Indie Grits 2010 Opening Night Selections

Note:  The following article may contain spoilers.

Opening night festivities for the 5th Annual Indie Grits Film Festival were sold out last night, and they showcased some memorable and not-so memorable moments, depending on who you spoke to.  I went to the night's first program, and the audience's energy was high, and the main selection, Mark Claywell's stunning documentary AMERICAN JIHADIST, was a true revelation.  I spoke with Claywell after the screening, as well as CHIEFLAND director Gabriel Tyner, and both directors were really happy with the receptions their films had at the festival.

CHIEFLAND, an 8 minute short about a bullrider's first time on a bull in over a decade after losing both legs and receiving a host of other injuries after being hit by a train, is a flawed but highly interesting germ of an idea.  I think it speaks to the strength of the subject of the film and the skill with which the footage and interviews with the cowboy were collected that I wanted more from it.  Tyner has a great eye and a great sense of filmic rhythm, but structuraly the film is uneven, focusing on what could be either the middle third or even last third of a film, despite containing the relatively small narrative arch of the bull ride itself and the rider's struggle with it that exists as-is.  Tyner is currently working on two new projects; CHIEFLAND is his first film.

The second film of the evening, director Hodges Usry's SWEET GEORGIA BROWN is ostensibly about the first black female wrestler from South Carolina, but after an interesting set-up, the film quickly loses its way, devolving into a sordid, directionless expos√© on racial and familial injustices that gave no information on or insight into who "Sweet Georgia" Brown was, and why she was important aside from all of the familial bickering and in-fighting and the really horrific details of her life.  Usry has directed a few music videos for bands like Lady Antebellum before, but if SWEET GEORGIA BROWN or his previous short ROZWELL (streaming online at his IMDB page) are any indications of where his talents may lie, I'm afraid he has a long way to go to overcome a lack of narrative comprehension and execution without leaving an audience adrift in its own thoughts.  There's an interesting, engaging movie to be made about this woman out there somewhere, but this sure isn't it.

Finally, playing only in its second festival, and hot on the heels of winning the Best Documentary award at Slamdance, Mark Claywell's AMERICAN JIHADIST follows the completely fascinating character of Isa Abdullah Ali, aka Clevin Holt, a religious soldier of fortune whose conversion to Islam in the 1970s led to his involvement in many of the major armed conflicts in the Near East in the past few decades.  Posing the question, "What makes a person willing to kill and die for their religion?", the film comes to some unsettling and utterly profound revelations, echoing the lack of easy answers and even easy labels in a constantly sound-bite driven news world, and the call for a deeper understanding of the problems facing our world.

Given completely unfettered access to Isa in both his native Washington, D.C., and his home in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Claywell shows us that while it may be possible to understand the ways in which someone could believe they're doing the right thing, that the subject is far more complex than any one individual.  Isa is a subject that seems to preach his hatred of 'hate', which he claims not to feel toward anyone, but perhaps a bit contradictory to that claim, has absolutely no problem killing someone he feels has wronged a Muslim in an armed conflict.  And, furthermore, he simply loves his role in warfare, and makes no secret of it - actively seeking it out throughout a thirty year career that has seen him labelled as a "known terrorist" and what would have been termed by Conservative Americans recently as an enemy combatant. 

Isa isn't a particularly dangerous or even villanous man, but he has a coherent worldview and obsession with violent reproach that makes complete and total sense to him based on his interpretation of his own life's events; that's what's terrifying about the film and its subject.  Here is a group of people who rationalize killing through a belief system that purports to be completely nonviolent, yet time and time again is proven to be the exact opposite of that.  Likewise, someone like Isa is a complete contradiction of his own beliefs in anti-hate, anti-extremist living.  He is an extremist, and he appears to hate those who are against his own beliefs.

The film is unsettling, electrifying and fascinating, swerving into distinctly Herzog-ian "objective truth" territory now and then, largely thanks to the behavior of Isa while the cameras are trained on him.  As a reporter in the film succinctly put it (and I'm paraphrasing here), he is a performer of things he has read, using almost strictly boiler-plate terminology and rhetoric to discuss himself and his beliefs/actions/etc.  For what it's worth, this is a must-see, and I predict that if it plays more mid-level and bigger festivals, it will have no problem finding distribution of some sort.

My pal Woody Jones was in the second program, which featured a number of music docs, including WE FUN, which focuses on the burgeoning Atlanta music scene of 2008, from director Matthew Robison (SILVER JEW).  Look for a brief write-up of that screening soon.

For more information on Indie Grits and the films discussed in this article, please visit:

Sweet Georgia Brown
American Jihadist

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