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“Putty Hill” Comes Out on Top at Atlanta Fest

"Putty Hill" Comes Out on Top at Atlanta Fest

The winners of the jury prizes for the 34th Atlanta Film Festival were unveiled Sunday evening at an intimate reception for attending filmmakers and special guests. While the BBQ was enticing, unfortunately only one of the winning filmmakers was present to accept his award – a common problem for regional festivals, of which the AFF is a long-established, well-respected example.

But the awards ceremony was the culmination of my four nights at the festival as a member of the Documentary Feature Jury (the festival continues through Friday, April 23rd, when the audience awards will be announced). It began last Thursday with the Opening Night screening of Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Riders,” presented at the impressive Carter Center. At the reception before the film, which world premiered at Sundance earlier this year, ATLFF Executive Director Gabe Wardell introduced “special guests” who were in attendance – none other than a number of the courageous Freedom Riders featured in the film – to sing a couple of songs famously sung during the course of their protests for civil rights. The screening served as a fitting match for the festival, much of whose enthusiastic audience was drawn from its city’s vibrant African-American community. The filmmakers and especially the pioneering Freedom Riders held the audience rapt during the Q&A period, serving as living legacies of the important history that Nelson’s captivating film painstakingly documents.

Friday and Saturday were spent watching films – beyond the eight films in the doc competition (more on those below), I managed to catch six more titles. The best of these included the surprisingly effective fictional documentary, “The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek,” “The Good Heart,” re-teaming Paul Dano and Brian Cox from “L.I.E.,” and the already-celebrated “Putty Hill,” the sophomore effort by Matthew Porterfield following 2006’s “Hamilton.”

While initially frankly concerned that “Pussy Willow” (making its premiere here) would be another in a long line of unsuccessful mockumentaries, I was pleasantly proven wrong by NY-based filmmaker Wendy Jo Cohen’s smart Narrative Competition entry. The very term “mockumentary” is rather inappropriate for the film, which treats its themes and its subjects affectionately. Lampooning the style and format of Ken Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War,” “Pussy Willow” reveals the “true” story of a critical Civil War battle fought by an opium-addicted gay colonel, his aged Chinese advisor, a nerdy freed slave/engineer, and a one-armed cross-dressing teenage prostitute against a secret battalion of British forces, with the fate of Washington, DC at stake. An obvious labor of love, the film successfully comments on gays in the military, racism, xenophobia, and sexism in a sly, entertaining manner throughout. Programmers should take note – a variety of audiences will respond extremely well to this film, and it bears serious consideration.

A still from “The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek.” Courtesy of the Atlanta Film Festival.

Dagur Kári’s “The Good Heart” made its premiere at Toronto and will be released by Magnolia later this month. The story of a curmudgeonly owner of a NYC dive bar (Cox) who takes on a young, homeless man (Dano) as his heir apparent after they meet in the hospital – the former there after yet another heart attack, the latter from a failed suicide attempt – “Heart” doesn’t always succeed in maintaining an air of believability, especially when a young French woman (Isild Le Besco) literally wanders into the narrative. But when approached as a modern day fairytale, Kári’s film proves endearing. The real pleasure is seeing Dano and Cox interact, nearly ten years after they appeared together onscreen in Michael Cuesta’s criminally undersign “L.I.E.” – the actors have an ease with one another that manages to smooth over inadequacies in the plot.

While I retain reservations that the sum is not greater than its parts, aspects of “Putty Hill” (which premiered in Berlin and went on to SXSW) continues to resonate with me, days later. Porterfield accomplishes an intimacy with his actors that makes the film absolutely worth experiencing, even if I’m ultimately left unsatisfied. Still, he employs a unique approach to working with largely non-professional actors that impresses – it’s in the moments when his voice is heard onscreen as a not-at-all-omniscient, inquisitive interlocutor, teasing emotion and nuances out of his characters through unusual, extended, documentary-like solo interviews that “Putty Hill” truly makes an impact. In contrast, when improvised interactive scenes are allowed to play out far too long, false notes at times stand out in stark relief.

The Narrative Jury (GreenCine’s Aaron Hillis, Indie Memphis’ Erik Jambor, and View Askew’s Scott Mosier) was impressed by what did work in the film to name “Putty Hill” their winner, and Porterfield was the sole filmmaker present to personally and humbly accept his award. In the Documentary category which I judged, fellow jurors Angela Tucker (Arts Engine) and Godfrey Cheshire (“Moving Midway”) were unanimous in selecting Chico Colvard’s exceptional “Family Affair” as the winner, though we also responded well to Mark Claywell’s “American Jihadist” and Michael Pertnoy & Michael Kleiman’s “The Last Survivor.”

Remaining juries included the LGBT themed Pink Peach, made up of Tim Kirkman (“Loggerheads”), Tina Mabry (“Mississippi Damned”), and Molly Mayeux (“Rain”), who recognized the feature documentary “8: The Mormon Proposition” by Reed Cowan & Steven Greenstreet and the short “Curious Thing” by Alain Hain; and the Shorts Jury (Film Threat’s Mark Bell and filmmakers Jeff Krulik and Mitchell Rose) which selected films in three different categories: Animated (winner: Rob Shaw’s “The Machine,” honorable mention: Dustin Grella’s “Prayers for Peace”), Documentary (winner: Cynthia Wade’s “Born Sweet,” honorable mention: Kiran Deol’s “Woman Rebel”); and Narrative (winner: Etienne Kallos’ “Firstborn,” honorable mention: Eric D Howell’s “Ana’s Playground”). As an Academy-Award qualifying film festival, Atlanta’s shorts winners now have the potential to be nominated for an Oscar.

The rest of the Atlanta experience included a visit to the notorious Clermont Lounge, affectionally known to some as the Stripper’s Graveyard (with the mean age of the performers perhaps around 60?); some time spent watching line-dancing at the 3 Legged Cowboy, perhaps the best-named gay bar ever; and enjoying the hospitality of the festival’s dedicated staff and volunteers. Facing the real possibility of Georgia eliminating its arts council (making it the only state without such a body), and thus potentially losing out on significant funding, the Atlanta Film Festival is in many ways facing a difficult road ahead. One hopes that it will continue to garner support from local film lovers and businesses and be able to serve its constituency as effectively as it did this year.

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