Go Further follows Woody Harrelson’s 1300 mile bicycle tour of the west coast of the US during 2001. A motley crew of activists, including a raw food chef and a yoga instructor, trek down the west coast evangelizing the merits of sustainable living and leaving a small environmental footprint during our brief lives on the planet. The film does a good job of portraying the basic message of the troupe, as well as the metamorphosis of a couple of the cast members from non-believing junk food addicts to true believers.

Steve Clark, the production assistant, ends up being the focal point of the film and the most compelling story of the whole documentary — a happy-go-lucky PA who is along for the ride but by the end of the trip has seen the light and has stopped drinking the “blood and pus” contained in mass-produced milk and becomes a vegetarian. Clark also provides most of the comic relief for the documentary and is pretty hilarious. His antics, beyond a lot of stoner talk and one-liners, include convincing a female student (who has a boyfriend) along the way to join them for a few days in the hopes of getting in her pants. There’s also a little bit of gratuitous nudity in the film which is worth at least one JK point.

I had two issues with Go Further. First of all, several of the scenes were clearly staged. My personal preference is to view documentaries where the documentarians are as translucent as possible. In this case, not only were several scenes scripted or embellished, I also really got the feeling that the subjects (especially Clark) were so acutely aware of the team’s presence that their actions were sometimes more theater than reality. These suspicions were confirmed when I talked to Steve at the after-party, and he discussed at least one scene that was significantly influenced by the documentary team for the purpose of making the film more interesting. Second, I never felt that the film penetrated Woody Harrelson’s motivations and desires for the tour. Harrelson’s presence in the last half of the documentary, especially, was fairly weak. Given that he was the reason the tour came about, I wished the film gave better insight into why he did what he did, and whether his initial hopes for the tour were realized.

Despite those reservations, the film was very well done and interesting. Steve’s role as a comical character comes through really strongly and his gradual enlightenment to the message his trip-mates are preaching (including his own internal conflicts around things like giving up smoking) seemed truly genuine — which was further confirmed when I talked to him. I recommend it.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was somewhat of a different creature. I was approached by protestors in front of the Paramount as I walked in, so I suspected this would be an interesting film. And it was. This documentary team got probably the best (if not only) footage ever captured during a coup, which happened during their filming of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, in April 2002. Their access to Chavez and his ministers was great, although it was really their presence in the palace during the coup that made the film. Amazing candid footage of the president’s most staunch supporters during what they believed could be their last hours alive. The film also really captured the passion of the Venezuelan people for reform. It’s pretty amazing to see people who traditionally have felt powerless in their governmental system suddenly feeling they can make a change. The portrayal of the really poor people suddenly learning and caring about the government of their country was interesting.

On the negative side, I should say that I know nothing of Venezuela’s recent political situation. Nevertheless, I can safely say this was the most blatantly biased documentary I’ve ever seen. The selection of footage portrayed Chavez in a very favorable light, but it was the narration that really made this film feel heavy-handed. It was loaded with subjective statements which included using “we” to group the film crew with the government, using “cronies” to refer to Chavez’s opposition, and making statements that implied well beyond what the film’s facts backed up (most notably CIA involvement in the coup). I think it would have been an excellent film without any narration. I didn’t object to the selection of footage as much as the narrative, which to my taste was slanted much more than it needed to be. The team had enough footage to tell their story that the narrative actually hurt the credibility of what they were trying to say. I prefer to see real images and draw my own conclusions, even knowing that what I’ve been shown has been carefully selected from reams of possible film. The narrative was too one-sided and pushed the bounds of credibility.

But despite the bias, this is one documentary that I rate as a must see. The shots during the early stages of the coup are AMAZING. The film crew genuinely feared for their lives along with the rest of the Chavez supporters, and the tension comes across really well. The film made me want to read about Chavez and try to make an informed analysis of the situation in Venezuela portrayed in this documentary.

So a great start to Slot Gampang Menang ! I’m looking forward to more great films. The Q & A portion of both films were somewhat disappointing — Go Further’s Q & A ended up getting mostly hijacked by two women who had agendas of their own to push, and the Revolution filmmakers were not in attendance. But I recommend both films to anyone who likes documentaries.