ATL HipHop Film Fest: Reel hip-hop

Third annual festival documents the history, drama and scope of the genre

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Photo credit: Trina Melchert
CINEMATIC POINT OF VIEW: Shekinah Apedo, Tampa-based director of the Christian hip-hop doc Ministry vs. Industry

Atlanta is full of film festivals, from the sprawling Atlanta Film Festival to smaller endeavors such as the Spaghetti Junction Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival.

So why shouldn't the hip-hop kids have one, too?

"I was attending all these film festivals, and I was like, 'Let's bring one to Atlanta,'" says Shameka Gumbs, a local actress who created the Atlanta HipHop Film Festival. Originally, her goal was to honor hip-hop stars who have transitioned into acting. But that changed when she began receiving entries for largely unsung films such as 2006's It's Bigger than Hip-Hop, a documentary about dead prez; and Byron Hurt's controversial meditation on misogyny and violence in hip-hop, Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which was eventually picked up by PBS' "Independent Lens" series.

This year will include panel discussions; a house party at an undisclosed location Friday, Aug. 24; and a red-carpet awards ceremony Sunday, Aug. 26, among other auxiliary events. But the primary attraction will be the movies. "Right now, the main thing is focusing on these independent filmmakers who understand the true form of hip-hop," Gumbs says.

This year, the schedule includes handheld video efforts (Cliff Mack and Reggie Oliver's DJ Screw: The Untold Story); straight-to-DVD features (Corey Grant's Studio); and ambitious documentaries (Peter Spirer's The Notorious BIG: Bigger Than Life). Many of the entries, which were selected from a pool of 80 applicants, deal with issues only fans may understand. For example, Rich Seng's Rhyme Spitters 2 chronicles the second annual Rhyme Spitters tournament at Wicker Park in Chicago, where an astounding 161 MCs battled freestyle for a $2,000 cash prize.

Despite its potentially arcane subject matter, Rhyme Spitters 2 proves to be much more entertaining and well-made than, say, Opio Sokoni's Turn Off Channel Zero. A documentary critical of negative black images, it's noteworthy for Professor Griff's comments on Flavor Flav's "Flavor of Love" – the first time someone from Public Enemy has called out one of the worst reality TV shows in history. Unfortunately, Turn Off Channel Zero rambles from scene to scene, and never builds into a coherent narrative.

The 40 films shown at the film festival vary widely in quality and themes, from movies with lots of stars to explorations of international hip-hop cultures. "A lot of the kids who only know about [mainstream] hip-hop will get to see a different side," Gumbs says.

Here are a few highlights from the third annual Atlanta HipHop Film Festival, which takes place Aug. 24-26 at the Westin Atlanta Airport hotel.

Counting Headz: South Afrika's Sistaz in Hip-Hop (noon, Friday, Aug. 24) *****

Counting Headz refers to a B-girl who attends a rap concert or event and immediately tries to see if there are any other women in the room. It's a feeling of alienation shared among female rap enthusiasts around the world. Through interviews with several female MCs, DJs and graffiti writers, directors Vusi Magubane and Erin Offer hope to demonstrate that a strong, vibrant community of female participants exists in South Africa. However, it doesn't give context about South Africa's music scene in general, leaving one to wonder how these women fit in.

Cuban HipHop: Desde el Principio (12:54 p.m., Friday, Aug. 24) ****

Cuban hip-hop culture has been heavily documented in the U.S. media, thanks to sympathetic journalists such as Cristina Veran. Artists such as the Roots, dead prez, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common have traveled to perform there. And Cuban artists such as Obsesión, Doble Filo and Orishas have toured this country. Nevertheless, Cuban rappers still face considerable hurdles such as poverty, racism and censorship by the Castro regime. This excellent documentary by Vanessa and Larissa Díaz illustrates the culture's inspiring development in spite of considerable odds.

Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan (8:36 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 25) **

Have you ever been to a concert and seen someone on the side of the stage, videotaping the action for the band? Gerald Barclay, a childhood friend of the Wu-Tang Clan, is one of those guys. On Wu he compiles 13 years of footage and key interviews into a haphazard documentary – hanging out at a studio with the band in 1993, several months before the release of its classic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and performances from its 1997 tour for Wu-Tang Forever. Although Wu is something of a mess, it has some poignant moments, particularly when Barclay documents the decline and fall of the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.

Ministry vs. Industry (12:07 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 26) ***

The title of this documentary suggests a close, critical look at the cloistered world of Christian hip-hop – or gospel rap, if you will. As a self-proclaimed Christian B-girl, Shekinah Apedo makes a film far more nuanced than that. While a few people, namely Kanye "Jesus Walks" West and Jay-Z (who sometimes calls himself "Jay Hova"), receive due criticism, Apedo mostly tries to interview dozens of young artists balancing their love of hip-hop and God. Ministry vs. Industry has way too many talking heads, but Apedo's enthusiasm for the culture is infectious.