The name doesn't lie: With an unprecedented number of selections from Middle Tennessee filmmakers, it really is the Nashville Film Festival this year. At age 43, the city's annual celebration of regional, foreign and independent cinema reflects an outpouring of local efforts — so much so that the festival's opening night, Thursday, April 19, has been largely set aside in their honor.
Throughout this year's fest, running through April 26 at Regal's Green Hills megaplex, you'll find documentaries featuring topics of hometown concern, from the indomitable Nashville Rollergirls (Hell or High Water, 8:30 p.m. April 19) to the phenomenally successful The Contributor (Street Paper, 4:45 p.m. April 22). You'll find local performers such as the gifted Nashville stage actress Tamiko Robinson, making her starring feature debut in Ernie Park's hour-long coming-of-age drama Late Summer (5:30 p.m. April 19). And you'll find local filmmakers working in styles and genres as varied as animation (Mike Salva's "Pound Dogs," screening before George the Hedgehog, 10 p.m. April 22), horror (Motke Dapp's The Many Monsters of Sadness, 10 p.m. April 19) and superhero slapstick (Potsy Ponciroli's Super Zeroes, 10 p.m. April 20).
But it's having these talents recognized as part of a broader pool, including films from the worldwide festival circuit as well as regional discoveries, that prevents the NaFF from becoming an exercise in either boosterism or self-congratulation. Because scheduling presents tougher choices every year, we've previewed more than 40 selections at this year's festival, offering tips on movies you shouldn't miss (and a few you might avoid).
We also offer these practical tips for navigating a festival that could draw as many as 25,000 visitors over the next seven days. First, buy tickets early at or in the Green Hills downstairs lobby — especially for any screening or event that includes celebrities (such as the epic Nicole Kidman/Famke Janssen/Beth Grant/Carrie Preston panel, 4:30 p.m. April 21). Watch the boards in the lobby for added screenings, sold-out shows, cancellations, etc. Second, line up at least a half-hour early to assure your seat. That'll also give you a chance to strike up conversations about what you've seen and what others are seeing — a great way to find movies that otherwise wouldn't appear on your radar.
Watch the Scene's arts blog Country Life for daily updates, trailers and other festival dispatches. So find a seat. The show's about to begin.
★ = Highly Recommended
★ERASING HATE (4 p.m.)
A stirring chronicle of former skinhead Bryon Widner's attempt to redeem himself, Erasing Hate offers an intimate and thoughtful look at both the causes and consequences of involvement in the white nationalism movement. Though Widner and his family have moved to Middle Tennessee to get a fresh start, his face is covered with racist tattoos — making it hard for him to get a job, let alone cleanse himself of his hateful past (which included stints as a violent enforcer for several organizations). Enter the Southern Poverty Law Center, which pays for Widner to have his tattoos removed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Erasing Hate captures the excruciatingly painful process — 25 surgeries over 20 months — in unflinching footage that is difficult to watch, but it helps demonstrate how this agonizing physical penance helps Widner find some semblance of peace. Most importantly, the former skinhead offers his own personal testimony on how fear, insecurity, family turmoil and personal dissatisfaction can form fertile soil for scapegoat ideologies. Lawrence O'Donnell narrates. A 45-minute cut aired last year on MSNBC, but writer/producer/director Bill Brummel is raising money to buy back the feature-film rights from the cable network so he can pursue a theatrical release for the 92-minute version screening here. For information, visit indiegogo.com/ErasingHate-campaign. JACK SILVERMAN
★THE DYNAMITER (5:30 p.m.; also 11:30 a.m. April 21)
Like its hero — a laconic 14-year-old (newcomer William Ruffin) dodging the law as he tries to hide the fact his mom skipped out on him and his little brother — this affecting Independent Spirit nominee by first-time director Matthew Gordon is a real diamond in the rough. Cast persuasively with nonprofessionals, shot on Mississippi locations so tactile you can chew the dust, it's largely a movie about hanging out with this wily kid as he handles a job, messes with girls, holds his scraggly family together as best he can when his troublesome older brother shows up, and gets his ass kicked a few times but always goes down swinging. Comparisons to Days of Heaven and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows suggest less the style or level of accomplishment than the mark the movie leaves in memory: When it was over, I worried that this compelling little scrapper wasn't as nimble a survivor as he thought he was, and I've thought about him ever since. JIM RIDLEY
★ATTENBERG (5:45 p.m.; also 2:45 p.m. April 20)
Few films this year will offer the same quotient of joy, melancholy, and unalloyed strangeness as Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, another gem from the recent "Weird Wave" in Greece. In some vague respects a kind of feminist obverse to last year's Dogtooth (whose director, Yorgos Lanthimos, plays "the love interest"), Attenberg is the odd tale of Marina (Ariane Labed). She has grown up unintentionally asexual (possibly because of the failed modernist housing project her dad designed), and she plans to do something about it. Nature documentaries, tongue-kissing practice, and unfathomably goofy walk-dancing will help in her quest. Highly recommended. In Greek with subtitles. MICHAEL SICINSKI
BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING (6:30 p.m.; also 12:45 p.m. April 22)
At one point in Neil Berkeley's documentary, with smartass mock bravado, artist-designer-puppeteer Wayne White holds up a 2009 Scene cover story on his work and says, "Look, Mom! I made it!" But in his feature-length debut, Berkeley wisely plays up White's underdog status even as he moves from Pee Wee's Playhouse and Peter Gabriel videos to his celebrated word paintings. He's not the warmest protagonist, but you end up rooting for him anyway because his irreverent defiance is so much fun to watch — and because he's plainly a huge talent. Berkeley does a great job of following the many strands of the Tennessee native's career from MTSU parties and joblessness to contemporary art darling with a seemingly unlimited array of accomplishments — not to mention a talented wife (Mimi Pond) and two cool kids. White and Berkeley will attend. LAURA HUTSON
★THE ROMANCE OF LONELINESS (7:15 p.m.; also 12:15 p.m. April 20)
It's difficult to classify Sarah Ledbetter and Matteo Servente's brief and subtle yet strangely enthralling feature. At just under an hour, the Tennessee-shot picture seems in some ways like the middle portion of a film removed from its context: it has the feel of a novella as it follows three Southern women — a grandmother (Lynn Cohen) and her two granddaughters (Memphian songstress Amy LaVere and Rebekah Brandes) — who attend a relative's same-sex wedding. The movie's themes and point may be somewhat elusive, but there's never any doubt about the filmmakers' control: even if you can't pin down exactly what the film is trying to say, the way it's communicated is riveting. STEVEN HALE
★AFTER (9 p.m.; also noon April 20)
Following a meet-cute shattered by a catastrophic accident, After wastes no time immersing us in the lives of two individuals who may be the only people in the world. Since there's a giant wall of swirling evil slowly contracting around them, the metaphorical race is on. As with most suspense/otherworldly thrillers, you find yourself hoping that it's not going to settle for a dumb twist or rote predictability: the exciting surprise is how smartly co-writer/director Ryan Smith avoids those pitfalls. The lead performance from Magic City up-and-comer Steven Strait is great, and Nashville's Magnetic Dreams devised some remarkably good special effects (including a first-rate monster): a couple of simply magnificent images of weird, surreal power will stay with you. Some dialogue rings a little flat, and some narrative transitions seem a bit too on the nose, but it's been ages since we've had a local effort this strong. JASON SHAWHAN
HIT SO HARD (9:15 p.m.)
The template for rock docs seems calcified, thanks to Behind The Music and the urge some artists get to justify their careers and/or new records. But drummer Patty Schemel (of Hole and The Licks fame) isn't selling a new record or herself as an unsung icon. She just wants to rock (and maybe help take care of some dogs here and there). At its best, Hit So Hard provides an intimate wallow in the rock life, with Schemel's amazing Hi-8 footage from the '90s offering telling glimpses of the Cobains and their extended musical family; it's also a fiercely political film about sexism, homophobia, industry chicanery and drugs. Never grandiose or maudlin, Schemel is a deftly funny subject, and her life story has triumph and tragedy in equal parts. If the film can't break as many boundaries as its subject did and sometimes gets caught up in multi-quadrant shenanigans or onscreen sloganeering, that's forgivable in light of some of the amazing stuff the movie shows. We'll never get as unfiltered and chatty a Courtney Love telling her own story as we do here, so you know it's going to dish good dirt. JASON SHAWHAN
★BROOKLYN CASTLE (noon; also 8 p.m. April 25)
The feature-length directorial debut of filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore centers on I.S. 318, a Brooklyn junior high where more than 60 percent of students come from homes with incomes below the poverty line. But it's practically ground zero for rising chess stars, with a history of 26 national titles and counting. In the vein of the 2002 spelling-bee doc Spellbound, Brooklyn Castle focuses on individual kids who are natural charmers — Pobo, the charismatic scene stealer; Rochelle, the ambitious female player; Patrick, the ADHD kid who's not great at chess but eager to learn; and Justus, the precocious sixth grader with a rank that's almost as high as his coach's. The documentary succeeds in being heartwarming but not maudlin, inspiring but not overblown. It's also galvanizing — the excellent program is under threat of budgetary cuts, and it's hard not to want to Western Union a chunk of your salary to the cause after the credits roll. LAURA HUTSON
BURROS (12:15 p.m.; also 5:45 p.m. April 25)
Set in the heady days of 1940s Mexican land reform, this coming-of-age drama follows 11-year-old Lautaro as he's shuffled from mother to aunt to friend-of-the-family after witnessing his father's murder by a wealthy land baron's assassins. The movie carries echoes of a classic, Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, which also views the world through the eyes of a child, with magic and spiritualism masking hardship and tedium. But the stylistic affectations (including cloying musical cues and hand-drawn chapter titles) prove highly distracting from the otherwise interesting story. Where Spirit comes alive, Burros falls flat, and I wonder if first-time director Odin Salazar Flores needs more time to germinate. In Spanish with subtitles. TONY YOUNGBLOOD
★ADALBERT'S DREAM (12:30 p.m.; also 5:30 p.m. April 25)
This biting Romanian satire opens with the final moments of the 1986 European Cup, when Steaua Bucharest goalie Helmuth Duckadam miraculously blocked all four of Barcelona's overtime spot-kicks. The next day, it's all safety engineer Iulica and his factory co-workers can talk about, back-handedly praising Helmuth by wondering, "What's wrong with him?" A fitting metaphor for life in Communist Romania where beneath the surface, the real economy bubbles — Iulica sells tickets to private screenings on his contraband VCR, a lathe operator makes extra utensils on the sly, another smuggles eggs in her hair buns. While the workers attend the premiere of Iulica's two new "work safety" films, another accident occurs, perhaps inevitable in a culture where survival means keeping up appearances while looking the other way. In Romanian with subtitles. TONY YOUNGBLOOD
★SARABAH (2:30 p.m.; also 5:30 p.m. April 24)
Sarabah is the name of the mythical place this documentary's subject, Sengalese rapper/singer/activist Sister Fa, says she often imagined visiting as a child, a spot where the sad and unhappy can find refuge. After hearing her harrowing story, you can hardly blame her for wanting to skip off to Never Never Land. As a young girl, she was the victim of FGC, or female genital cutting, prompting her to devote her life and career to speaking out against genital mutilation and telling people why this hideous, scarring tradition must be stopped. This 60-minute doc will certainly have viewers male or female feeling compassion for Fa as she travels back to her homeland, seeking to get people both young and old in her corner while battling those who dismiss her as a clueless rapper. In Wolof, Dyula, French and German with subtitles. CRAIG D. LINDSEY
BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN (3 p.m.; also 5:45 p.m. April 25)
Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's look at the sale of the Atlantic Yards to Forest City Ratner is gripping and well timed. It follows Daniel Goldstein, a reluctant activist whose residence is under threat of destruction under eminent-domain law. The story begins in 2005, turns a corner after the (spoiler alert!) financial crisis of 2008, and sees the project through to its completion, which may come as a surprise to those who don't follow Brooklyn's regional news. The documentary has the obstacle of filming a historical event as it unfolds, but luckily Goldstein provides the story with the narrative structure it needs — he breaks up with his fiancé, meets someone new and has a child with her, all with cameras rolling. LAURA HUTSON
★ABSENT (3:15 p.m.; also 7:45 p.m. April 23)
In this Argentinian meditation on power and guilt, Javier De Pietro plays Martín, a teenage swim student who fakes an eye injury to get closer to his swim teacher, Sebastián. As the lies compound, Sebastián's job security is thrown increasingly into question as Martín presses toward "something" happening between the two. Absent approaches this less like a love story, however, and more like a stomach-churning psychological thriller. But don't expect some insane Single White Female twist: Absent plays out as a tensely realistic slow boil, edging toward the lurid but never crossing into the absurd. The film toys with the concept of victimhood, flipping the script hard in the final scenes of the movie to question just exactly who was playing whom. In Spanish with subtitles. LANCE CONZETT
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