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SXSW 2022: Spaz, We Feed People, Gabby Giffords: Won't Back Down

The story goes that Steven Spielberg only wanted to shoot a third of the dinosaurs with computer graphics. But Steve “Spaz” Williams, an oddball maverick at visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), believed that it could nearly all be done with computer graphics. He had helped make the unforgettable water face in James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” and was a lead artist behind the T-1000 shapeshifting in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” creating images with computer graphics that had not been done before. When he made his own test to show how a T-Rex could walk via computer graphics—and got it in front of producer Kathleen Kennedy—he changed Spielberg’s mind, and changed how people made blockbusters. 

That’s just one amazing story featured in the fascinating documentary “Spaz,” which profiles a rebel spirit and brilliant mind that deserves greater attention. Williams was not given Oscar kudos for his work on those two films, despite his direct artistry being put on display, and like other people that he worked alongside (including his buddy Mark Tippé), struggled to get certain recognition under it. The documentary focuses on how Williams became the type of oddball who pushes an industry forward, who thinks outside the box and bring that intensity to a workplace that is about innovation, but also still about power. (“Spaz” has some great insight into the drama behind the scenes at ILM, humanizing everyone for good and bad.) 

But then people like Williams can also get left behind when it comes to credit, and in turn we start to think about effects teams as faceless or as computerized as what they create. “Spaz” is, among many things, a great reminder to appreciate visual effects as an art-form that (in soulful blockbusters, at least), continues to push what we believe to be real. 

That’s only half of the story, and “Spaz” does a great service to its subject by reckoning with his alcoholism. His behavior, his immaturity, his intensity, his experience of rejection and certain creative failures, it all has a darker side to it. In between moments of speaking to the camera, a sadder image of isolation grows, coupled with all the times that he is seen drinking. Director Scott Lebrecht's focus on the story then captures how Williams starts to face a problem that has affected his life so deeply, and lovingly presents his flaws. “I’ve never been an adult,” says Williams, a few seconds later before he is then heard saying, “I’m an alcoholic.” 

“Spaz” beautifully balances its reverence for an underestimated underdog with this more real side; it's also the kind of documentary that enhances your appreciation for some of the best films ever made. The “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs walked as they did, because Williams was brilliant and determined enough to make it so. 

Taking after his previous documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” Ron Howard observes another force of good going up against natural disasters in “We Feed People,” which had its premiere on the last day of SXSW. The hero in this case is Chef José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen organization works around the world to feed people hot meals when disaster strikes. He brings his kitchen-honed organization with food and his high energy, to these efforts that make thousands of meals for people who need them, whether it’s in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, or in America during the initial Covid-19 outbreak. Howard’s film pays tribute to his resilience and dedication, while also showing that what Andrés is doing could easily be a part of government support. 

Like Howard’s other documentaries, this is a fine, amiable portrait of someone whose hard work deserves recognition, and helps you see a brighter sense of hope in environments that have been devastated. Andrés is an animated and excitable presence, whether he’s talking in the interviews about his passion for food, or if he’s being filmed organizing his many volunteers on how to achieve something that is impossible, and at times very dangerous. 

“We Feed People” takes on a “and-then-this-happened” editing rhythm that can make it feel slower than a story about natural disasters and innovative relief efforts should. But it does pick up later when Howard’s crew captures the many different problems to be solved in the Bahamas, about how to make a kitchen near where the people are, and how to get it to the people. The film is all about empathy in action, and Andrés and his team nourish the possibility of that, one meal at a time.

The latest from the Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the directors of “RBG” and “My Name is Pauli Murray,” “Gabby Giffords: Won’t Back Down” captures the absolutely incredible tale of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, honoring its inherent themes of immense strength, determination, and activism. There’s many amazing parts to this story, like congresswoman Giffords surviving and rehabilitating after being shot in the head at a speaking event at a Safeway in 2011, to her astronaut husband running for senate in 2020. 

Cohen and West immerse us in the marriage of Giffords and Kelly, which includes instances of the support they've had for one another in this public saga. Most memorably, the documentary has incredible footage (filmed by Kelly) of Giffords’ rehabilitation. It shows just how far she has comeshe had to relearn how to speak, and has used music therapy to work with words and sounds. Within the story's resilience is a deeper understanding how she continues to work for functionality, with the help of incredible neuroscience and an endless roster of empathetic medical professionals. 

Cohen and West want to use this documentary to make a case for gun control, and to place Giffords’ experience with other shootings in America. It’s an important, urgent message, and comes with some openly candid remarks from President Barack Obama about his frustration with gun control. But it can feel a bit clunky within the otherwise dry filmmaking in the mix; and it can be jarring, in a way that feels cheap, to have images of shootings thrown included so brazenly, next to a few music cues or moments that tug on the heart strings a bit too overzealously. The documentary is instead most tactful when it focuses on Giffords and Kelly, and their shared spirit that can inspire us all. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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