As the interactive/technology portion of the three-headed pop-cultural Hydra known as South by Southwest grabs an increasing share of the spotlight from the Austin festival’s music and film festivities, the Lone Star State’s often obscured tech roots are getting more media exposure.
Two years ago, the producers of the AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire — set in the live-fast/code-fast days of the North Texas tech scene of the ‘80s — debuted their first episode at SXSW and flew the stars and creators in to meet the media.
At this year’s SXSW, which begins Friday at venues across Austin, documentary director Jason Cohen will show the world premiere of his Silicon Cowboys, a film that takes Halt and Catch Fire’s fictional mash-up what was going on in Texas at the time and puts real faces to the stories.
In the movie, playing Friday, Cohen tells of the rise and fall of Compaq, the Houston company that helped pioneer the concept of IBM compatibility and technological portability. The film doesn’t yet have an American distributor, something that might change after the SXSW screening.
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“I hope a younger generation will see it to get a better understanding of why they can look at [this movie] on their iPhone,” says director Cohen by phone from his home base of Berkeley, Calif. “The Compaq portable — the 28-pound sewing machine — is a direct predecessor of what we have today.”
Cohen also wanted to paint a picture of a certain time and place. The tech industry in California, with its widely known Silicon Valley, felt very different from the less publicized Silicon Prairie.
“In California, it was a hobbyist culture that came out of the counterculture … Silicon Prairie felt a bit more buttoned-up, especially with Texas Instruments,” said Cohen. “The three founders of Compaq came out of that world … and there wasn’t a lot of venture capital. In Silicon Valley, there was more available.”
This made the Compaq pioneers even more radical than their low-key countenances might suggest. “These guys had the odds stacked against them,” he said. “And Silicon Prairie wasn’t officially in Houston; that was more in Dallas. They were really outside the mainstream of the industry.”
Cohen, who as director or producer usually deals with heavy topics such as hate crimes (Facing Fear) and nuclear war (White Light/Black Rain), was approached by producer Ross Dinerstein, who’s from Houston, about telling the Compaq story.
“It’s a great narrative and a nice break from the sometimes depressing subject matter which I had been working on,” Cohen said. “Almost everyone we talked to about this film over the age of 30 said, ‘I remember Compaq’ and the next question is ‘What happened to them?’ Our goal is to fill in those years.
“This is a story from Texas but it’s something that affects us all.”
5:15 p.m. Friday
South by Southwest screening
1120 S. Lamar Blvd.