Diversity is too often drowned by tides of blacks and whites. There are so many forces telling us to think one thing or its polar opposite, and as a result, we are led to believe that our values are not worthy of recognition if they are not painted black or white. This is an ongoing struggle, especially here in Madison, given recent events on campus. However, in attending SXSW in Austin, Texas, I found the keynotes and film screenings to be a refreshing blend of perspectives and stories that challenged these boundaries. The diversity in topic and genre kept me on my toes as the festival proved over and over that the best projects are the ones that add color to these dichromatic topics.
Among the most moving events at SXSW was the presentation by first lady Michelle Obama, who discussed the importance of education for young girls across the globe. She was joined by Sophia Bush, Missy Elliott and Diane Warren, with Queen Latifah serving as a moderator for the talk. This lineup of speakers alone blew me away. To be in the same room as some of the most powerful women in society was humbling, to say the least. Their presence onstage was only exceeded by their words. Michelle Obama advocated for her initiative Let Girls Learn, which addresses the 62 million girls in the world without access to education. As a female with the privilege to attend college—let alone one like the University of Wisconsin-Madison—the presentation reminded me that inclusion is not as simple as being given opportunities. It is about having access to those tools in the first place and being able to maintain that lifestyle. This is a struggle for girls living in places where their environments serve as a perpetual challenge to receive things like education.
These women maintained this mindset throughout their conversations on feminism and equality. In regard to these topics, Sophia Bush made a comment that “people need to look at each other like people.” This struck a chord in me because it sums up the fundamental importance of inclusion and diversity. Just because my view or lifestyle may not be congruent with another person’s does not mean that we are diametrically opposed to one another. Especially in a world where the gender gap and equal opportunity remain prominent points of discussion, it is important to acknowledge that each of us has a voice. These powerful public figures made it clear that treating those voices with respect can only enrich our understanding of issues and promote progress.
The festival continued to tackled diverse topics in the film screenings dealing with complex emotional struggles. Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition” had an unconventional take on grief, in which protagonist Davis Mitchell reacts with staggering apathy after his wife dies in a car accident. This was my favorite screening, not just because Jake Gyllenhaal was fully committed to his role as Davis, but because it invited me to completely reconsider how a person ought to react to a tragedy. Before the film’s premiere, Gyllenhaal sat down to discuss the film and his past roles. When the talk opened up for audience questions, one women took to the mic and shared her own personal experiences with apathy, recounting how she could not feel any emotion after the passing of her grandmother. Her voice thick with emotion, she thanked Gyllenhaal and those involved with the film for portraying this side of grief, which does not receive as much recognition as other reactions. I was completely moved by the amount of impact this film had just in its subject matter alone and the fact that its effects on people were real. A story like this would do well in the Marquee theater in Madison because it emphasizes the acceptance and validation of other people’s reactions and ways of living, even if they are “different” than our own. In depicting an alternative method of coping, the film shows that a person’s emotions and reactions do not have to fit neatly into a black or white box to be justified.
Emotional and physical strife was also displayed in the film “The Other Half” directed by Joey Klein. The movie centers around Nickie, a man still grieving from the disappearance of his younger brother years ago, and Emily, a woman struggling with bipolar disorder. Tom Cullen and Tatiana Maslany inhabit their characters with tenderness and vulnerability as the two find comfort and acceptance in one another. While the ending cuts the film off a little abruptly, the film’s message is potent. Emily looks past Nickie’s rough exterior and inner conflict just as Nickie looks past Emily’s mental disorder. Through this film, we see that love triumphs when we look past the differences that could otherwise drive a wedge between us. Such inclusion is what gives true vibrancy to our surroundings, as it does for these characters.
This year’s festival embraced the fact that we do not live amid an environment of black or white or even grey; there is a full array of hues to draw from. I think we are all striving to trace the world in different colors in the hopes that this spectrum can contrast the blacks and whites we so readily settle for. The way we do that is through the inclusion of diverse and impactful perspectives that dare to break the mold. Media and film are powerful podiums for these voices, and SXSW 2016—through its speakers, films and topics—made sure no colors went to waste.