The South By South West conference, also more popularly known as SXSW, was virtual in 2021 because of COVID restrictions. Truth be told, I have heard about the massive SXSW for many years, but have never attended. So my first experience was online.
I didn’t really know where to start, and jumped into their website and discovered there were literally five channels of content streaming seemingly 24/7. Clicking on the channels could lead you into a discussion on a myriad of topics, ranging from diversity and inclusion in the artificial intelligence industry to a discussion on the latest short film played at the festival.
I saw several short and feature length films, the two standouts were “Lily Topples The World,” where Lily, a young Asian girl and YouTube sensation, has the world’s leading domino toppling channel. It was an incredible film, and Lily’s dedication to toppling dominos is tantalizingly therapeutic in its narrative.
The film won the coveted “Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award” at the SXSW.
The next film that blew me away was “Joe Buffalo,” a short documentary film that follows the life and career of Native professional skateboarder Joe Buffalo. The film also addresses the story of Joe’s life in Canadian boarding schools, and during the film, Joe doesn’t hold back in expressing his rage.
ImagineNATIVE was at the event, and as they are the largest Indigenous film festival in the world, (which takes place from October 19-24) I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with a few of the organizers including the artistic director and head of artistic programming Niki Little, Anishininew, and manager of professional development Adriana Chartrand, Michif/French/Irish.
They told me of virtual discussions and panel discussions including several Indigenous artists.
The events they spoke of included the following (as described on their SXSW page)
Night Raiders Case Study: Danis Goulet, Chelsea Winstanley case study of the first Canada-New Zealand co-pro, the Indigenous sci-fi feature Night Raiders.
Collective Tuning: Verberations: Multimedia artists and composers Raven Chacon, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, and Laura Ortman in conversation with Jenny Western.
Digital Decolonized: A cross-sectoral discussion on the intersections of culture, technology, and creativity in the digital landscape, through an Indigenous lens.
Arctic Indigenous Co-Productions: Indigenous film professionals from Arctic regions on the power of international collaborations to tell stunning original stories, uplift, and heal.
One of the interesting moments during these discussions was a “beautiful mistake” when during the collective tuning panel, one of the microphones or audio devices malfunctioned causing a wild display of sound. It takes place at 15 minutes 20 seconds.
Collective Tuning: Verberations | 2021 iNstitute Panels
Meeting with mentorship professionals and entrepreneurs
One of the SXSW offerings was meeting with leaders in their respective industries. Once I saw these offerings, I signed up for as many as I could possibly sign up for. Who doesn’t want to speak with people who have had life experiences and wisdom to share? I was all in.
I met with film industry and media industry professionals to include film school master’s graduate and attorney Dan Satorius with clients that include Academy and Emmy Award winners. One of his areas of expertise included the concept of “Fair Use,” the designation of using copyrighted material in another body of produced work.
The thing to keep in mind when you are using copyrighted materials. Keep in mind your fair use purpose. Such as journalism or science reporting. If you use these materials “just enough to make your fair use point” and no more. And you look to transform the material from its original purpose. “If it is a song, then it was entertainment for people to listen to the song. So your use of the song Should not be for purely entertainment purposes,” said Sartorius.
I also met with Jose Papa, who inspired me more than perhaps he realized. Papa has had four craniotomies in his life but still managed to run the Chicago marathon six months after recovering. He is the chairman of Bett’s Global Education Council, and CEO of Trace Brasil described as “The first-ever media and education platform in Brazil focused on Afro Urban culture.”
His kindness and courtesy to me and his connectivity to Black and Indigenous culture was an inspiration. Meeting with him I was honored, but then he complimented me on my accomplishments as a Native journalist. I was more than flattered. “Now is the time to get all of our voices heard. Now is the time to take advantage of these diverse trends in our world.”
I also met with Sylvia Desroches, the senior vice president of film and entertainment at MPRM Communications. With expertise in marketing, she says filmmakers “Need to start thinking early. She asked who is your audience and who are you trying to reach with this message.”
“Think of yourself as a brand, because that is what the market is asking of you. Think of it as who am I and how am I different from other artists? A big deal question to ask is, ‘who is your audience?’”
Another great person I connected with was Joseph Litzinger, an executive producer for "Interesting Human Media" and "BBC Studios" who is a primetime Emmy-nominated producer. I didn't realize until after I had made the request to speak with him that he was the current executive producer of National Geographic's and BBC Studios’ "Life Below Zero" a television series based on life in Alaska with several Native storylines. The series has received six Emmy wins.
Litzinger was gregarious, lighthearted and a fun conversationalist. Stay tuned for further news content on his Native subject-based television episodes.
The entrepreneurs who blew me away: Hoodbot
Out of the plethora of business vendors at SXSW, one stood out for many reasons. HoodBot.
The CEO and owner Obi Holly responded right away to my inquiry and his welcoming smile and graciousness, as did his daughter and Vice President of Creative Development Amsara Holly.
I already loved their clothing, but then I found out what their efforts are focused on within their communities. According to their SXSW site description, the Hoodbot company is “a streetwear lifestyle brand established in Los Angeles, California in 2019. Hoodbot is unique because it invests in and promotes technology literacy and programs for youth in underserved communities through each product sold. The brand targets skateboard, bike, hip-hop, and youth culture. Hoodbot produces clothing and accessories-partnering with brands and artists to launch new products and heighten the cultural experience.”
Amsara is an actress, singer, writer, producer and entrepreneur and member of the music group Holly Girlz. Obi also a musician who was once signed as a hip hop artist, both grew up in Washington DC. Obi was also a producer on BET, and had the longest-running hip hop show in history, "Rap City Da Basement." They eventually moved to Los Angeles, "recognizing the massive need for technological access to underserved communities" and Obi's longtime love of street fashion, Hoodbot was born.
Essentially and according to Obi Holly, the company contributes back to their community through sales of the clothing. They also expressed a desire to reach out to Native communities, Native artists and more importantly wanted to create a way to give back to those same Native communities, check them out at Hoodbot.com.
Room for improvement at SXSW
Tough to connect
Some of the difficulties of the conference were related to the accessibility and outreach to vendors, individuals and events. I found it a bit difficult to navigate and/or find certain things. Unfortunately, one of the most frustrating things was the lack of response in reaching out to people. Many times, my inquiries were met with no response. Thus there were a lot of missed opportunities in terms of press inquiries from my side of the conversation.
Scarcity of Native content
Though I was able to make a few connections and did uncover some Native and Indigenous content. Overall, Native content was extremely limited for a conference labeled South by SouthWest. I would like to reach out to organizers to see if the level of Native content and outreach could increase for 2021. There is a massively growing world of Native and Indigenous content out there in the world now and just as Sundance embraces and acknowledges Native contributions to the film and media world, I think SXSW has a great opportunity to do so. I am confident they would be willing to increase their efforts if they simply reach out in the future. (hint, hint.)
Better film section layout
In searching for films, I got lost more times than I can count. And as hard as I tried to vote for projects, I simply couldn’t get there. There was also no connection to the titles of films and their posters. It was hard to choose a film to view if all I had was the title to choose from. And in the poster section, there was no link to go to the film. I feel there were a lot of missed opportunities.
My overall feeling of SXSW
I had a great time, but there were points of frustration. That said, this was a first-time effort for SXSW. so I can’t fault them too much as I am certain they will be listening to the critics out there, such as this #NativeNerd. I enjoyed my time, made a few great connections, but would have loved to have made more had people responded to my inquiries. I did see a lot of great films, watched a few other things, and had a nice time. I didn’t get to experience any virtual reality due to having to connect my Oculus to my PC. I am an admitted newbie with Oculus but am getting better.
I am looking forward to talking to a few folks and attending next year.