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SXSW Film Festival 2018: The World Before Your Feet, Alt-Right: Age of Rage, First Light

In 2010, the equally amiable and amicable Matt Green walked across America, a total of more than 3,000 miles over more than 150 days. His latest project is smaller on a geographical scale, but even more ambitious—walking every street in New York, in all five boroughs, which he estimates to be 8,000 miles. His passion for this endeavor is captured in Jeremy Workman’s lovely documentary, “The World Before Your Feet,” which is as gently eye-opening as looking around while strolling down a new street. 

Given the scope of Green’s project, this documentary does not focus on its beginning or end. Its scope is more existential, about exploring what life is like when you take the time to see and learn about what’s around you, and the surprises one might experience along the way. Green becomes a type of host to this ideology with Workman’s cameras often filming him from behind, taking pit stops to point out old buildings or signs to us, especially if it’s a 9/11 memorial, or a barbershop that has a “Z” in the name. He doesn’t hesitate to take in a seemingly normal street. His enthusiasm quickly becomes ours. 

The film has a warming sociological aspect to it too, as it collects glimpses of random New York life: we see Matt explaining his mission to strangers, answering their curiosity. The responses earn a collective admiration from fellow New Yorkers, even if Matt has to break through some initial hostility using his knowledge, or his natural people skills. 

Working with such a zen concept but at a 90-minute running time, the question of “The World Before Your Feet” involves how it adds on to more than just moments of him walking. There are some interesting additions, like examining the privilege that Green has to be able to walk by talking to a fellow walker of similar goals, a black man from Jamaica, who says he has to carry a book around with him, not wear hoodies, and dress in a button-down shirt. But all the same I wonder if the film could be ten or fifteen minutes shorter, as it plays the same poignant chord throughout, however touching it may be. 

There’s one distinct element that isn’t even asked about Green, because it’s not even a question for him—as he strolls, there are no headphones in his ears and no sunglasses over his eyes. Contrary to how we often walk through our neighborhoods, his head is always looking up and out. Its a simple gesture that says so much about how he takes in the world, and a great recommendation. “The World Before Your Feet” has inspired me to get outside and look around, and I’m sure it will do the same for you, too.

While loving the souls in SXSW docs like “They Live Here, Now” or “The World Before Your Feet” is incredibly easy, it can be equally difficult to willingly go into the heart of hated, as happens with Adam Bhala Lough’s “Alt-Right: Age of Rage.” But for the sake of gaining perspective, especially in learning how the Alt-Right thinks and operates, it’s worth the muddy, frustrating, disturbing journey. 

The director of “The New Radical” takes viewers to the edge of the far right and the far left, giving both sides a chance to speak about their history, their beliefs, and then show them in action. Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a charismatic Antifa activist with a history of protests against white supremacy, represents the left. He laughs about some of the ridiculous stuff he has encountered in protests or in going through the history of the Ku Klux Klan, even carrying some of the paraphernalia in his car trunk. We also get to see him in action, rallying people during protests and offering his own no-frills charisma, on behalf of progressivism and love. 

Lough's footage of the Alt-Right's existence includes the tiki-torch rally at Charlottesville and the horrific violence that followed, various white nationalist rallies and even input from a right-wing meme artist; it's like he's been embedded within the growing movement that the non-Alt-Right only saw from newsfeeds or videos of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. Here, the “suit and tie version of the Klan” figure Spencer and Jared Taylor provides a sense of the intellectual commitment that goes into hate, as they cling to an idea about whites being a superior race that deserves to live in their own part of America. Lough’s film spends intimate time with Spencer before and during rallies, as he hypes up the danger he is in for clinging to his insane idea fog of the truth. Taylor, as revealed through talking head interviews surrounded by library of books and speaking with a calm Southern accent, has become another intellectual symbol for the movement, and a leader himself. 

Considering the amount of time that this movie spends with Spencer and Jared Taylor, I am relieved to say that this doc doesn’t humanize them beyond letting the viewer know their thoughts, their ability to speak, etc. Really lazy and extreme right-wingers could watch this movie and be excited about the garbage that Spencer and Taylor speak, but Lough’s angle most of all gives a better sense of what those who want to love should know, and just how dangerous this culture is. Another talking head, Mark Potok, provides the consciousness of the film, speaking statistically and philosophically about the true evil of extreme right wingers. Bhala reckons that our most important weapon, as we strategize how to go high instead of going low, is to know what we’re up against.

From the festival Narrative Spotlight section, there’s the film “First Light,” from writer/director Jason Stone. It starts off with the whiff of a “Cloverfield” movie, playing coy with an extraterrestrial force that's articulated through lights and radio news, while focusing on the personal life of teenager Sean (Theodore Pellerin), who is taking care of his sick grandmother and his younger brother while navigating a crush on a young woman named Alex (Stefanie Scott). Push comes to shove comes to alien interaction, and Alex has incredible superpowers, sending Alex and Sean on the run from government forces in a shiny albeit predictable way that owes a lot to sci-fi Spielberg, but leaves very little to be remembered that can be called its own. 

Stone’s movie is one of the most frustrating kinds to run into while covering a festival comprised of upcoming filmmakers, the calling card project. It works hard with its performances to capture the anxiety of its lean, fantastical narrative, as captured with a slick look that is commendably achieved on an indie budget. But there is no personality to the script or its execution, which is concerned more with looking legitimate than taking any chances. The film's cynical approach to getting people’s attention makes it further distancing and anti-thrilling; here’s hoping that Stone aims higher with his next, possibly bigger project.

Nick Allen

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

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