Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: Georgia-based documentary shorts

Even before seeing the 2013 festival's opening night film, I apprehensively attended the AFF's first screening block, devoted to documentaries highlighting life in my home state.  And I have to say, I was happily pleased with the selections.

Speakeasy Supper-Club is a 23-minute piece that charmed me with its tale of a pair of single-minded young Southern food experts, Zach and Christina, who lack the funds to start their own restaurant but who instead start an underground movement to attract 30 or so people at a time to private tables (served communally) in which Zach, the head chef, is able to ply his wares, using a combination of traditional Southern ingredients and more modern taste twists. The film, by Jason Wallis and Taylor Robinson, follows this couple as they mix one particular night's chosen base ingredient--corn--with arugula pesto, purple basil seeds, and coconut fudge honey cookie dough. It's a dream foodie film that displays its subjects' passion, ingeniousness, small-time marketing savvy, and romantic connection into elaborately-plated food meant to sate the appetites of many, if only a few at a time.   The movie is a tiny bit too long, but that's not to say that it's not a hunger-poking treat all the way through.   

Out of Stone, by Stephen Gram, is a short doc with distracting, overmixed wall-to-wall music that takes away from the learned words of its focus. It feels more like the fulfillment of a school assignment than a complete film.  At 9 minutes, its rich subject matter--Georgia landmark Stone Mountain's KKK-centered past--is explored fairly (with some wonderfully articulate and vibrant interview subjects of both black and white descent).  But the film is really over before it begins.   It leaves one wanting more, yes, but is that always a good thing?   I say no, it isn't, in cases like this (it's like being given a steak and being told that you can only smell it).  At any rate, I'm sure the filmmakers got an A, and it might be a springboard to larger ambitions.  

When The Zombies Come, the program's next 9-minute documentary, is much more successful, because its filmmaker, Jon Hurst (also working under a school assignment) knows just how long to spend with his subject. He trains his camera on a restless group of employees at a Georgia Ace Hardware, who spend their unoccupied time examining the store's wares, dreaming up ways to use blades, prods, and tools to kill those zombies they obviously hope one day will be at their door.   The lead here is Alex Warner, who clearly has a plan (he admits to being a big fan of The Walking Dead--a show shot in Georgia, by the way).   Alex has got the whole situation mapped out, with the Ace Hardware rooftop being a perfect place to kill off both hungry flesh-eaters and unwelcome, marauding humans looking for safe haven.   The Whole Foods nearby is satisfactory for immediate grocery concerns, while the conveniently-located Kroger (with its more preservative-based foodstuffs) is saved for the long term.  Gun ammo is close by, too, so that's taken care of.   I don't know if this was director Hurst's intent, but it seems to me that his film's smart Dawn of the Dead-friendly comments on the convenience culture of present-day consumers ("Isn't it great that all these stores are located right next to each other?") jibe well (of course) with its down-home observations regarding the present-day fascination with a zombie apocalypse, which would be, for most humans, horrific, but on the up side, would be a chance to wipe the oppressive power slate clean and give those working for minimum wage the savory opportunity to establish their own fiefdom, in which stealth and willingness to shoot zombies (read: Ace Hardware customers) squarely in the forehead would be the only coin worth trade.  A 2013 Sundance Film Festival veteran (submitted by the filmmaker on a friend's bet that the film could be accepted into that fest--a bet which the filmmaker gladly lost), When The Zombies Come is a solidly funny and perhaps unintentionally insightful documentary about low-wage life and the desire for something--ANYTHING--different.  

For me, the highlight of the program was Noel Brown's Guidestones.   For years now, via underground films from Alex Jones and the like, I've been hearing of the Stonehenge-like granite construction that contained, in 8 different languages, instructions on how the world should be run.   To wit:
  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature. 
For a long while, nutso conspiracy theorists have said that these guidestones, as they are known locally and worldwide, were the work of the Illuminati and the Bilderberg group and all sorts of likened hair-pulling nonsense.   But, as Brown's documentary shows, they were the work of a mysterious man who deemed himself "R.C. Christian."  This person decided to construct these eight elaborately carved, 22-ton slabs of granite from Elberton, GA to build a Stonehenge of his own, meant to give the world a guide to how to live should a nuclear apocalypse come to pass (and if you look at the instructions in this light, they all make perfect sense).   Each of the guidelines are obviously fair-minded and intelligent, but it's mostly that first rule that gives the most frazzly suspicious people pause, because they think it means that the world's present population needs to be reduced to 500,000,000 by any means necessary.   But, in a dazzling trump card, Brown captures on tape the only living person who knows the real identity and intent of the enigmatic  "R.C. Christian," and this elderly man maintains--knows, even, and he has the proof--that the author's intent is meant as constructive advise rather than as a nefarious instruction to kill off 6.5 of the world's present 7 billion inhabitants.   The thing that astonished me about Guidestones is that, in the films and TV shows in which I'd seen the structure referenced, I never got to learn where they were located, who built them, or what they really meant (I thought they were somewhere in...well...somewhere ELSE).   Brown's film smartly undercuts the conspiracy-minded foolishness and gets down to the heart of the matter (and the film has some delicious and unique surprises in store on top of that).   For me, I was just gobsmacked that the Guidestones were located in my home state.   That, alone, was enough for me to commit Noel Brown's film to memory.  But the fact that vivid Christian-based--and Pagan--superstition still surrounds this unusually wise art structure is also immensely fascinating.   Guidestones is a real find of a documentary! 

The following film in the program, the 20-minute Changes in the Game, by W. Feagins Jr., is a well-intentioned but ultimately unengaging attempt by the filmmaker to survey a cabal of Atlanta hip-hop talents as to the present state of the genre.  The opinions expressed are right on, for sure, but the film, filled only with saturated talking heads and with no performances or anything to break them up, is a visually dull and overlong list of complaints regarding present-day hip-hop.   It's good for fans, but it makes no attempt to pull in the people who aren't so familiar with this form of music (and even with those that are, as am I--and I concur with many of the thoughts expressed's still boring to watch; it's not a film, it's a rant).   

The final short in the block, Estebar Aruello's The Girl with a Tuba, profiles an autistic performer who spends her days playing a tuba as an Atlanta busker.  It's a kind character study, but we don't get a truly wide view of the film's subject, and thus the film leaves you wondering what its point is.  It finally feels like another well-graded school project...the sort of thing that the Atlanta Film Festival programmers and screeners need to spend less time rubber-stamping with encouraging desire (since such works are really homework assignments rather than fully-committed-to and complete films).   Still, with Guidestones, When The Zombies Come, and Speakeasy Supper-Club, I'd say the Atlanta Film Festival built a pretty fine program here, by and large.   

Below, courtesy of photographer and editor Rich Gedney, is my interview with Jon Hurst and Alex Warner, respectively the filmmaker and lead subject of When The Zombies Come, conducted at the opening night party for the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival

And, then, we have my talk with Noel Brown, the maker of Guidestones, conducted at that same raucous event: 

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