If you can't take the mountains on location, bring the locations to the mountains. The third annual Dahlonega International Film Festival delivers more than 100 narrative, documentary and experimental features and shorts from 26 countries to the former mining town an hour north of Atlanta. A strong sense of place characterizes even the scruffiest films on the festival's lineup.
The making and exhibition of Lawrence Bridges' 12 (June 27, 6 p.m., and June 29, 10 p.m., Hoag Auditorium) says as much about Los Angeles as the feature itself. Writer-director Bridges shot the film over numerous years and screened the finished project at impromptu "guerrilla drive-ins" across Hollywood. With scratched-up film stock, restless editing and characters who speed-walk along L.A. streets, 12 displays a jumpy narrative that looks as though it were filmed by an overcaffeinated Jean-Luc Godard.
The premise intriguingly places Greek deities like Zeus and Pan afoot in modern California, but the more time you spend with 12, the less you like it. There's a confusing plot about two cursed half-siblings (Tony Griffin and the radiant Allison Elliott), and plentiful in-jokes about struggling actors, with Allen Lulu playing a slovenly would-be star. Once the cast begins performing excerpts -- at length -- from The Importance of Being Earnest, the film loses the goodwill generated by its offbeat history.
Bridges uses onscreen text as "dossiers" of his divine characters, and Greater Southbridge (June 27, 4 p.m., and June 29, 2 p.m., Holly Theatre basement) director Rod Murphy uses a similar device to identify his documentary's cast of weirdos and street people. Murphy takes a loving, warts-and-all look at the small Massachusetts town of Southbridge, which has more than its share of coots, kooks and cranks.
Murphy's favorite subject is big, bald Jerry, a mentally disabled chap who launches into stammering spiels about Southbridge landmarks and the bottle deposit law. Don't ask Jerry about his family problems, because his verbose intensity becomes scary. Murphy nevertheless shows considerable affection for the town's homeless oddballs, drug users and conspiracy nuts.
Erroll Morris ventured into similarly eccentric territory with Vernon, Fla. but Murphy has a far less laconic approach, with snappy editing and a rock soundtrack conveying the energy he gets from the town, despite its struggling economy. Although the material gets repetitive, Greater Southbridge grows on you like the town itself.
Many Americans may want to forget Florida's decisive role in the last presidential race, but Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (June 27, 4 p.m., and June 28, 8 p.m., Hoag Auditorium) vividly reminds us of the pregnant chads, butterfly ballots and legal machinations that delivered George Bush to the White House.
Richard R. Perez and Joan Sekler's most provocative material comes at the beginning as the film describes how a faulty program to strike convicted felons from the voting roles prevented hundreds of innocent African-Americans from casting votes. The unlucky Floridians were considered "guilty until proven innocent" by the state, and Unprecedented views the decisions of the Republican campaign apparatus in a similarly sinister light.
The energetic film acknowledges that Democrats also acted too much in their own self-interest, suggesting that if they'd called for a statewide hand recount (instead of focusing on four Democrat counties), Gore may have become president while more equitably serving the national interest and Florida law. Unprecedented breaks little news, but will mostly serve to get out the Democrat vote in 2004.
Eric Forrest made the short film "The Tale of a Soviet Hot Dog" (June 27, 4 p.m., and June 29, 2 p.m., Young Hall) not in Russia but at his parents' house in Marietta, which manages to provide a moody look at the shadowy world of the KGB. The twist is that Forrest's cast is composed of puppets made from costumed hot dogs -- the weiners even wear hats and neckties. You might expect 14 minutes of puns, but instead Forrest emphasizes atmosphere, viewing his smoke-filled cardboard sets from film noir camera angles. His latest film may not be very consequential, but it's a surprisingly effective exercise in style, given its limited resources.
And it leaves you hungry: If the Dahlonega Film Festival is smart, it'll sell hot dogs before and after the screening.