Partly through luck and partly through spunk, the just-concluded Nashville Film Festival suddenly has a documentary prize with real clout. It's called the Reel Current Award and it goes to a doc that provides insight into a contemporary global issue - as chosen by Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. (They are Tennessee residents, living on a farm outside Nashville.) Last year was the award's first and it clearly meant something (to a certain extent.) Gore has joked that he "used to be the next President of the United States" after losing the electoral vote in the 2000 election despite winning the popular vote.
But this year, he looms as a giant of the documentary film world and was even recently featured on the cover of Vanity Fair and Wired. "An Inconvenient Truth," Davis Guggenheim's new documentary about Gore's leadership in fighting global warming, is headed for the Cannes Film Festival and a major release by Paramount Classics this summer.
All this activity barely gave the Gores time to choose a winner and present the prize this year. The ceremony had to be scheduled the day before the festival formally began on April 20 to accommodate his schedule. But nevertheless, it meant the world to the winner, filmmaker Julie Gustafson. Her pertinent, absorbing "Desire" incorporates her own footage with the films that she trained several teen girls in pre-Katrina New Orleans to make about their feelings toward love, sexuality and pregnancy. "The Teenage Girls' Documentary Project" even receives a co-directing credit.
The film plays as a thought-provoking investigation into how race and class impact such attitudes, while at the same time never letting generalizations interfere with each girl's humanity. In fact, Gustafson takes the girls' humanity and individualism so seriously that she lets one turn the camera on her and ask some very difficult questions about her own crises with pregnancy. Gustafson started seeking approval from residents of the Desire housing project in 1992, lured partly by Tennessee Williams' previous interest in Desire. She started filming in 1995.
"It's very important to me to win this," she said of the Gores' nod in an interview with indieWIRE. "Partly because of his and his wife's demeanor, which is so warm. He's one of the key progressive figures in American environmental and political life. My film is very complex and they got all the layers."
Brian Gordon, in his sixth year as the festival's artistic director, recalls first meeting Gore at a 2003 Sundance Film Festival screening of "American Splendor." The former vice president was sitting behind him. "I gave him a card and said, 'Have you ever been to the Nashville Film Festival," Gordon recalled, during a short break in the sunshine between festival screenings at the suburban Regal Green Hills Stadium 14.
"He asked if we show documentaries," Gordon said. "I said we do and he gave me his office number." In fall of 2004, the festival made a formal proposal for the Gores to choose one winner from five nominees already accepted into the event. Gore accepted - Current also is the name of a TV network he created. Last year, the Gores chose Taggart Siegel's "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" for the first prize.
Even without Gore, the festival elicited plenty of excitement this year as a result of a decision its board made to stress Music City connections. Nashville is, after all, the home of country music. In 2004, under Gordon's leadership, the fest started three new awards - Best Music in a Feature Film, Gibson Impact of Music Award, and Best Music Video. With that emphasis, it's attracting an interesting, varied and - this year, especially - glamorous variety of music-related films.
That makes it fit nicely into the plans of those visiting Nashville anyway for the music - more than 15,000 admission tickets were expected to be sold by Wednesday's conclusion. For instance, I used a free Saturday morning to visit downtown's Country Music Hall of Fame, where I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to see the Nudie-designed, colorfully embroidered suit that Little Jimmy Dickens wore on "The Tonight Show" in 1965 to sing his then-hit, "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." You can't do that at Cannes or Berlin.
The music-film-related glamour at this year's festival came on Saturday night, when actor Kiefer Sutherland and entourage jetted in for the world-premiere screening of "I Trust You to Kill Me." The sold-out screening attracted more teenage girls than usual for a film festival, and there were so many photographers in the theater lobby that it was hard to move. Wearing black, "24" star Sutherland made a short, gracious introductory speech.
"I Trust You to Kill Me," a documentary by Manu Boyer, is about the first band signed to Sutherland's new record label, Rocco DeLuca & the Burden. To help break in the band, Sutherland served as road manager for a short tour - in the dead of winter - of London, Dublin, Iceland and Germany. DeLuca emerges as a quietly engaging, painfully sincere 28-year-old musician who also is a formidable bluesy-rock guitarist and beguiling singer. However, his songs as performed in the film aren't individually memorable.
But what is surprisingly memorable is Sutherland, who should have been having a great time on this extended boys'-night-out of a holiday vacation. Instead, he often seems melancholy and downright lonely as he celebrates his 39th birthday alone or shares bittersweet remembrances about his father, actor Donald Sutherland. And there are bizarre moments, as when he tackles a Christmas tree in a hotel lobby, that seem candidly revealing in a "Truth or Dare" way.
Among the other music-related documentaries I was able to see, two stood out in quality. One was the North American premiere of Jorg Bundschuh's skillfully shot "To Tulsa & Back: On Tour With J.J. Cale," a compelling life story of this laid-back blues-rock minimalist ("After Midnight," "Cocaine") from Oklahoma.
The other - Tai Uhlmann's "For the Love of Dolly" - is a sweet, generous and humorous portrait of several Dolly Parton fanatics who attend the annual Dollywood parade at Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Most seem reasonably well-adjusted, if infatuated, although I'm not sure about the young woman who licks the seat belt in a vehicle that Parton once owned.
The worst movie I saw at the festival - and I liked most of what I screened - was Courtney Solomon's hysterical, overproduced (at just $9 million!) "An American Haunting." Featured a screeching, clangorous and overwrought score, the poor actors, Donald Sutherland (Kiefer's dad) gets whipped by a poltergeist, while teenage newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood gets raped by the invisible spirit. It was the opening-night film because the story ostensibly is set in Tennessee and based on a historical 19th Century case known as The Bell Witch.
For a truly haunting effect, I'll take Doug Block's documentary "51 Birch Street." Unnerved when his octogenarian father quickly remarries after his mother dies, Block ("Home Page") sets off to discover what his parents' marriage in suburban New York was really like. What he finds torments him and leads to a decision that will cause second-guessing for the life of this film - his making public his mother's diaries. But he and we ultimately emerge wiser about the secret lives of parents.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)
Abbreviated List of 2006 Nashville Film Festival Award Winners
A full list is available at nashvillefilmfestival.org.
Reel Current Award
"Desire" - Julie Gustafson (USA)
Regal Cinemas Dreammaker Award
"Almost Heaven" - Ed Herzog (Germany)
Dish Magazine Audience Award for Best Feature Film
"Live And Become" - Radu Mihaileanu (France/Israel)
Best Feature Documentary (tie)
"A Lion In The House" - Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert (USA)
"The Trials Of Darryl Hunt" - Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern (USA)
Best Music In A Feature Film
"Sweet Land" - Mark Orton (USA)
Impact Of Music Award, sponsored by Gibson Guitars
"The Refugee All Stars" - Zach Niles and Banker White (USA)