By CARY DARLING | STAR-TELEGRAM POP CULTURE CRITIC
When Charlize Theron entered the packed room at the Austin Texas Convention Center Tuesday to take her seat on a South by Southwest panel about music documentaries, all eyes turned her way, and cameras flashed like heat lightning.
Perhaps the other panelists, struggling filmmakers, unknown except to their moms and closest friends, felt their hearts sink just a little bit.
They probably thought they’d walked into a segment of Entertainment Tonight where Mary Hart was definitely not interested in talking to them.
But after that first wave of celebrity worship, everyone, including Theron, stayed on the topic of making and marketing music documentaries.
No one asked Theron what she was wearing, and no one asked her what she thought of celebrity romances. The audience was more interested in the film she co-produced, East of Havana, about hip-hop performers in Cuba who skirt the law to perform the music they love.
The film had its world premiere Tuesday night at SXSW.
Theron, along with her co-producer, Juan Carlos Saizarbitoria, went into detail about how she got involved in the project and the difficulties faced in making a film about hip-hop in Cuba.
Theron came on board as co-producer because she is a friend of the film�s directors, Saizarbitoria and Emilia Menocal, both New Yorkers of Cuban descent who were raised in Miami.
The filmmakers faced problems on both sides of the cultural divide.
The U.S. government allows Americans to travel to Cuba only under limited circumstances (“America has a beautiful love affair with Cuba,” Theron said sarcastically). Once in Cuba, the filmmakers had to dodge Cuban authorities to get the footage they wanted. The Cuban government doesn’t approve of some of the messages of the Cuban hip-hop outfits.
“Our crew was six, sometimes less,” said Theron, noting that it was easier to go undetected with a small crew. “The police are always checking on [the performers]. They get hassled by the police for nothing.”
Theron said the film’s subjects were afraid of harassment from Cuban authorities.
“It took a long time to get them to be comfortable to say what they did on film,” she said.
While there was noticeable interest in the SXSW crowd for East of Havana, equal attention was paid to other members of the panel: Steven Cantor, co-director of LoudQUIETloud, a film about the reunion of the Pixies; Zach Niles and Banker White, directors of The Refugee All-Stars, about musicians from Sierra Leone discovered in a refugee camp; and Margaret Brown, director of Be Here to Love Me, a biography of the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
When asked whether as filmmakers they tried to remain objective or became friends, fans or advocates for their subjects, everyone said that objectivity was never the goal. In fact, Niles and White have almost become managers and U.S. representatives of sorts for the Refugee All-Stars. Cantor makes no excuse for always being a huge Pixies fan.
“It’s hard for me to be a fly on the wall,” said the tall, lanky filmmaker. “I’m more like a giraffe.”