Celebrating its 25th year as the largest independent festival in the southeast United States, the Atlanta Film & Video Festival under the helmship of director Genevieve McGillicuddy amassed a record-breaking 13,126 attendees, more than twice the size of last year’s audience at this nine-day, 160-film event. Run by local not-for-profit media arts center IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), the Festival’s eight venues are spread across this sprawling city and range from the intimate, folksy Seven Stages Theater in the funky Little Five Points neighborhood to the massive Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24 multiplex, located along an access road off a main highway artery.
A new sponsor to this year’s Festival, Regal Cinemas offers expansive screens and a reverberating sound system for audiences’ enjoyment, but at the cost of that down-home indie festival feel. There’s something wrong with watching the latest documentary to detail union strife or a Persian-American teenager’s coming-of-age story while the inane patterings of Shrek or Bridget Jones’ Diary are audible in the next theatre. And spread so far and wide, the Festival’s venues make film-hopping exceedingly difficult – not helped by the fact that Atlanta’s rush-hour gridlock of white-knuckled commuters fleeing to the suburbs provides a daily reenactment of Sherman’s march. It came as little surprise, then, that with the exception of the opening and closing night films and a few locally-produced favorites, screenings were sparsely attended (making me a mite suspicious of the means used to tally the allegedly record-breaking turnout.)
Despite the hurtles of launching a festival (and keeping it alive for twenty-five years) in a booming city of questionable infrastructure and residents not known for their overwhelming cinephilia, the Atlanta Film & Video Festival did manage to muster an intriguing selection of offerings.
First, the surprises.
Hybrid (US, Monteith McCollum, 2000)
My favorite film of the Festival, and the judges’ too: director McCollum was awarded the Grand jury prize for his evocative documentary, shot over six years, about Iowan farmer Milford Breeghly, a feisty centenarian who one-half century ago developed hybridized corn as an agricultural staple. Much like David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), had that film been less fictionalized and shot in black-and-white, Hybrid demonstrates that two hours spent in the company of an old coot can be highly educational, and entertaining too.
At first, Hybrid‘s lack of color appears egregious – draining the Iowa landscape of its blue skies and golden harvests seems an awful shame. But the stark beauty that follows in every leisurely-held shot evokes the startling imagery and melancholy tone of Walker Evans’ photography and films like Earth (Aleksadr Dovzhenko, 1930) and The Plow that Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936). The film’s haunting original score, also arranged by McCollum and composed of a single plaintive cello, grasps on to the film’s mood without yanking at the viewer’s heartstrings.
This film is so many things at once: an unflinching portrait of a man both admirable and despicable; a serenely beautiful photographic essay on the miraculous physical beauty of the American Midwest; a farcical look at the land of hog-calling competitions and narrow-minded resistance to what Beeghly’s customers initially considered “plant incest”; and a seething drama about a raving eccentric father and his embittered, estranged children. What the hackneyed Hollywood adaptation of Jane Smiley’s King Lear-in-a-cornfield novel A Thousand Acres (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1997) tried and miserably failed at is thankfully rectified by Hybrid.
Brother (Japan, Takeshi Kitano, 2000)
From Japanese writer-director Kitano comes the latest slick gangster import from Asia, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and starring the auteur’s on-screen persona ‘Beat’ Takeshi as renegade yakuza henchman Yamamoto. Expelled from Tokyo, Yamamoto travels to the modern-day wasteland that is Los Angeles in search of his brother Ken (Claude Maki), a small-time hood who deals drugs for a local street gang. Quickly usurping the inept gang leaders, Yamamoto’s unbridled aggression rapidly escalates the action into an all-out war. As usual in Kitano’s films, the wincing violence and cold-blooded characterizations are tempered by the lyrical imagery and deadpan absurdism that simultaneously project romanticism and self-mockery onto the gangster genre and real-life gangsters themselves. As Denny, the good-hearted hood who befriends Yamamoto, the talented Omar Epps coasts on his considerable charm despite being given the humiliating job of impersonating Martin Lawrence in his role as wisecracking sidekick. But Kitano, all nervous tics and slouching inside Yohji Yamamoto suits, brings to his silent Eastern cowboy a mesmerizing state of grace.
T-Shirt Travels (US, Shantha Bloeman, 2001)
Tying for best documentary feature, Australian director Bloeman examines with poignant intimacy the link between secondhand clothes and third world debt. Trading in used clothes is a multi-billion dollar business that stretches from the Goodwill depository on your street corner to the open-air markets across Africa, where secondhand clothes constitute the largest export from the U.S. annually. Casting her camera on the widespread market for cast-off clothing across Africa, Bloeman hones in on Zambia’s particularly wrenching situation as a nation robbed of its textile manufacturing industry and riddled with unpayable amounts of debt to multinational lending institutions like the World Bank.
Bloeman paints a broad canvas, detailing the devastating effects that Western colonialism wreaked on African nations, followed by a sobering examination of how IMF-ordained structural adjustments have comparatively crippled Zambia’s floundering free market economy. Bloeman does not confine herself to lecturing on global economic policy, however, but illustrates her claims by introducing us to a 19-year-old Zambian boy, Luka Mafo, who trades what he refers to as “dead white men’s clothes” in order to support his mother and many siblings.
Bloeman’s point is that when even an enterprising young man like Luka cannot manage to raise himself above subsistence level, there is clearly a flaw in the so-called free market system, whose freedoms bring privilege only to the rich (and, most often, the foreign corporations that descend on African nations and buy up local businesses only to hike prices excessively.) Backed up by lucid, concurring interviewees from the upper stratums of economic policy (Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs, United Nations Development Advisor Sir Richard Jolly, former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda), Bloeman’s case resonates most deeply when she steps into the tin-roofed shacks of Zambian citizens to ask their opinions of the obdurate decrees handed down by abstract bureaucracies with the alleged intention of improving their lives.
Confederacy Theory (US, Ryan Deussing, 2001)
There was once a land of knights and chivalry.And it’s alive and well in South Carolina. The St. Andrew’s Cross, better known as the Confederate flag, flies over only one remaining U.S. state capitol. Originally intended as a centennial memorial to the 20,000 South Carolinians who died in the war between the states, the flag has been resurrected as a symbol of Southern defiance and Civil War nostalgia. As one flag protestor remarks, “We (South Carolina) are last in everything – but first in prejudice, first in hate.”
Sharing the tied prize for best documentary feature, Deussing’s thoughtful documentary considers both sides of the raging South Carolina flag debate, introducing his audience to a fanatical contingent of “professional Southerners” who, despite their relatively small number, manage through Civil War reenactments, Rebel yells and endless choruses of “Dixie” to keep alive a cultural heritage that most consider a painful reminder of our nation’s white supremacist past. Most prominent among their symbolic props is the Confederate flag, which in May 2000 (owing to the overwhelming majority of the state’s citizens) was removed from its perch atop the statehouse.and transplanted to a flagpole in front of the statehouse, appeasing no one.
Deussing is extremely successful in goading the flag’s defenders into betraying their bigotry with comments like “Being pro-white doesn’t mean being anti-black” and “Lee surrendered but I haven’t.” Drawing from a wide selection of commentators – politicians, activists, writers, history buffs, common citizens – as well as a thorough exploration of the flag’s history, Confederacy Theory ably negotiates the thorny briars of this contemporary war over symbolism. PBS will air the film later this summer.
Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (Canada, Peter Wintonick, 1999)
A textbook-style, sometimes hokey documentary nevertheless appreciated for its comprehensive chronicling of one of the most exciting innovations in filmmaking, the cinéma vérité movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In classic vérité style, filmmaker Wintonick travels the U.S. and Europe with a scant crew, hunting down and filming with handheld camera the movement’s principal pioneers, including Richard Leacock, Jean Rouch, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, William Greaves, Frederick Wiseman, and Barbara Kopple. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada, who produced much of the earliest vérité work, this documentary often slips into promotional patting-itself-on-the-back but never ceases to convince us of the continuing inspiration and influence that cinéma vérité brings to the visual arts. For better or for worse, reality television owes a significant debt to these founding fathers of direct cinema.
And, the disappointments.
The Sleepy Time Gal (US, Christopher Münch, 2001)
The far-from-prolific Münch, who astounded Sundance in 1991 when he debuted his queer revisionist groundbreaker The Hours and Times, has yet to deliver on the extraordinary promise of his first outing, and his latest venture falls far from the mark. Leading lady Jacqueline Bisset has always seemed to me a second-rate Charlotte Rampling, and try as she might Bisset does not inhibit her centerpiece role as the erotic, enigmatic older woman as deftly as Rampling does in François Ozon’s remarkable latest film Under the Sand (2000). While any film that casts the criminally underused Martha Plimpton in a lead role and introduces the considerable talents of newcomer Nick Stahl is definitely worth a look, this film’s flagrant self-indulgence is what eventually drags it down. Scenes and plot points are contrived to a ludicrous point, all in the service of voicing the script’s increasingly affected monologues. Delivered with dogged personal inflection by a surprisingly game cast, these ramblings are nonetheless apparent as emerging straight from the filmmaker’s pretentious musings. Add to this an embarrassing Seymour Cassel and a wasted Amy Madigan, and you’ve got one sleepytime audience.
Daemon Records: A Decade of Independence (US, Franklin López, 2001)
As a longtime fan of my hometown’s formidable folk duo the Indigo Girls, I was greatly anticipating this documentary on the independent record label founded by one-half of the singer-songwriting pair, Amy Ray. It was with deep regret that I watched what basically boiled down to a shameless promotional video, executive produced by Ray herself and dished out in an unsatisfying lite serving of 57 minutes in length. The politically-minded Ray’s motives are admirable: she seeks to provide regional artists with the same unexploitative patronage that has steered the Indigo Girls clear of the overproduced mainstreaming that ruined the sound of fellow homegrown bands like R.E.M. and Dave Matthews. Filmmaker López’s agenda, I suspect, was not so commendable; he seems to have rushed the film through production in the apparent hopes of commemorating the label’s upcoming ten-year anniversary. The visual style and content suffer, as a result: the film abounds with spotty footage, cheesy effects and interview subjects who shift uncomfortably and offer up shallow platitudes that heap unquestioning praise on Daemon Records while dutifully vilifying the music industry.
William Burroughs (France, Jean-François Vallée, 2000)
Originally produced for French Public Television by director Vallée, this is not so much a documentary on the esteemed Beat writer but more of an abstract collage of his ideas and words made visual. This in itself makes for an interesting experiment, not to say a wildly watchable one, though Vallée makes the occasional curious departure into talking-head territory to interview an interesting array of subjects on their unfortunately quite uninteresting opinions of Burroughs’ work. One suspects that the language barrier was perhaps problematic, for how else can one explain the humdrum responses coaxed out of the never boring Laurie Anderson, not to say a few uninspired remarks offered up by (an admittedly bedridden) Paul Bowles? Interview footage of Burroughs himself, taken at a 1987 New York painting exhibition and never before released, is so unenlightening that I assume it was included only because it could be. The archetypal junky deserves better.
Several of the Festival’s biggest profile entries arrived having already been around the block. The opening night film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2000), enjoyed an auspicious premiere at Sundance in January, where it picked up an Audience Award. Writer, director and star Mitchell adapted his first film from his own Broadway hit, with Fine Line distributing the destined-for-cult-status glam rock extravaganza.
Director Elizabeth Barret’s documentary Stranger with a Camera (2000) aired on PBS last summer and has also made the festival rounds, but this well-crafted recounting of the 1967 Appalachian killing of a documentary filmmaker by an enraged local man invites a second glance for the grave questions it raises. The dead documentarian, a Canadian named Hugh O’Connor, was one of many to make Appalachia a subject of artistic study during the 1960s. While his (and others’) honorable intent was to expose the region’s poverty, the inevitable flipside was an exploitative strip-mining of a complex community for outsiders’ artistic purposes. As a native of Appalachia, Barret brings with her empathy for the locals whose pride and privacy was often violated while simultaneously appreciating the filmmaker’s challenging quest to document a community without trespassing its protective borders.
I was pleased to see Gina, An Actress, Age 29 (Paul Harrill, 2001) on Atlanta’s roster after having failed to catch this surprise winner of the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance. While this story of a budding Knoxville actress whose first big role employs her to help bust a union-organizing effort raises some interesting questions about the politics of performance, I was a bit mystified as to its success. Moral dilemmas of this stature would perhaps be better addressed in a feature-length format.
Two of the Atlanta Festival’s best short films, Daniel Loflin’s Delusions of Modern Primitivism (2001) and Don Herztfeldt’s Rejected (2000), also played at Sundance, with the latter receiving the dubious honor of an Academy Award nomination. Delusion‘s deadpan mockery and Rejected‘s sick-humored bitterness make good use of their short format, demonstrating a twisted sensibility that builds in hilarity as each film unfolds. Where Monsters Lie (Ann LaVigne, 2001) attempts the same perverse wit alongside simplistic animation but comes off nonsensical and ultimately baffling. Similarly, Lost Girl (JiWon Shin, 2001) tries for an incongruous hybrid of film noir and coming-of age story, but this heavy-handed story of a dour French adolescent who enlists a schoolmate’s help to get her out of piano lessons drags too long, ultimately defeating its own brand of dark humor. Though not all of the Festival’s offerings lived up to the cloying commendations spilling from the program notes, several genuine finds emerged as fresh, memorable entries in an otherwise lackluster year of festival breakouts.