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Festival Review
31st Atlanta Film Festival


April 19-28, 2007

By Vince Rogers and Pamela Cole

The 31st Atlanta Film Festival, produced by IMAGE Film and Video Center, took place over ten days from April 19-28 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. More than 13,000 film fans attended the screenings, panels, and parties at this new date and venue. This year, the festival moved from its traditional June date and held the majority of festivities in the Landmark Midtown location -- which provided a marked improvement in festival atmosphere. AFF finally felt like a real film festival instead of a "progressive supper" of offerings spread across this parking-challenged metropolis.

National and international filmmakers and industry professionals came together to interact with Atlanta's film community. Audiences enjoyed a diverse line-up of over 150 feature length, short, documentary, and animated films. Many of the films were made in Georgia, such as the Audience Award-wining documentary Darius Goes West and a rare local screening of Hadjii's Somebodies (soon to be a BET sitcom!). Other films, like the Jury Prize winner for Best Narrative Short, Family Reunion, were made as far away as Iceland.

The opening and closing night extravaganzas represented two of the festivals most important missions: showcasing high quality films of local interest and exposing local film fans to great independent films with universal appeal. The opening night film, Last Days of Left Eye (by Lauren Lazin, the Oscar-nominated director of Tupac Ressurection) chronicles the life journey of the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of the Atlanta-based R&B "supergroup" TLC. The closing night extravaganza, Faye Grim, was directed by indie film community mainstay Hal Hartley and stars actress Parker Posey, who has often been referred to as the "The Queen of the Indies" for her outstanding performances in independent films.

Landmark's Midtown Art Cinema is conveniently located at Monroe Drive and 8th Street, and served as the primary venue for all of the festivities. The facility has multiple screens, which made it possible to run more than one film at the same time. The diverse crowds that gathered before and after each screening created a kinetic flow of energy in the lobby and the courtyard outside.

The festival volunteers were knowledgeable, professional, and well-organized, except for one noteworthy incident at the Campus Moviefest finale. The problems that were encountered by the IMAGE volunteers in handling the CMF crowd might have been solved by holding the event at the Rialto Theatre instead.

Nevertheless, IMAGE volunteers served festival goers well and the Midtown Art Cinema had great access to nearby restaurants and bars. (Like the way cool filmmaker's lounge upstairs in the Independent, open to festival pass holders and filmmakers -- a nice way to hobnob with filmmakers.) More than one festival patron came for a single screening and ended up staying the whole day. Perfect Georgia weather also helped, as festival goers congregated in the courtyard outside the theater.

  New Leadership, Dates, and Venues Paid Off

The user friendly, highly professional nature of this year's festival seems to be emblematic of other changes that have taken place at IMAGE under the leadership of Gabe Wardell, the organization's new Executive Director. Wardell decided to move this year's festival from June to April. He believed that this would allow more residents who travel during the summer to participate and also take advantage of Atlanta's beautiful, springtime weather. It seems like this decision really paid off.

Wardell brought in an old professional colleague and friend, Dan Krovich, as the festival's new director. The new team at the Atlanta Film Festival and IMAGE are in sync, and the festival is sailing on a steadier and more focused course than in years past.

  Festivals within Festivals

One of the more innovative aspects of the festival was the inclusion of the Rapid i Movement and Campus Moviefest grand finale events. These short film festivals enabled teams to create innovative short films under challenging circumstances. IMAGE produced the Rapid i Movement festival, which allowed 40 teams of filmmakers to produce a short film in 50 hours. The Campus Moviefest is a national student filmmaking competition that enables students to make a short film using state of the art equipment free of charge.

The Campus Moviefest Grand Finale had an authentic red carpet film premier style and allowed student films to be screened at a major film festival (although, as already stated, the huge turnout temporarily overwhelmed festival volunteers--note for next year--need bigger venue for CMF).

Including these two "festivals within festivals" was an added bonus. The special attention given to local and student filmmakers was a great idea and a lot of fun!

 Films

Classics:

Audiences were treated to ten days of the best examples of "new" independent cinema. One of the festival's many highlights was the retrospective of works by legendary filmmaker Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger, Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding). Alongside Spike Lee, Burnett is regarded as the most influential filmmaker of the new school of post "blaxploitation" era filmmakers. Burnett's films are not as widely known, or commercially successful as Lee's, but he has managed to make well done, thought provoking independent films for more than 30 years.

Audiences got the opportunity to see a collection of Burnett's short films, the feature length My Brother's Wedding (1983) and his first feature film, Killer of Sheep (1977). Killer of Sheep is so highly regarded that it was included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1990 as a National Treasure.

Killer of Sheep is an intimate portrait of the life of main character Stan who works in a slaughterhouse in Los Angeles. The film was shot with mostly non-professional actors from Burnett's Watts neighborhood. The film was made with a nearly non-existent budget under almost impossible technical limitations, but the result is an ambitious story that is visually engaging and a masterful example of independent filmmaking. The print has been restored, transferred to 35mm and the soundtrack has been remastered. The film was made 30 years ago, but has never been widely screened in theatres or available on video. Before this year, Killer of Sheep was a film that people had discussed in film school, but few had ever actually seen it. This special 30th anniversary screening at the Atlanta Film Festival was a truly rare experience and a special treat.

World View:

This year's World View selections presented a diverse selection of International films from as close by as our neighbor to the north Canada to as far away as exotic Thailand. Foreign cinema has an undeserved reputation of producing only cerebral, emotional psychological dramas from France or Italy. This year's World View selections dismiss those assumptions. The selection of films was very diverse and eclectic.

Ghost of Cite' Soleil is an urban gang story from Haiti that included an interracial love story and political intrigue. The filmmaker is from Denmark. The South Korean selection, The King and the Clown, has been called "the Korean Brokeback Mountain." There was also the horror-comedy odyssey, Taxidermia, which is set in Hungary, Austria, and France. The film tells a bizarre multi-layered story that manages to combine the main characters love of sex, competitive eating, and taxidermy.

One of the more enjoyable and inspirational selections of the World View showcase was the film War/Dance from Uganda. The film tells the story of a group of young singers and dancers who attend the Patongo Primary School in the war torn region of Northern Uganda. The children are members of the Acholi tribe and they have participated in and witnessed some of the most brutal warfare imaginable. Despite losing their families, their homes and much of their innocence, the children are still filled with pride, joy, and hope. War/Dance was the winner of Documentary Directing prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

 Panels

This year's educational panels were especially informative, dynamic, and engaging. Each panel provided audiences with an opportunity to engage in conversations with accomplished filmmakers and industry leaders. The panels ranged from a discussion of screenwriting with writers such as Athens, Georgia-born independent filmmaker James Ponsoldt (Off the Black), to an informative and lively independent filmmaking crash course with Rob Hardy and Will Packer of Rainforest Films (the team behind the #1 box office hit, Stomp the Yard). There were also panels covering international production, animation, and the business side of filmmaking.

State of Independent Film: The State of Independent Film was a particularly noteworthy panel because of the wide scope of topics, excellent presentation, and the expertise of the panelists: Tom Roche, Senior Editor, Crawford Communications; Allison Dickey, Producer; Matt Dentler, Producer; SXSW Film Festival and Conference; Chris Holland, Manager of Festival Operations at B-Side Entertainment. Topics ranged from: satellite distribution and other alternative distribution channels; the debate concerning films as art versus product and the growing importance for filmmakers to understand the world of film festivals.

Panelists agreed that navigating this new terrain will become a more complex challenge in the very near future for filmmakers. The options available for reaching audiences will present filmmakers with enormous challenges. However, as panelist Tom Roche stated, "Content is still King." Therefore, the most important thing to be learned from the panel was that a good film will always find an audience, regardless of any changes in the industry.

 Summary

Overall, the 31st Atlanta Film Festival was a success with few noticeable glitches and many outstanding moments:

  • Audiences were treated to a wide and varied selection of quality films from around the world and exposed to important educational opportunities.

  • The inclusion of the Teen Screen, CDC Health Media Program, Rapid i Movement, and Campus Moviefest film series opened the festival to a much broader audience.

  • New venue was a huge success, finally creating a real "festival atmosphere" worth attending.

  • Taking a tip from Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, screening schedules were ample, color-coded, and easy to interpret.

  • New date was a good idea -- and not nearly as hot!

For even more information, see www.atlantafilmfestival.com.