Atlanta Film Festival - Atlanta Film Festival: Eyes on the prize

Indie filmmakers go for the gold

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Photo credit: GOOD VIBRATIONS: Practical joker William Castle in Jeffrey Schwarz's Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
Courtesy Atlanta Film Festival

Struggling independent filmmakers treasure the kind of awards they receive at film festivals. The honors of festivals and grassroots film events provide validation for years of unrecognized work and can raise an indie film's profile on the art-house circuit and in the national media.

The greatest prize such a film can receive – actual theatrical distribution – lies beyond a film festival's powers. The Atlanta Film Festival thus reserves its Dramatic Feature and Documentary Feature Competition categories to films without distribution, in many ways giving pride of place to new discoveries.

This year the 32nd Atlanta Film Festival received 1,630 entries in short and feature categories. Such movies as the English comedy Son of Rambow, the French drama Priceless and the culture-clash drama The Visitor (the closing-night feature) will be released in Atlanta theaters within weeks of the festival. Those films don't need the extra boost as much as the out-of-nowhere labors of love just starting out on the festival circuit.

To win one of the AFF awards won't guarantee future success, but every little bit helps. Festival director Dan Krovich says, "To whatever extent winning an award at the Atlanta Film Festival can have a positive impact for a film's future, we want to maximize that impact by making films still searching for an audience eligible for the prizes."

Consequently, most of the films and filmmakers in competition qualify as debut projects. Director/co-writer/leading man Brian Peterson clearly proves to be a promising film artist in his half-successful feature film Coyote (3 stars; April 13, 6 p.m.; April 17, 1:30 p.m.). In some ways Peterson's drama plays like a serious take on the old Michael Keaton comedy Night Shift, only here, an average pair of "nice" white guys (played by Peterson and co-writer Brett Spackman) begin smuggling people across the Mexican border instead of becoming New York pimps. What begins as a one-time lark becomes a profitable, high-adrenaline venture with yuppie-style frills (including bronze, silver and gold "travel packages" for illegal immigrants).

Some wildly implausible plot twists and a hackneyed speech about the American dream nearly torpedo Coyote's modest virtues. Nevertheless, the film's documentary-style perspective on illegal border crossings sets a fast pace, presents some fascinating details and even generates a few laughs.

The documentary Nerdcore Rising (3 stars; April 12, 10:30 p.m.; April 15, 2:40 p.m.) explores the type of fringe artistic community ideal for film festival fare – so-called "nerdcore" hip-hop, which amounts to white guys rapping about geeky subject matter like role-playing games and Internet porn. (One fan says "Nerdcore is like playing Halo while getting a blowjob from Hello Kitty.") Director Negin Farsad follows pioneering nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot and his band on their first modest tour, and strikes gold with the quirky cast of characters, each of whom apparently has a Chewbacca impression.

Nerdcore Rising's loose structure and light-hearted approach touch on reasons why "nerds" tend to retreat into their own intellects even as the Internet fosters feelings of solidarity. The film even delves into knotty discussions over whether nerdcore is another example of white musicians appropriating an African-American art form. Nerdcore Rising lacks the compelling conflict of the Donkey Kong doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but offers a similar portrait of an obsessive subculture.

If the AFF's competition section is about finding new talent, the inclusion of Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (3 stars; April 13, 3 p.m.; April 17, 9:45 p.m.) is a little ironic, since Castle embodied old-school cinematic showmanship. The producer/director was best-known not so much for cranking out B-list thrillers such as The Tingler but for their promotional gimmicks such as that film's "Percepto," which included joy buzzers under theater seats.

Spine Tingler! borders on hero worship and seems made less for theatrical distribution than as an anchor for an evening of Castle films on a cable movie channel. Still, it qualifies as an affectionate tribute to a bygone form of showmanship that, however cheesy, feels extremely remote in an era of corporate franchise films and impersonal marketing.

Film student Jeremy Zerechak records his deployment as a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard without unnecessary frills or sensationalism in Land of Confusion (4 stars; April 12, 12:15 p.m.; April 14, 1 p.m.). It stands out not only among the AFF films I've seen as of this writing, but also among the many recent features and documentaries about soldiers fighting the Iraq war. Land of Confusion even finds some rueful humor as it depicts Zerechak's Iraq training at snowy, dilapidated Fort Dix.

Zerechak and fellows end up based at one of Saddam's vacation spots and assigned to provide security for the Iraq Survey Group as they look for elusive weapons of mass destruction. The soldiers come across as likable, fair-minded guys (if a little intense), and their barracks talk about the war sounds like conversations going on in America's bars, offices and dorm rooms. Compared with ambitious movies such as Jarhead or Redacted, Land of Confusion reveals more urgency and equanimity, and makes an eloquent statement about Americans at war without striving for grand themes. Regardless of how it fares in the AFF's Documentary Competition, Land of Confusion is a winner.