Flicks - Indie power

Documentaries are best bet at black film fest

Once upon a time, every ambitious young'un yearned to write the great American novel. Now everyone and their brother wants to make a film. And the exploding film festival circuit has stepped in to give all of those aspiring auteurs a forum. The second annual, locally produced Independent Black Film Festival is a typical regional festival featuring more than 70 shorts, features, animated films and documentaries - some great, many just mediocre.

The bulk of contemporary independent filmmakers, unfortunately, seem less interested in film as an art form with a language and a history worth studying as they are enamored by the idea of being filmmakers. The best films in the IBFF tend to look outside the filmmakers' peer group and the sophomoric certainty that hookin' up makes for thought-provoking drama.

An example is the spare, heartfelt short film "Jump" (March 5, 4:40 p.m., Hill Auditorium, High Museum). Director David McMillan follows a young boy's simple desire to fly his kite through a frustrating maze of chores and threats to childhood's freedom. McMillan shows how a child's imagination and hope can soar above the most abject inner-city circumstances.

As an escapist, absurdist lark, another short, "Cool Jerks" (March 4, 3:45 p.m., GCATT Auditorium), is an uneven but often funny Christopher Guest-style mockumentary of the excesses of hip-hop - including misogyny and self-seriousness - practiced by rappers like Pipsqueak, who wears his sneakers on the wrong feet, he says, as a statement of political protest.

In general, though, experienced festival-goers know it is often safer to steer away from shorts by novice filmmakers and stick with documentaries. Those cinematic workhorses are more apt to throw issues and ideas out there other than one more "shut the fuck up, bitch."

Waiting in the Wings: African-Americans in Country Music (March 5, 11 a.m., Hill Auditorium, High Museum) is an engaging examination of an apparent oxymoron: black country music. Though the occasional exception to the rule, like Charley Pride, slips through, director Karla Winfrey shows how in general, record companies have been reluctant to take on acts that would confuse or question America's narrowly defined racial categories.

Persistence of Vision: Contemporary African-American Abstract Art (March 5, 3:10 p.m., Hill Auditorium, High Museum) takes a similar revisionist approach to an overlooked aspect of African-American creativity. The fascinating film addresses the importance of black abstract artists like Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, John Scott and Howardena Pindell, who never received the acclaim granted their lily contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The film provides copious insights into artmaking as the artists describe the loneliness and virtually guaranteed poverty of their career choices, as well as how important jazz has been as a metaphor for abstract art's nonrepresentational power.

And on the just-plain-odd end of the Independent Black Film Festival spectrum is the murder-revisionism of Serpents Rising (March 5, 12:35 p.m., Hill Auditorium, High Museum), a creepy cut-and-paste documentary meant to exonerate O.J. Simpson from charges that he killed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. The film's primary witness for the defense is an intense, scary Los Angeles doctor, Henry Johnson, convinced of O.J.'s innocence. In the film's high - and low - point, the doctor holds a knife to his uneasy-looking assistant's neck as he demonstrates for the camera his belief that Nicole and Ron were killed by two assailants. Both the anti- and pro-O.J. camps end up looking equally debased in this gruesome true crime documentary with the vibe of late-night radio conspiracy theory.