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What Was Lost When SXSW Was Canceled

Apr 28, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Rebecca Stern

Last year, Rebecca Stern got her big break. Her feature debut, Well Groomed, was selected to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It was the moment that Stern, a documentary filmmaker, had been building up to for five years—and it paid off big time. At the festival, Stern’s film, about an eccentric cohort of dog groomers, garnered attention from press and buyers, including HBO, which bought the film for its streaming platform HBO Sports. Not only was Stern able to recoup the film’s budget, but the acquisition also opened doors to new professional opportunities.

This year’s edition of the SXSW festival was among the first major American events to be canceled “in an abundance of caution” amid growing fears of the coronavirus pandemic. When Stern heard about the cancellation, she immediately thought of the hundreds of filmmakers who would not be able to premiere their films at the prestigious festival. “It was shocking, and I wanted to hear about that experience directly from the filmmakers living it,” Stern told me. “In the face of a pandemic, there’s nothing an individual filmmaker can do to change this, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to put such intense work on hold.”

Stern had been tapped to attend SXSW 2020 as a mentor for first-time filmmakers. She already had a plane ticket. “I kept my travel plans to go to Austin mostly to see what the city was like without the festival,” she said. During her flight to Austin, the first coronavirus cases were identified in the city, and businesses started closing. “It was wild,” she said. “All of a sudden, the decision to go to Texas changed from logical to seemingly super risky.”

Once there, Stern said that Austin had “that weird, sad, paused feeling that I think much of America had that weekend.” She watched the SXSW pedestrian barricades go up, only to be taken down a day later. “It was just a note of how fast the world had changed,” she said.

On the ground, Stern sought out filmmakers to talk with, many of whom expressed feelings of collective grief. “I wanted to make a film that would provide a little space for people to feel the grief of change,” Stern said. “There’s so much in the COVID communication about what we need to proactively do—whether it’s staying home or giving or buying. But there’s less about how we can process what has been put on hold because of this.”

Stern’s short documentary The Rush, premiering on The Atlantic today, explores the effect of the festival’s cancellation on filmmakers who had so much at stake. Although all of the interviewees agree that canceling the festival was the right thing to do, they admit to feeling a sense of loss that one of the filmmakers describes as “devastating.”

“The thing you’ve been working on in the dark for years is finally about to come into the light,” Sarah Brennan Kolb says in the film. Her feature debut, Good Ol’ Girl, was slated to premiere at the festival this year.

“I feel like a boyfriend has broken up with me—I have that sad pit in my stomach,” says another director, Jessica Wolfson, interviewed in the film.

While specifically about filmmakers, The Rush speaks to a complicated feeling of loss that many can relate to as we cancel weddings and vacations or lose job opportunities in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic.

“There’s a real sadness in what we—as a community of filmmakers and as a nation—haven't had the chance to do and experience because of the pandemic,” Stern said. “I’d like audiences to take that pause and feel allowed to be sad about what this disease has taken away from all of us, even as we continue to do our part to make sure it doesn’t take more lives.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.