SXSW: ‘Agave: The Spirit of a Nation’ explores the history and uncertain future of production of mezcal

“You can make out the silhouettes of our past in the morning light,” the title card reads at the beginning of Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri’s documentary “Agave: The Spirit of a Nation,” which made its world premiere at South by Southwest last weekend and screens again Saturday afternoon.

Combine the vague quote that touches on cultural history and naturalism and blend it with the dark images of workers starting pre-dawn days in agave harvesting, and you get a nice encapsulation of the tone and message of this 75-minute documentary.

As an spirit lover knows, over the past several years, mezcal production has skyrocketed. It lags behind tequila in popularity, but the explosion of that spirit led to a watering down, as corporations used to diffusers squeeze the last drop of juice from the plant and the distilling process introduced non-traditional ingredients like sugarcane to stretch the production and increase profit.

Mezcal, made from more than 200 varietals of agave as opposed to the single-source blue agave that fuels tequila, has traditions that extend centuries. The harvesting of agave, the artisanal production methods of harvesting, roasting and fermenting the product has long connected thousands of Mexican families to their land and to history.

As demand has increased in recent years, many of these families fight to preserve their traditional approach, hoping to protect their families’ legacies. The film traces the stories of mescal producers Carlos Camarena, Graciela Angeles Carreño of Mezcal Minero Real and Aquilino García Lopez of Mezcal Vago in Jalísco and Oaxaca, as the trio reveal their personal histories with the spirit and elucidate its importance in establishing and growing their families and businesses.

The movie, which at times uses a somewhat corny voice-over you’d expect at a museum instillation, touches briefly on mezcal and tequila’s history, glossing over periods of colonialism and the corporate tequila boom of the last few decades, but it mostly tells the general story of mezcal by focusing on the three main characters’ person stories.

We learn of Camarena returning to lead the family business at the behest of his father, of Angeles Carreño playing the role of business leader and caretaker for her family’s legacy, and of García Lopez, whose sections of the movie give the most visceral sense of the artisanal nature of the back-breaking work involved in producing mezcal the traditional way.

Questions arise about the role of global climate change on agave cultivation and the conflict of trying to keep children at home working with mezcal when greater opportunity awaits beyond their hometowns, but the true crisis that agave faces or how these families will be able to stem or fit into a more global and industrialized world never feels completely fleshed out.

While that bigger overhead view of the situation in Mexico is lacking, the passion and heart of those featured rings true. So, when García Lopez says, “People have been selling mezcal like it is only an alcohol, but in its essence, it is truly so much more,” you understand that, as she says, mezcal is part of her genetic makeup.

“Agave: The Spirit of a Nation” screens again at 2:15 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Ritz. 

‘Brewmaster’ documents the passion and culture of beer nerds

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There may be more wineries than breweries in America, but the discrepancy has shrunk considerably over the last decade. The number has skyrocketed, almost quintupling over the last 20 years to almost 8,000. Driving the movement is a passionate group of beer nerds, almost all of whom seem to have beards Tirola’s documentary, “Brewmaster,” which made its world premiere Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse during South by Southwest, explores America’s thriving beer scene and the history of brewing in America by telling the stories of about a professional and amateur beer makers. The common element of all of these (mostly) men is a curiosity and passion that fuels the tinkering and artistry that is helping quench America’s thirst.

The film highlights a few of the leaders in craft beer, from Boston Beer Company (Samuel  Adams) co-founder Jim Koch to Alagash founder Rob Tod and Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garret Oliver, telling their genesis stories in the business, but just as compelling are the stories of the common folks obsessed with brewing.

Drew Kostic practices law by day and spends all of his free time obsessing over perfecting his home brews and devising a plan to create and find his own brewery. Tirola goes along for the ride, as Kostic hits local pubs with friends and takes his brews to tasting events held in gymnasiums, hoping to turn people onto his recipes.

Brian Reed is another enthusiast, a (bearded) man whose love of suds has led him to multiple attempts at passing the Master Cicerone exam, a feat accomplished by only about 15 people.

Tirola bounces between these two men’s stories but wisely does not follow their pursuits with blow-by-blow detail, instead cutting between some light historical documentation and many stories about people’s personal memories and histories with beer.

The history never gets granular and the science of brewing is only touched upon briefly, making the cheery love letter of a documentary accessible to even beer neophytes.

”Brewmaster” screens again at 6 p.m. March 16 at the AFS Cinema.

SXSW review: ‘The Bill Murray Stories’ taps into the joy of post-modern America’s spirit animal

I interviewed Bill Murray at South by Southwest in 2010. Though I almost didn’t. The interview was with Murray, Sissy Spacek and Robert Duval for their movie “Get Low.” It was one of only two times I was truly intimidated on the job. Spacek and Duval arrived on time but Murray was held up by a horrible Northeastern storm. I was almost done with about a half-hour interview, breathing more easily that I had made it through.

A scene from “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man.”

I was just about out questions when the door swung open. It was Murray, wearing a floral pattern shirt, carrying a Bloody Mary with a celery stalk the size of a Louisville Slugger and smelling like aftershave and relaxation. Murray sat down and regaled us with stories of a nerve-jangling departure from the East Coast, blending seriousness with humor. Even though he was intended to be there, I was still surprised. The others seemed unsurprised but charmed nevertheless.

This is what Murray does, he appears and charismatically sweeps up everyone around him. Just by being himself. Even the unflappable and poised Spacek had a gleam in her eye as she watched Murray captivate the room. Later that night I saw Murray turn from Eighth Street down Red River, pulling his hoodie’s hood over his head as he drifted into the morass. No telling how many people he surprised that night, leaving with them stories they would never forget. It was this same trip to Austin that Murray, after drinking in the bar earlier in the day and befriending an off-duty bartender, showed up at East Austin’s Shangri-La and served shots to riotously joyous patrons. That story has become legend in some Austin and SXSW circles. It is one of dozens that exist, all with a similar theme: Bill Murray casually interjects himself into the lives of ordinary non-movie stars and touches their lives with his magical blend of absurdity, revelry and joy.

Filmmaker Tommy Avallone’s documentary, “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” which made its world debut Saturday night at South by Southwest, traces the origin stories of the many legendary tales of Murray popping into other people’s lives, sometimes for five minutes and sometimes for five hours, rearranging the molecules in the room and disappearing just as mysteriously as he appeared.

There is the couple in Charleston that ended up having Murray sit in on their engagement portrait session; the house party band in Austin that had Murray sit in on tambourine after springing for a beer run; the college basketball fan and who ended up having Murray sing “Happy Birthday” to his grandmother; the house party in St. Andrew’s, Scotland, where Murray did the washing up. You get the idea.

Avallone begins his documentary as a quest to track down the star of “Groundhog Day,” “Caddyshack,” and more using the enigmatic actor’s famed 800 number voicemail, but the film ends up being (fortunately) less a journey toward Murray himself and more an examination of the various ways Murray has surprised and thrilled people. And Avallone, using some journalists who have written definitive Murray pieces, also explores the why of Murray’s mission: Does he do it for himself or the people he’s surprising or both? At the root seems to be an expression of Murray’s love of being in the present moment, of keeping himself excited and alive and vital, while also bringing an incredible joy to those whose lives he touches, as he eliminates the wall between celebrity and those who love them. It is what makes Murray our zen spirit animal in a post-modern world. Murray keeps being here (and there and there and there) now, shaking people and himself up, savoring the present moment and finding delirious peace in the raucous and mundane.

I imagine the rest of the world will soon get to tear up with joy as they watch Murray’s method; the documentary seems perfectly suited for a Netflix release.

“The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man” screens again Monday at the Vimeo Theater at 4 p.m. and Thursday at Stateside at 6:30 p.m. 

 

SXSW 2018: Bill Hader talks ‘Barry,’ LeBron James, ‘SNL’ and more with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons

Wry, nimble, absurd, likable, self-effacing and brilliant, Bill Hader proved himself to be all of the things one imagines of the “Saturday Night Live” veteran when he appeared at Vox Media’s Deep End for a taping of The Ringer’s Bill Simmons podcast.

Bill Hader (left) and Bill Simmons at Vox Media’s The Deep End at South by Southwest. (Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Simmons, whose Ringer masthead of Chris Ryan, Juliet Litman and Sean Fennessy sat front row, knowingly commented that Hader looked a little rough. The slightly disheveled and five-o-clocked-shadowed Hader admitted that he’s not a big drinker but that he ended up putting back about 20 Electric Jellyfish IPAs the night before and got really drunk, as he sat around after the world premiere of his HBO show “Barry” and watched reviews from the trades start to flow in. He followed that night with a morning of breakfast tacos, so it sounds like the man who gave life to Stefon is fitting into the town nicely. The night before was apparently Simmons’ first trip to an Alamo Drafthouse, and the longtime veteran of ESPN announced that is was “one of the greatest things anywhere.”

Hader was ostensibly there to talk about his new show, which follows a Midwestern hitman who heads out to Los Angeles to murder an actor and ends up falling in with a class of struggling actors taught by a guru played by Henry Winkler. Hader describes his titular as a hybrid of De Niro’s Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) and Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny (“Unforgiven”) ends up meeting the characters in “Waiting for Guffman.” It’s a “tonal tightrope,” and Hader says that most places would have dismissed the idea out of hand but that HBO was totally on board, a story of another creative praising the vision and freedom of the network.

While we didn’t get an Eastwood impression from Hader, he did riff on some J.B. Smoove, imitating the former SNL writer’s brash but casual confidence in pitching absurd ideas in the show’s writers’ room. Sadly, the world never got to experience the drive-by in a snowstorm. Hader also had the crowd in stitches with his unproduced sketch about a super genial Jame Gumb (“Silence of the Lambs”) hosting a late-night talk show with the girl in the well as his sidekick and another talk show where “To Catch a Predator’s” Chris Hansen walks in on unsuspecting guests on a set resembling the creepy NBC show and offers the shocked guests milk to go with the cookies they took from a plate in the fake kitchen.

The hour-long conversation jumped from Hader’s time as a production assistant on a Playboy TV show to his big SNL break. Below are a few more highlights of the podcast that will likely be posted soon theringer.com.

  • Megan Mullaley was responsible for Hader’s big break. She saw him perform at an improv show and loved him. He heard from her soon after. “I had dinner with Lorne Michaels and told him about you,” and then I was on SNL, Hader said. “She just happened to be there on a night i was funny. And, thank god.”
  • Maya Rudolph was apparently a stone-cold killer on SNL, able to jump in and out of sketches at the drop of a hat. She also had a wicked sense of play. One show, as they were counting down to air, Rudolph stuck her finger in a visibly anxious Hader’s butt. “It was sweet,” Hader sad, the playful move allowing Hader to get out of his head before performing.
  • Hader, who has written extensively for “South Park” said that doing satire on Donald Trump is hard. Referencing an old comedy axiom of stacking too many jokes on top of each other and losing their effect, Hader said satirizing Trump is “like putting a hat on a hat, like putting a joke on a joke.”
  • Hader starred in “Trainwreck” with LeBron James and said the future Hall of Famer was super easy to work with and totally game for any comedic bits Hader offered. During the scenes where the notes Oklahoma City Thunder fan played one-on-one with the Cavs star, Chris Rock was apparently off camera feeding comedic lines to James.
  • Paramount Pictures once let Hader and writing partner John Mulaney know that if they wanted to make a Stefon movie, the opportunity was there, but Hader said the duo had no interest. “The sketch made no sense, so a movie wouldn’t work.” Some things were just meant to be legendary Weekend Update bits.
  • Hader’s favorite SNL character he didn’t play? Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, in a bit that Hader said really cracked open his mind about the possibilities of sketch.
  • Hader’s first SNL pitch: that Steve Carrell playing Bobby Flay on an episode of “Iron Chef” where the celeb chef gets electrocuted. The idea was pulled from Hader’s real life, as he served as a PA on that show.
  • He doesn’t think of pieces as comedy or drama. He thinks in terms of story. In discussing the blending of the two forms and tones, he referenced that two of his favorite writers are Tobias Wolff and George Saunders.
  • Hader doesn’t talk junk about anyone publicaly ever. Except Justin Bieber, whom Hader said brought a massive entourage and a disrespectful attitude to the taping. “He had more than people than Obama.”

”Barry” premieres on HBO on March 25.

SXSW film highlights: Four documentaries, from true crime to the Grateful Dead, and the comic brilliance of Noël Wells

Noël Wells’ “Mr. Roosevelt” won the audience award for best narrative feature at South by Southwest.

From a disturbing tale about a disgraced college athletic program to a breakout performance from a brilliant writer and performer Noël Wells, SXSW offered plenty of gems this year. Below are the five highlights from the Statesman’s Matthew Odam

“Disgraced” Austinite Pat Kondelis’ documentary spends as much time detailing the cover-up of a murder as the murder itself. If you want to challenge any belief you might have in the purity of college athletics, sit with this disturbing tale of manipulative former Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss and the equally tainted administration he served. You will leave with more sympathy for victim Patrick Denehy and his family than apparently anyone at Baylor ever felt. (Full fest review.)

“Long Strange Trip” Don’t let the four-hour run time intimidate you, director Amir Bar-Lev’s exploration of the Grateful Dead moves with the fluidity and pace of a concert, with even the occasional deviations seemingly perfectly suited for a story about the psychedelic band. At a time when much music feels corporatized and soulless and a brand of disconnected narcissism fuels many of our leaders, “Long Strange Trip” reminds you of the power of coming together to create powerful art and a vital sense of community. To paraphrase a line from Bar-Lev in our conversation with him, now would be a great time to “make America Grateful again.” (Interview with director Amir Bar-Lev.)

“Mommy Dead and Dearest” The  true-crime phenomenon has gripped American audiences in recent years. What’s different about Erin Lee Car’s documentary is that she spends less time unraveling a mystery while heightening the drama, instead choosing to simply stun audiences through her reveal of the details behind a crime clearly defined early in the film. (Full fest review.)

“Mr. Roosevelt” It seems silly to describe an artist with millions of YouTube views and a brief stint as a performer on “Saturday Night Live” on her resume as undiscovered, but after watching this film, you get the feeling former Austinite Noel Wells is just now at the precipice of taking off. She wrote, directed and starred in this movie that she wholly owns, with her cutting observational wit, eye for detail and the way she can transform from daffy goofball to sympathetic character full of vulnerable longing in an instant. (The audience award winner screens at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Ritz.)

“The Work” Like the work it portrays in the film, Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s documentary delves into a dark, personal space and returns with glimmers of hope and salvation. Groups of prisoners and civilians join twice a year to engage in a form of concentrated psychoanalytic work, breaking down personal and interpersonal barriers, shattering their masks of invincibility and finding belief in themselves and their fellow man. “The Work,” which won the jury award for best documentary at SXSW, could just as easily be described as “the network,” that thing that binds people together and connects us to something deeper and more profound. (Full festival review.)

 

Austin filmmaker Kat Candler named producing director for ‘Queen Sugar’

Kat Candler at Flipnotics in 2014. (Deborah Cannon AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Austin filmmaker Kat Candler will serve as a producing director on season two of “Queen Sugar.” The television drama based on the novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile airs on the OWN Network, and was created by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. The show won best drama at the 48th annual NAACP Image Awards.

Candler directed episodes eight and nine of the first season, which aired last fall. We have questions out to her regarding how this change in title will affect he work with the show. DuVernay was nominated for an Oscar for the documentary “13th” and earned a best director  Golden Globe nomination for the historical drama “Selma,” also co-produced by Winfrey. Candler’s most recent feature was the family drama “Hellion,” starring Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad.”

From the archive:

SXSW award-winning documentary ‘The Work’ will bring you to tears and embolden your spirit

Scene from “The Work.”

The thumping sounds of two hearts beating co-mingle, indistinguishable from one another, as two prisoners smother a lavalier microphone in their tight embrace. This is The Work. And the visceral scene is also the essence of  Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s documentary “The Work,” which Tuesday night won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest.

The Work is shorthand for the intense therapeutic sessions between prisoners and civilians that happen twice a year at Folsom State Prison in California. A group of civilians buses into the prison each day for hours-long sessions that leave the participants sweaty, tearful, broken and, in at least one case, bloodied. This isn’t “Scared Straight,” where borderline civilians get brought into a prison to learn of what awaits on the other side should they keep slipping. The men on the outside in this instance choose to enter the prison. Some, like a bearded museum associate named Chris, are looking for direction in their rudderless lives, and others like Charles are trying to square something with their past. For some, their reasoning is unknown to the audience and possibly even to themselves until a moment when the pieces come together and past trauma is unleashed in a torrent, as is the case with an intense teacher’s assistant named Brian.

Under the close watch of mentors and facilitators, the prisoners act as guides, helping the outsiders and each other let down their guards and learn to be vulnerable. You can see through the windows of this cinder-block room to the yard, where just feet away prisoners go through their daily routines of socializing and exercise. But in this room, you can almost feel the discomfort and humidity as sweat drips from foreheads; there is something of an exorcism that takes place. The de facto patients, both prisoners and civilians, aren’t lying on comfortable couches and staring at the ceiling, able to slowly work their way through a psychoanalysis session. This is four years of therapy distilled into four days, and it’s done with another man’s eyes often inches from your own, and a tribe of men surrounding you in support. Think a much more believable and visceral Tony Robbins’ session, with no thoughts of profit margins or book sales.

“The Work” opens with one of the founders, and a father of the filmmaker, we would learn at the end of the screening, leading the men in a chant that summons something primal and essential in them. The act of shouting unifies the men and dredges something from that deep place they will be asked to investigate during their four days. The goal is to journey deep inside yourself, investigate the betrayals or shame buried there, pull it out, declaw it and step unencumbered into your future with self-acceptance.

You can read the pain and fear in the faces of men from both sides, and when that history of suffering surfaces, it explodes, often in physical forms. Some of the toughest men in America, charged with intense and violent crimes, are learning to let down their barriers, and in doing so, they are teaching the civilians how to be vulnerable.

Like many great pieces of art, “The Work” deepens your understanding of your fellow man, cultivates compassion and empathy and connects you to the oversoul that runs through and around us all. As the men learn to trust the process, they learn that the only thing they should fear is the self they refuse to examine and that they often hold the key to their own liberation. When you watch “The Work,” you enter the hot, uncomfortable confines where beauty and truth are forged from the raw materials of pain, longing and the need to connect, and you leave shaken but more rooted in humanity.

For more on “The Work,” visit the film’s website at theworkfilm.com.

A buzz screening of “The Work” has been added at 11 a.m. March 18 at Stateside Theatre. 

Sex tapes, press freedom and our possible slide toward authoritarian rule in ‘Nobody Speak’

 

Hulk Hogan and Gawker. Probably not two names that rush to mind when you think about the health of America’s democracy. But, as Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” shows us, the collision of the two sensational brands could serve as a crucial point in terms of a free press.

The documentary uses the case of Hogan suing Gawker and publisher Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio over the release of a sex tape as a jumping-off point for a case study of the threat faced by a free press.

As with many conversations today, “Nobody Speak” starts with footage of Donald Trump, as the then-candidate threatens to “open up those libel laws on the press” during a campaign speech. But we’ll get back to him.

Just because many see Hogan and Gawker as sleazy, as First Amendment rights lawyer Floyd Abrams states early in the film, doesn’t mean the case isn’t hugely important. The question isn’t whether Gawker is worth saving; it’s simply a protection of First Amendment rights.

Interviews with Denton and Daulerio, as well as with several journalists and lawyers both inside and outside the case, set up the backstory on entertainer Hogan and his suit against Gawker. The film follows the blow-by-blow of what turned out to be a pretty clear-cut case in the eyes of the judge and jury. Motivations are examined, and both sides’ cases are presented, but before the story gets bogged down in the minutiae, the movie gets around to its main interest: the man who was funding Hogan.

Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel admitted to backing Hogan in his case against Gawker in hopes of financially destroying the company and Denton, which he effectively did. Was Thiel motivated by Gawker’s story years earlier outing him as homosexual? Was he being vindictive for Gawker taking aim at the Teflon kings of Silicon Valley? Was Thiel simply striking the first blow in a concerted effort to undermine independent journalism, something the presidential candidate he supported (Trump) has made part of his modus operandi? Likely all of the above, according to the film.

The movie reveals Thiel to be both personally vindictive and a serious threat to a free press. The ugly precedent established, the film then turns on its heel and addresses another case of a billionaire causing problems for the press. While a common observer may have ambivalent feelings about Hogan v. Gawker, anyone who cares about a free press would certainly feel sympathetic to the plight of the hard-working journalists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. They were left in the dark when their paper was sold, so they got to work doing what they do best: reporting. They discovered that Republican political kingmaker and Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was behind the move.

With the integrity of their paper in question and their ability to perform their jobs constrained, a mass exodus occurred at the Review-Journal, in another striking example of what happens when the rich and powerful decide to limit the ability of the press to do its job.

The film moves into its third and final stage with a quick and disturbing rundown of some of Trump’s many attacks on the media, and a film that at times feels disjointed starts to congeal around the ugly truth. In the paraphrased words of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University: Billionaires are proclaiming they are not vulnerable to the truth but more powerful than it.

“It’s possible we are sliding toward authoritarian rule,” Rosen says.  

Amid the litany of Trump’s outlandish attacks on the media, which terrify anew even though many are only weeks old, a chorus of voices emerges backed by a triumphant score. David Folkenflik of NPR declares the present as a “moment of real definition for the press,” and Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post warns that if we lose a free press, “We’ve lost what America is and what it stands for.”

It is heartening to see shots of American citizens speaking truth to power at town hall meetings, joining in the role the press has always had, a role that has always been protected under law. But as the Gawker case proves, the powerful can often quash anyone with less power or money. So, it is important that the citizenry and the press not lower their voices in the face of a threat from their own leaders, but, rather embolden themselves to push even harder to shine the light on truth and justice.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” screens at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Alamo South Lamar and 7 p.m. Friday at Alamo Ritz.

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SXSW: ‘Served Like a Girl’ shines spotlight on courageous female military veterans

The U.S. military may have done away with its combat-exclusion policy for female service members in 2016, but that doesn’t mean female soldiers didn’t know the horrors of war before that. Even though the policy was to keep women out of combat, many of them were in the middle of firefights and attacks, whether as military police or in support roles. And one doesn’t have to be fired upon to bear the scars of service.

Women know the danger of combat. And, just as significantly, they know the price paid for service after returning from deployment, as evidenced in “Served Like a Girl,” Lysa Heslov’s honest portrayal of female veterans that made its world premiere at South by Southwest on Monday. (The movie screens again Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.)

The title is a reference to the tongue-in-cheek slogan worn on the shirts of the finalists in the 20015 Ms. Veteran America competition that serves as the centerpiece of Heslov’s story. While the idea of pageants may bring to mind awkward question-and-answer segments and spark feelings of exploitation in some, the Ms. Veteran America pageant is a celebration of courageous warriors who have sacrificed greatly for their country. As seen in the film, the cost paid comes in the form of lost limbs, fractured lives, post-traumatic stress and the other emotional and financial complications that make re-entry into the civilian world difficult.

Heslov follows a collection of women from various socio-economic backgrounds from all over the country as they prepare to compete for a small cash prize, but the purpose of the competition isn’t about financial gain or vanity. Heslov shows the process to be a cathartic opportunity for female soldiers to bond as they raise money and awareness to support and advocate for homeless women veterans, of which there are an estimated 55,000 in America today.

Ms. Veteran America is one of the main fundraising apparatuses of Final Salute, Inc., an organization founded by Jaspen Boothe, a veteran who founder herself out of the service and homeless after a cancer diagnosis and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Boothe, who shepherds the women, sometimes with a disciplined military hand, through the process of the competition exemplifies the strength and courage of female soldiers, who take the same pledge as their male counterparts: to never leave a fallen comrade behind.

The film suffers from some jarring jumps in narrative at times, but it allows Heslov to show the diversity of the female soldiers and mine some rich and specific details about their struggles, from the horrors of military sexual trauma to putting the pieces back together after a divorce. There are avenues viewers may leave wishing were explored in more detail, such as how Boothe could be discharged and callously sent by the V.A. to collect food stamps following her discharge simply because she was a woman, but “Served Like a Girl” does a sensitive job of showing the bravery of female soldiers in both deployment and at home.

As with Ms. Veteran America, “Served Like a Girl” gives these women a chance to find their voices and tell their stories. And they do so by asking for fair treatment, not special treatment. They just want (and deserve) to be seen and heard.

In the words of Boothe, “We are not second class soldiers or damsels in distress. We are warriors.”

“Served Like a Girl” screens again at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday and 1:45 p.m. Thursday at Alamo South Lamar.

SXSW interview: ‘Long Strange Trip’ director Amir Bar-Lev wants to ‘make America Grateful again’

Did you know a young Jerry Garcia was fascinated with the story of “Frankenstein”? Did you know that a trip to the Watts Towers inspired an epiphany in the musician, leading him to realize that he was not concerned with creating something that would stand the test of time, a static memorial to his talent. Garcia wanted to be a part of something live. He wanted to create. He wanted to be present.

Those are just a few of the intriguing and revelatory pieces of the Grateful Dead puzzle examined by “Long Strange Trip,” Amir Bar-Lev’s mesmerizing documentary that screened on opening night of South by Southwest. The four-hour documentary (don’t be intimidated, it flies by) screens again at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Ritz.

A Berkeley native and fan of the Dead since the age of 13, Bar-Lev first reached out to the Dead about making the film in 2003. His dedication to the project is evident in a film that eschews exhaustive paint-by-number beats or salacious “Behind the Music” details. Yes, the film starts with early childhood footage of Garcia and extends through the end of his life, but, Bar-Lev was not concerned with capturing every detail of each epoch of the band that existed for 30 years with Garcia at the helm. Instead, the movie captures the band’s essence, how their music was truly a communal artistic effort and a living organism.

Garcia is revealed as a reluctant captain, more concerned with being a part of a whole (while having a damn good time) than a leader of the band. Stories from roadies, band members and extended Dead family members, along with incredible unseen behind-the-scenes and live footage, capture the uniqueness of a tribe that refused to conform to industry norms or create any sort of artifice that would come between the individual musicians or the band and its fans.

The long movie is broken into six distinct parts, touching on Garcia’s well documented history of drug addiction, the complications of the band’s increased popularity in the 80s and the unique community that grew an unwieldy size by the early 90s, but at its heart, “Long Strange Trip” is a celebration of the spirit that infused the band from its outset, an effervescent exploration of the collective unconscious that began in a period of political and social unrest in America and one that still bubbles at the surface of our troubled times today.

I caught up with Bar-Lev over the weekend to discuss his relationship with the band, his intention with the movie and what we could all learn today from the band of Merry Pranksters that first came together in San Francisco in 1965.

How did you come to the Grateful Dead and what was your relationship with them as a band?

“Being into the Grateful Dead on the one hand was about being into great music. But there was another component to it, which is it was an oasis where you felt you were getting an honest shake as a fan. You didn’t feel like you were getting performed at. You felt like the guys at the center of it had a certain amount of humility, which even then I think was pretty remarkable and now, with the way things have gotten, is really remarkable. I think there is a relevance to what they were about, to the inclusivity they had. The Grateful Dead never put a wall around what being a Deadhead was about, what the band was about and I think there’s something there for people today. I think also there was an invitation to participate and to be present that is sorely lacking in say concerts today, when everybody is thinking about what kind of Instagram event it is going to be for them.

Taking the wall metaphor a step further. Not only did they not build a wall around themselves, the wall the Grateful Dead had was the Wall of Sound behind  them (an otherworldly PA system that revolutionized the concert experience) that connected them to their fans.

The Grateful Dead for as long as they could put every dime into their relationship with their fans and into connecting with their fans and trying to make it a connected, authentic experience, which is what they had at their genesis with the Acid Tests. As they describe it, the thing that was great about that is that they weren’t the center of attention. In a bunch of different ways they invited their fans not only to participate but to take a sense of ownership the community.

When I saw the running time was near four hours, I was concerned about staying focused and invested in the film for its entirety. But it really grabs you at the beginning and pulls you in and it flies by.

You don’t have to be a fan or to like the music to find it an interesting story. And many people involved in making the film are not fans, and that’s by design because I wanted to tell what I think is a really interesting story. One of my pieces of direction early on was that this should be a punk treatment and not a hippie treatment. Those are sortof silly categories, but the point I was trying to make is that we wanted to burnish what is subversive about the Grateful Dead. Because we feel the Grateful Dead has been loved to death, as somebody says in the film. And rock-and-roll in general has been co-opted by acceptance. When big bands are co-opted by big business interests is the mainstream culture. So rock and roll ceases to provoke questions and make people think about how important art is. All the things that rock and roll can do diminishes as it becomes  more just a piece of the cultural brand apparatus. And in my own little way, making a film about a band about the Grateful Dead is a great opportunity. It’s a Trojan Horse. Because the gates are open and people think rock and roll is safe and Jerry Garcia is an ice cream and a Santa Claus and all these things, they don’t see the fact that this band is a threat to the statu quo.  

It seems like the Grateful Dead would be great to have around in that incarnation today.

I agree. I totally think that.

It’s amazing to think that a front man could talk so little to the crowd and that he could be that messianic of a figure. Which I think speaks to his virtuosity as a musician.

But also it speaks to his character. Yes, it does speak to his virtuosity as a musician, that he didn’t have to adorn it with presentation and showmanship. I think he had a healthy suspicion of his own charisma and a healthy skepticism around adulaiton. I think Jerry on some level understood that it would be a mistake to try and take too much credit for what everybody was co-creating in the Grateful Dead experience. Ironically, that just made people admire him even more. But, you said it, in a day and age where everybody considers themselves a mini celebrity because of their megaphone they have on social media, I think it’s something the culture could use a little more of, that kind of humility.

Jerry Garcia would not be on Twitter.

No, he wouldn’t.

In a world today where rock music, and music in general is so egocentric, the Grateful Dead were the complete opposite in that they were about ego death. And there is music that does seem to try and bring people together in that way now, but it’s not rock music.

I don’t know where egolessness is going to pop up next. There was DJ culture, and that was really neat because suddenly there wasn’t a stage. And back in the 90s, when raves were happening there was something really cool in that we were all turning toward one another at a dance party instead of all facing one place. But I think it’s hard for human beings to keep that up because suddenly the DJ became a rock star. What a horrible turn of events.

There’s a sadness looming over a story like this because you know the heroin is lurking. You know he dies. And it seems that in the same way the Grateful Dead were concerned, especially with “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” of going out and finding America and telling the story of America, the story of the band kind of ends up becoming an American tragedy in terms of Garcia having to shoulder the burden of celebrity and hero-worship, in a role he never really asked for.

All of that is true, but I don’t think of this story as a tragedy. I think that the unexpected challenges that came in the 90s were handled with the same Taoist sensibility that all the other decisions and challenges were handled all the way through. In some hypothetical world, there is a Jerry Garcia who steers the ship of the Grateful Dead with much more deliberation. But that’s not the reality of Jerry Garcia. One of my favorite lines in the film is where Jerry tells somebody, ‘Don’t try to do anything with the Grateful Dead.’ I think that is so brilliant. I actually wanted to name the film that — ‘Don’t Do Anything with the Grateful Dead,’ because that is the essence of it. The reason that thing is still in our culture today and is as pervasive as it is is because it welcomed everybody and asked everybody to take responsibility for steering the ship collectively, and some got that and some didn’t.

Who, if anyone, did you not get for the film, or who did you get more from than you expected? Why no Bill Walton, why so much Donna Jean Godchaux, who admittedly gives lots of great context?

I was doing ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ not ‘The History of World War II.’ I was trying to get a good story, and I wasn’t trying to get the proportions correct. If I’m doing the Grateful Dead as the Wikipedia entry, I should have spent a lot more time in the late 70s and Bill Walton would have been in there. There’s a million things that would have changed, but I was really trying to keep my eye on telling a good story in a cinematic convention and so I went where the editing wanted to go. I’m sure Bill Walton would have been a great interview. I had three Deadheads in the film and they kind of covered all the bases.

What did you learn about the band in making this film?

I hadn’t real understood how radically pluralistic the vision was from the outset. When I started to see that the band itself was comprised of Deadheads, then the outer circles of the people they worked with were Deadheads, in the widest sense, Deadheads were asked to take responsibility for what the Grateful Dead were going to be, I understood the Grateful Dead project in a really different way. I understood that it really was truly The American Band, because they weren’t trying to elect a king, they were trying to have a democracy.

And, then, what did you learn about yourself as an artist via the Grateful Dead in making it?

I’m trying to make art more like the Grateful Dead made art and it has to do with engaging with voices that are seemingly in opposition to my own. That is what I’ve tried to do as an artist is be part of a collective and to bring people around me and make art with people who have a totally different approach to making art. And it worked with this film.

And now seems to be a pretty important time to be doing that …

I think everything is political and I think the notion that the Grateful Dead were apolitical is totally misguided. They were trying to embody a message with everything they did, instead of just espousing a certain creed. And that’s what gave it it’s lasting power, I think.  And you can’t divorce what they were about from the moment that we’re in right now, which is that we’ve elected a guy who shows me how insanely narcissistic our culture has gotten. So that’s why I put into the final act of the film, when things are seemingly dissolving, I put a snippet of acid test audio, where somebody says, ‘The acid test is everywhere now. You’re  all part of the acid test wherever you are.’ Because I have an ulterior motive that I want that egolessness to get more into the bloodstream of our culture. I would like to make America Grateful again.

“Long Strange Trip” screens again at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Ritz and will be available on Amazon Prime Video on May 26.