We knew them when

IMAGE mini-fest kicks off with shorts by Spielberg, Lee

Along with Viagra, Prozac and co-dependency, "indie" may be one of the most memorable buzzwords of the late 20th century. Reams of copy and scores of symposia have been devoted to classifying, promoting and dissecting this phenomenon. The indie's cohort in all of this buzzing attention has been the film festival, the lifeblood of the indie scene and launching pad of many an aspiring filmmaker.
IMAGE's Atlanta Film and Video Festival is a local fest that has showcased its share of filmmakers who have gone on to establish solid indie careers or join the Hollywood big league. In celebration of the festival's 25th year, the mini-retrospective We Knew Them When: The Best of the Atlanta Film and Video Festival features a trio of short films that have appeared at the festival in years past and paved the way for three very unique careers.
Spike Lee's 1983 "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads," Steven Spielberg's "Amblin'" and documentary-maker Jessica Yu's "Better Late" will be featured Feb. 22 in a series of short works that will kick off monthly screenings of other Atlanta Festival alum, including Barbara Hammer's Tender Fictions, a Spike Lee feature (Do the Right Thing) and Victor Nunez's single girl road movie Ruby in Paradise.
The work in We Knew Them When is "an interesting look at filmmakers that people are familiar with and aren't aware of their earlier work and may not be aware of the role that film festivals play in helping directors get started," says Genevieve McGillicuddy, festivals director for IMAGE.
For McGillicuddy, the early works of Lee, Spielberg and Yu are indicators of the promising careers to come, especially Lee's short, which was made as his thesis film while he was an auteur-in-training at New York University.
"It was a short that was acclaimed at many film festivals that same year that we screened it. And he looked at it as sort of a springboard towards moving into feature films, because his next film was 'She's Gotta Have It,' which also brought him critical acclaim and more attention. And 'Amblin'' by Steven Spielberg was a film that eventually brought him, ironically, as an independent filmmaker, a studio contract."
"Amblin'" is a special rarity on the We Knew Them When program as it is unavailable on video or DVD and was obtained from Dreamworks' personal collection, for the IMAGE screening. "And we're very proud to present it in 35mm," adds McGillicuddy.
Like other films in this retrospective program, "Amblin'" shows the early marks of the qualities that would come to define Spielberg's feature filmmaking. A kinder, friendlier Easy Rider, Spielberg's "Amblin'" debuts the slick storytelling and force-fed poignance that have come to typify the director's metier. In the film, two cheerful peaceniks hitchhike their way to the West Coast and discover some things about themselves and each other along the way. Deftly told without benefit of dialogue, and combining the pathos and pantomime of silent film, Spielberg's film opted for a sweet, simple story with only the merest suggestion of counter-cultural social commentary.
Lee's "Joe's Bed-Stuy" is, likewise, a sort of mini-primer on the Spike Lee way. A tale set in the insular black neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, it's about a hard-working barber who finds himself struggling to operate a small shop, even as the local hoods pressure him to use the business to front their illegal gambling. As with later features, "Joe's Bed-Stuy" demonstrates Lee's consistent artistic vision, featuring his usual sharp-witted but slightly defeated heroes, a black community that often turns on its own and characters who (as in Lee films from Do the Right Thing through Bamboozled) have a sharp, cynical view of life in a consumer culture.
A lesser-known Oscar-winning documentary director, Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons) test drives her fiction skills in the brief-but-meaty "Better Late." A slickly made mini-drama about an older man preparing to ask his lover to marry him, it features the kind of twist-ending used to demonstrate the novice director's storytelling virtuosity.
As with any short film debut, the hope is that such small works will one day blossom into feature-length oeuvres. And to McGillicuddy, the films in We Knew Them When "definitely show the potential of people who went on to do bigger and better things. They're interesting artifacts to look at in that way."
We Knew Them When: The Best of the Atlanta Film and Video Festival features the following screenings: "Amblin'," "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" and "Better Late" Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24. Barbara Hammer's Tender Fictions March 4 at 7 p.m. at Hill Auditorium, High Museum. The filmmaker will be in attendance. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing April 19 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium, Woodruff Arts Center. Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise May 10 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium, Woodruff Arts Center. Admission is $7, $6 IMAGE members, seniors and students. For information call 404-352-4225.