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South by Southwest: A tale of two college journalists at a film festival

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At first, it was just another out-there idea. 

What if, somehow, the two of us could go to the South by Southwest film festival over Spring Break? We would get the chance to meet some of our heroes, see movies and hang out in Austin, Texas. Or, even better, what if we could write about our experiences and maybe even film parts of it? It certainly didn’t seem plausible.

Just for kicks, we searched around Duke for some funding that would allow this to happen. As you might imagine, it’s not easy to find funding for two, $700+ tickets to a film festival in Austin, Texas. Unsuccessful, we tried a last-ditch effort by working with Recess editor Georgia Parke to apply for a press pass provided by the festival. If anything, it would be even better to cover it for The Chronicle rather than just write a few pieces for a personal blog. This would hopefully give us a rigorous schedule, actual accountability and an opportunity to do true press coverage.

The thing is, we just never expected to actually be given a press pass by SXSW. But then, like other absurd “what if” ideas, like, say, Matt Damon buying a zoo, it actually came to fruition. Thankfully, unlike Cameron Crowe’s subpar movie, our idea had promise. 

When the email came a few weeks before break, our alternative plans went flying out the window, and our planning kicked into hyperdrive. Upon checking the SXSW schedule, we realized that there were dozens of celebrities to potentially interview, hundreds of screenings to attend and thousands of people with whom to network. We were inundated with options. 

After scrambling to find a way to get to Austin, asking around for places to crash for a week and narrowing down our desired events, we were ready to go. With the cooperation of Duke Student Broadcasting, duARTS and the Duke Chronicle, we flew down to Austin with three cameras, five microphones and a variety of accessories, ready to document our experiences at the festival for a week.

On our first day at the festival, we realized that Austin was really all that everyone had told us it would be. By that, we mean that it was hot and had a ton of good food. 

Not to sound cliché, but there was a certain energy in the air. This was a week of new films and unique experiences, and everyone seemed to know it. It was an energy that felt very much like being in a room with musicians as they create new music together—electric, nervous, hopeful. 

As members of the press, we certainly felt this infectious electricity. We also felt like a distinct entity, separate from the other festival-goers and, more so, the filmmakers. If there was a negative, though, it was the only one. As it turns out, being a member of the press can open a fair number of doors. 

As writers for a small student newspaper, we were only put on the waitlists for most red carpet interviews. Fortunately, bigger and more recognizable news companies consistently dropped out of red carpets, allowing us the once in a lifetime chances to interview actors and filmmakers about how students could get into the industry or what being in their shoes is like. 

On top of that, we got into extra events and were able to organize interviews with directors and actors, some of whom were showing their films for the very first time ever.

From the beginning, we had no intention to review these films or events. No one at Duke wanted to read a review from us about a festival film. And, if they did, there were other news outlets that would probably do that better and more quickly than us anyway. 

So, then, what could we provide? We settled on writing about our impressions and, more importantly, the lessons that we learned from the festival and the filmmakers who were present. We made it a point to ask about transitioning from being a student to being a filmmaker in most of our interviews. So, after some talk, we have distilled these lessons into the following list for you. 

Lesson #1: Passion is Essential

At the very first red carpet we went to, we had the opportunity to talk to Louis Black, the founder of SXSW and the director of the documentary, “Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny.” When we mentioned that, for Duke students, the idea of committing to a career in independent filmmaking was extremely difficult, he gave us an extremely passionate response. Essentially, he drilled home the idea that nothing is too hard if you’re driven by a passion for your creation. If you’re driven by love and passion, nothing is more satisfying than putting in that work. Hearing him talk about filmmaking in this way took all the stress of travel out of our systems and reminded us why we had traveled across the country and walked around Austin with tons of luggage strapped to our bodies. The strength of that creative spark overtook him when he founded SXSW almost 30 years ago, and hopefully, it will overtake everyone trying to make it in this industry. 

Lesson #2: Just Ask

The fact that we have an experience about which to write this article is in itself a testament to the power of just "giving it a shot." It doesn’t matter how absurd your proposition is or how much fame and success the person you’re requesting something from has had, because the absolute worst anyone can say is no. This applies to all walks of life, but we were shocked at how much a simple email to the right person could help us out and give us totally unforeseen opportunities. We got to sit down to talk with Gillian Jacobs and Mike Birbiglia for 20 minutes! We interviewed Don Cheadle on the Red Carpet! Journalism badge aside, we were really just 21-year-old fanboys masquerading as reporters who managed to ride a wave of irrationally confident emailing into one of the best weeks of our lives. You too can manage to have opportunities you had no clue were feasibly possible with just a simple request. 

Lesson #3: Success is Relative

One of the things we talked to the cast of “Don’t Think Twice” about was the idea of success, and getting older affects their perception of success. Something we learned is that even the most famous and successful actors still have insecurity and doubts. Despite the fame and money, they just want to be able to continue doing what they love. 

Gillian Jacobs summed this up really well in saying, “The sickness of this business is that you never feel successful. You always feel like the looming pressure of what you haven’t achieved or what people told you you couldn’t do or are not allowed to do.” 

Don Cheadle echoed that sentiment, saying that every time he finishes a job, he thinks “Oh, I’m unemployed.”

That said, the real lesson was that you don’t necessarily have to achieve what people tell you you have to achieve in order to be successful just to be happy and fulfilled. The entire DTT cast made a point to emphasize that even working on some of the most successful projects of their careers or reaching one of the many “checkpoints” in the life of a comedian failed to live up to the experience of their first improv performances or one man shows. 

Even if you don’t feel this advice applies to you in the context of the film industry, it’s still valuable to acknowledge. Aditya has written in the past about the pressure to conform to certain standards of success we feel imposed on us by the Duke community at large, and how that can be frustrating when placed alongside our creative aspirations. To hear those like Jacobs and Cheadle, who have both achieved tremendous success in their fields, discuss the importance of personal fulfillment outside of the bounds of industry standards was eye-opening, to say the least. Maybe we’ve been thinking about future success all wrong?   

Lesson #4: Storytelling is Powerful

The final lesson we took away from the festival is that, quite simply, storytelling is powerful. The stories some of these films told were not ones that we would find on the big screens across the country, but this is what made these stories so beautiful in many ways. They were able to touch on sensitive issues in compelling ways. For example, “A Stray” was able to address the debates about refugees in America by telling the story from the perspective of a Somalian refugee living in Minneapolis, Minn. Director Musa Syeed discussed how he was able to draw in his experiences as a Muslim while also furthering the cause of diversity in the film industry.

“I hope that this can open the door for more films like this about the community and for members of the community to also tell their own stories,” Syeed said.

These films used storytelling as a tool to comment on important social issues. As filmmakers, and as artists in general, we all can use our craft to advance causes near to our heart without sacrificing the artistry of our work.

So, now, here we are on the other side of a once in a lifetime experience. We learned a lot. We were able to cover the festival for The Chronicle. We got to chat with screenwriters and actors and tons of excited film fanatics like us. However, more than anything, we just feel grateful that we were able to be at SXSW for a week. It was a week like none other.

If the festival is any indication, the future is bright for independent films. Perhaps more importantly though, the future continues to be bright with potential for student filmmakers and student artists. And that might be the most exciting part.

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