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Inside the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival
by Aaron West

I strolled into town Saturday the 11th, a little disappointed that I’d missed the opening night feature Hustle and Flow. I dropped by the Rialto to pick up my tickets and found that I had just missed Paul Reiser, which just added to my disappointment, but also gave me a sense of excitement. I wouldn’t call myself a Paul Reiser fan, but he’s a name that most people are familiar with and probably would have held an interesting Q&A. It looked to be an exciting beginning to the festival.

My first screening was Murderball, a doc that was high on my list of must see indies. It lived up to my expectations and then some. Adding to that, one of the more interesting characters in the film, Joe Soares, wheeled himself up to the microphone for a lengthy Q&A. There were some great questions from the crowd and his comments added an interesting perspective to the film and the sport. This was the type of experience that makes film festivals great.

The rest of that evening can almost sum up the rest of the festival. The following film was Southern Belles, a satirical comedy about two rural Georgians trying to make their way to Atlanta. Fitting, right? The filmmakers were also in attendance for this one, but their Q&A turned out to be far less than satisfying, unlike the previous film. I felt lukewarm about the picture. It had a few funny moments, but overall wasn’t too special and the southern jokes seemed to lose their steam during the 2nd half of the film. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. As soon as they took the stage and left themselves open to questions, a whopping 2 -- yes, count-em, 1-2 – questions were asked. After those two questions, they were met with an uncomfortable silence. They left the stage a little embarrassed, I think. Little did I know, but that would be that last director meet and greet I would take part in for the remainder of the week. After that was Pretty Persuasion, which also had a nice Sundance buzz preceding it. I enjoyed the flick, but most everyone else was mixed, and the first day ended quietly.

Let me back up a bit. This was my 2nd year attending the Atlanta Film Festival. Last year I also attended the entire week and enjoyed myself immensely. I saw some films that I truly enjoyed and ended up on my best-of-year list, such as DiG! and Primer. I also saw a few that saw a limited theatrical release or ended up undistributed, such as Imelda, Assisted Living, Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story and Stander. Aside from those high points, what I remember most is a lack of festivities, nearly empty theaters, and some miserable films that really didn’t seem to belong. I burnt myself out and took the last couple days off completely, passing on the closing film Seducing Dr. Lewis. I saw the potential in the Atlanta fest, however, and this year’s lineup appeared even more promising.

The 2005 lineup was stronger, which, for me, was perfect, since I’m really there for the films anyway. I saw several good movies, including March of the Penguins, Pulse, Unconscious, Boys of Baraka, Not on the Lips and Yes. Judging from some of the buzz, I missed some good ones as well: the aforementioned Hustle & Flow, The Education of Shelby Knox, Most High, Anytown USA, Seoul Train, Rize, and Emmanuel’s Gift. Of course that’s to be expected. Last year I missed Oscar winner Born into Brothels and nominee Into the Realms of the Unreal.

What I enjoy most about festivals is the social aspect. I love when I have hour-long breaks between screenings, because I can chat it up with other film buffs, find out what they’ve enjoyed so far, or perhaps discuss the film we had just seen. Overall attendance seemed higher this year, and that included the regulars. You know, the guys who, like me, get an all access pass and practically live in the venues for a week. There were plenty of discussions to be had among the regulars, and I took part whenever possible.

The festival had a few problems, although some of those have to be expected and can be excused, considering the revolving door personnel changes on the festival team this year. Only three of the IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.) staff had been part of the festival staff last year, and this was the first experience as festival director for Jessica Denton. Of course there was some disorganization, most of which I heard of from word of mouth, but things did clean up and overall the festival ran a lot smoother than last year’s event. Despite some of my disappointments, I would call this year’s fest a resounding success and I expect it to improve next year as the staff matures.

The remainder of the week was more or less normal, save for a funky and hilarious issues with the Evil (Ondskaan) print. To make a long story short, the projectionist had some problems navigating the Swedish language DVD for the subtitle menu, and his entire frustrating search appeared on the movie screen to our delight. It actually turned out to be some great entertainment and made up for problems finishing the movie (we got vouchers at least).

I have a few gripes about the closing ceremonies. First of all, the entire first half of the ceremony consisted of the president naming every person who contributed to the festival, and awarding him or her a special gift basket. I understand that it’s not easy to run a festival and several people play significant roles. Those people should be thanked and rewarded. Since this ceremony is held for the public, I would have preferred giving a hand to them as a group, and the basket handing could be done at a separate, IMAGE only meeting. All-in-all, most of the awards are a waste of time unless you worked on the fest. By the time the real awards are given, it seemed most of the crowd had already been lulled to sleep.

I also think the overall awards should be somewhat grander in scope and more in line with other festivals around the country. Only about 5 minutes of the ceremony are spent giving out the major awards, and there are only three: grand jury prize narrative, grand jury prize documentary, and the audience award. The remainder of the awards are more locally oriented, including an all-in-one “we’ll finance your indie film” award, which is great for encouraging local filmmaking. A few years ago, the festival also awarded Directors and Writers for narrative films. I’m baffled as to why they stopped. If anything, I’d go a little further, maybe giving out acting awards as well. Not only would it make the closing ceremonies more entertaining, but it might attract more films, more directors and give the Atlanta fest some much needed prominence within the festival circuit.

Speaking of those three awards, the narrative award was given to Most High (didn’t see), the documentary award to Boys of Baraka (excellent choice), and the audience award to Emmanuele’s Gift (also didn’t see).

Overall, I had a great time, and I’ll definitely be back next year for the 30th Atlanta Festival. Hopefully most of this year’s staff will remain onboard, including Jessica as director, Allison as president, and those Magnolia/Wellspring guys as programmers. Hopefully they’ll revamp and reorganize it for what will be a 30th anniversary spectacle. Either way, as long as they get as good of a film lineup, they can count on my attendance.

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originally posted: 06/21/05 13:21:50
last updated: 08/21/05 02:31:46
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