Athens, GA -- Outside In
by Eugene Hernandez
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson from the B-52’s are dancing
together in the living room. Keith Strickland, also of the B-52’s, and B’s
songwriter Jeremy Ayers are here as well, not to mention Michael Lachowski
from legendary Athens group Pylon, and John Seawright.
It has been ten years since Tony Gayton’s documentary “Athens, GA Inside/Out” illuminated the art and sound of this Southern town. This scene which
unfolded in the wee hours of Saturday morning is not a clip from the
well-known film (although each of these people were in it), but moments
from an informal gathering to celebrate the end of Athens’ first film
festival. Following a closing night concert at the well-known 40 Watt Club,
this group of well-known locals have joined friends, filmmakers and
organizers at the home of Festival Director Juanita Giles.
The weekend marked quite a homecoming, not only on Athens’ large University
of Georgia campus, but for the city’s creative community. With R.E.M. in
town recording a new album and the B-52’s home to play a long awaited local
concert, the evening underscored Athens’ famed creative achievements and
boded well for its seemingly unavoidable major expansion into film .
The effect of Athens’ first film festival became clearer as the week
progressed — it energized, and in some cases awakened, a community of
filmmakers and aficionados. As Mayor Gwen Looney explained during a
conversation with indieWIRE, the festival is not only “a chance to show
off,” but an opportunity to “expand the cultural scene.” Indeed, the
festival probably could not have come at a better time. Mayor Looney, a
staunch arts supporter, is finishing her final term, raising concerns among
locals. Adding ironic insult to injury, down the block on Washington Street
from the festival’s home in the historic Morton Theater a crew was hard at
work throughout the week demolishing Athens’ “Classic Triple” movie
theater, a local cinephile favorite. The confluence of these events was
Perhaps underscoring Athens’ creative community’s determination to evolve,
the town embraced the film festival as an opportunity to showcase itself
before a national audience. Knowing that a select group of filmmakers,
industry and press would be in town for the event, locals rallied behind
festival organizers to present a publicly unified front. In addition to the
nightly screenings and concerts held at the Morton Theater and the 40 Watt
respectively, a unique art event, dubbed “Gold Star Art,” was created to
celebrate the area’s rich creativity — the work of over 60 artists was
exhibited at nearly a dozen restaurants and cafe’s throughout the city, as
well as at a diverse group show near the theater. Jim Herbert, a painter,
video artist, filmmaker and university professor who has lived in Athens
for 35 years said it best, telling indieWIRE that the festival had a
greater artistic impact on Athens than last year’s Olympics.
Festival organizers sought the support of notable locals early on, and
securing R.E.M.’s endorsement clearly encouraged others to join the effort.
Herbert who has collaborated on the band’s videos since the early days,
spoke highly of the festival echoing Michael Stipe’s praise of the event.
Unlike Stipe however, Herbert kept a low profile during the event,
undoubtedly due to his work on a recently completed feature, entitled
“Scars“, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and is set to screen next
year in Rotterdam –the film is being presented in association with C-100
films, a company run by Stipe and filmmaker Jim McKay (“Girls Town“). Another
local filmmaker, Dominic DeJoseph, utilized the festival as an opportunity
to premiere his new work, a feature entitled “The Leafblower“. In the rush to
complete a cut for his mid-festival screening, DeJoseph encountered
technical problems in New York City, forcing post-production delays. The
difficulties created a drama that reached fever pitch as word spread to
festival organizers and attendees that the filmmaker was set upon either
making the early evening screening or not showing the film at all.
Ultimately, the movie screened three hours late before a full house.
Despite minor projection problems that inspired the filmmaker to again
threaten cancellation mid-screening, the event stood out as a highlight of
the festival, underscoring the communities’ embrace of a new work by a
local artist, in this case a filmmaker — a major step for a town that has
worn the badge of music mecca for so many years.
Beyond the world premieres of DeJoseph’s film and another feature (“Anima“),
the program showcased a host of films that had already played at film
festivals earlier in the year. As a first year strategy the program served
to acquaint an audience (lacking a local arthouse), with the diversity of
new independent cinema. Clearly, in subsequent years programmers will
capture their audiences attention (not to mention that of the industry) by
debuting quality new work. Festival workshops and morning coffee Q&A
sessions were warmly received, perhaps due to the neighboring university’s
lack of a filmmaking program. Attendees flocked to an “Independent
Filmmaking 101″ seminar with Film Threat’s Chris Gore and an industry
minded seminar entitled, “Getting Started in the Film Business in the
South.” The festival was occasionally hampered by organizational problems
that are inevitable with a first year event so severely underfunded. Yet,
most difficulties remained unseen (or overlooked) by a town determined to
see the festival succeed. At more than one morning coffee session the
subject inevitably shifted to that state of the film scene in Athens,
igniting passionate debate about the future of the festival, suggesting
that locals have embraced the concept and are prepared to shape the
festival in the coming years.
As the festival concluded Friday night during a ceremony at the Morton
Theater, Athens recognized the work of two of their own, awarding the
Screenplay Competition Prize to writer Jeremy Ayers and the Local/Super 8
prize to filmmaker Chris Jolly. Sitting in the theater as the closing night
audience enthusiastically applauded the winners it was almost impossible to
ignore the venue’s history. Opened in 1910, the Morton began as a
vaudeville house until it was converted to a movie theater in the 30’s. A
nitrate projection booth fire resulted in the theater being shut down in
the 1950’s and no movies would be screened there again.
The morning after the festival’s closing night organizers boxed the
remaining promotional t-shirts and posters, packed up banners and signs,
and carried film canisters down to the lobby — moving out of the
beautifully restored theater until next year.