The steady drone of industry panels and pseudo TED-talks, day-drunk hollering, and groaning line queue banter is punctuated by the ambulance sounds of an electric scooter accident. Swathes of people donning color-coded badges filter in and out of venues, suspiciously few of those having anything to do with the blue-tag film festival portion of South by Southwest, despite the draw of big Hollywood names like Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, and Lupita Nyong’o. One certainly feels inclined to attend the fan-fared premieres of, for instance, Jordan Peele’s doppelgänger horror film, Us, or Harmony Korine’s latest bong rip, The Beach Bum, if only to be ahead of the curve by a few weeks. (Both films will be released in theatres this March.) But beyond the hustle and bustle of the Paramount Theatre’s red carpet offerings, South by Southwest’s peripheral film festival entries will seem nebulous: a haphazard selection of international transplants, a surprisingly heavy emphasis on the documentary, and an unknowable toss-up of American independent films.
While the programming distinctions tend to blur together, I’m inclined to recommend the Visions section, which is comprised of both documentary and narrative films touting a weirdly contra-South By demeanor. This section places an emphasis on formal experimentation and unconventional narratives, a rather low bar for art film in general, though this primarily speaks to the festival’s vanilla mainstream output. In any case, the films that belong to this year’s Visions selections seem like strange outliers grouped together by reason of sheer—rather than shared—idiosyncrasy.
One such Visions discovery is Numa Perrier’s Jezebel, an oddly sensitive tale of a blooming Internet cam girl based on writer/director Perrier’s own lived experiences. Much less sprawling and fatalistic, but still aesthetically reminiscent of Sean Baker and Andrea Arnold’s work, Jezebel tells the story of two sisters living outside of Las Vegas relying on alternative forms of sex work to pay the rent of their overpopulated one bedroom apartment. Sabina, played by Perrier, is the eldest of the two, and appears to carry the bulk of the financial burden with her job as a phone sex operator. It’s worth mentioning that the flat is also shared by Sabina’s former client turned boyfriend, her squatter brother, and her own child. Younger sister, Tiffany (newcomer Tiffany Tenille), moves into the already cramped quarters when their mother falls ill, and turns to the cam girl life for financial independence by Sabina’s encouragement.
Full-throated pessimism would seem to go hand-in-hand with Perrier’s story of underprivileged black sisters resorting to sex work to make ends meet, but the film fully understands the dreary political subtext of such circumstances and decides against such an emphatically bleak interpretation, opting instead for a coming-of-age narrative more interested in how sisterhood, sexuality, and power filters identity. As a result, the story keeps nineteen-year-old Tiffany as its focus as she maneuvers the racial dynamics of being the only black cam girl on the website. The film is at once an appreciation of the formative functions of performative sexuality and the dangers of blurring the lines between self and alter ego in a potentially exploitive line of work. While Jezebel is a modest production (the events are practically limited to two settings, the apartment and the shady camgirl offices) and could altogether do away with its feeble attempts at sub-plots, Perrier’s intimate study down the rabbit hole of spliced identity offers a challenging tableaux of desire spiked by illusion and profit.
The motif of fake online personas appears again in another Visionsselection, this time the first feature-length documentary by Belgian director of Ghanaian descent, Ben Asamoah. Sakawa first premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this past November, though this story of Internet dating scammers in Ghana makes its more auspicious North American debut at SXSW (considering the relatively small number of South By documentary offerings compared to that of Amsterdam, the world’s largest film festival devoted exclusively to documentary film).
The documentary takes as its subject the scammer workforce, or the “sakawas”—essentially a small room full of young men typing away on free online chat rooms and posing as (usually white) women. Through routine messaging, cleverly manipulated video chat, and live phone calls, these Ghanaians build fraudulent relationships with desperate men from all parts of Europe and America until they convince these “clients” to send them money. Should a Westerner prove particularly stubborn, the crew relies on black magic rituals to tilt the odds in their favor. There’s of course something undeniably humorous about a grown man faking a woman’s voice as he engages in dirty talk with a “Mike” from North Carolina, and these moments are strangely triumphant in their hustling of the white man as colonial payback.
While the “sakawa” scammers comprise their own sect of relatively thriving individuals, similarly parasitic practices pop up as the film steps back for a broader perspective. The town evangelists make an appearance as they rally up followers in search of salvation. One of the scammers is actually the victim of a con by a local “travel agent” who promises the starry-eyed Ghanaian a one-way ticket to Italy should he pay the right price. Wide aerial shots of the towns and villages, and of people mining through fields of abandoned e-waste are of the film’s most striking images, not least of all because these visuals illustrate the extent to which scavenging, repurposing, and ultimately exploiting any available resource is injected into the bloodstream of this society. Transportive and immersive in its patchwork observation of Ghanaian routine from the purview of an emergent, distinctly 21st century livelihood, Sakawa is compassionate without resorting to maudlin, one-dimensional sympathy, as dignifying of its subjects as it is willing to show some indelicate realities.