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Our guide to the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival 

Gender roles, world premieres, rock icons and more at this year's festival

The recent Oscars broadcast served as a reminder of the ability of movies to create iconic, lasting gender roles. The dapper machismo of James Bond is now embodied by Daniel Craig, the sixth actor in that role. The elegance of Audrey Hepburn lives on in Anne Hathaway, a second-generation Xerox of her predecessor. Hathaway's Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Les Miserables' downtrodden, dream-having prostitute demonstrates cinema's power to present a specific character and reveal the universal.

But the post-Oscars firestorm of commentary over host Seth McFarland's jokes revealed how easily showbiz can slide into stereotyping, particularly when sexism is involved. Even well-meaning films hazard making blanket statements about a gender (or any group) when trying to tell a single story. If movies didn't command such interest in the media, they wouldn't run such risks of being misunderstood.

The lineup of the 37th Atlanta Film Festival, opening March 15, touches on numerous themes, including food, sports, politics, and, as ever, the American South, And some reflect pop culture's conversation about gender roles, intentionally or otherwise.

GOOD GRADES: A Teacher tells the story of an illegal romance.
  • Andrew Droz Palermo
  • GOOD GRADES: A Teacher tells the story of an illegal romance.

It's hard to argue that the narrative feature A Teacher (8:30 p.m., March 17, Plaza Upstairs Theatre) presents a positive image of its female lead. Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge) teaches AP English at a Texas high school, while having a secret affair with one of her students, Eric Tull (Will Brittain). Between his mature appearance and her relative youth (she looks about 30), their age difference seems negligible and they have an affectionate relationship, despite placing her career in jeopardy.

In the wrong hands, Diana could be a "hot for teacher" caricature from an American Pie film, but A Teacher uncovers her troubled personality. She's estranged from her family for reasons unknown, proves more comfortable with her students than the school faculty, and shows little interest in men her age. It's as if part of her clings to being a high schooler. She occasionally comes to her senses and tries to step back from the tryst, but she just can't quit Eric, and resorts to increasingly self-destructive behavior.

Director Hannah Fidell sets a tone in A Teacher comparable to Shame, in which Michael Fassbender's sex addiction served as a symptom of his deeper depression. The film leaves many of Diana's problems and choices ambiguous, while revealing a deep sensitivity to her moods and perceptions. Thanks to Burdge's powerful, soft-spoken performance, we may not understand Diana, but we "get" her.

Cinema Six (4:15 p.m., March 23, 7 Stages Theatre) doesn't afford the same courtesy to its female roles, who either come across as unreliable teases or impatient nags. The comedy suggests Kevin Smith's Clerks transplanted to a seedy, six-screen movie theater — which, despite its private ownership, appears to screen nothing but generic Hollywood garbage with titles like My Mom Smokes Weed. Writer/directors Mark Potts and Cole Selix keep the movie satire on the margins, perhaps to avoid the kind of excessive pop references of similar films, although they do include some loving shots of threading film in projectors, a craft soon to be obsolete in the digital age.

Apart from jokes involving bad customer service, the vast majority of Cinema Six involves three gloomy-gus employees (John Merriman, Brand Rackley, and Potts as a husky projectionist) making sexually graphic jokes or failing to successfully communicate with their wives, ex-girlfriends, and would-be dates. The cast isn't bad, and some beloved character actors turn up in cameos, but Cinema Six feels stuck in a male rut of overgrown adolescence. While the film's men come across as worse than the women, the lack of well-defined female roles can cause Cinema Six to lapse into the kind of default-level jokey sexism of other Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow wannabes.

THE WEIGHT: Clare Bowen holds up her end of Dead Man’s Burden.
  • Phillip De Jong
  • THE WEIGHT: Clare Bowen holds up her end of Dead Man’s Burden.

Perhaps the most innately American form of masculinity is the Western hero, which probably seemed second nature to filmmakers when cowboy movies flourished in the mid-20th century, but now can seem like a self-conscious kind of playacting. In the lovingly constructed Western Dead Man's Burden (9:15 p.m., March 22, Plaza Upstairs Theatre), director Jared Moshe proves reasonably successful at reviving Western archetypes.

In 1870, prodigal son Wade (Barlow Jacobs) returns to the family homestead on the New Mexican frontier to discover that his parents and brothers have died, leaving only his sister Martha (Clare Bowen), who with her distrusting husband Heck (David Call) plans to sell the farm. Dead Man's Burden boasts far more lavish cinematography and intriguingly framed locations than viewers often find with low-budget film festival fare, although the story unfolds as a chamber piece that gradually reveals the family secrets: Why did Wade leave home? What did he do during the Civil War? Did their father really die in an accident?

At times, Dead Man's Burden has the pace of a tumbling tumbleweed, and its revelations prove less explosive than the buildup. The two leads give strong performances as the siblings: As Martha reveals qualities closer to a film noir femme fatale than a dutiful Western wife, Bowen conveys a ruthless determination beneath her vulnerability. Jacobs lives up to the kind of upstanding, quick-drawing gunslinger role that Timothy Olyphant plays on "Deadwood" or "Justified." In general, Dead Man's Burden pulls off its macho signifiers, like confident, drawled one-liners and competence with firearms, with the exception of the near-constant jingle-jangle of the mens' spurs, which becomes almost comically excessive.

click to enlarge SEA CHANGE: Mohammed to Maya follows Maya Jafer’s gender transition and sex-change surgery
  • Patrick McPheron
  • SEA CHANGE: Mohammed to Maya follows Maya Jafer’s gender transition and sex-change surgery

Gender provides the crux of the documentary Mohammed to Maya (7:15 p.m., March 20, Plaza Main Screen), which chronicles the turning point of a person's transition from man to woman. The film introduces Maya Jafer (formerly Mohammed Jafer), an Indian Muslim and doctor who immigrated from Southern California. The film follows Maya as she travels to Bangkok for major sex-change surgery (including the big operation) and her subsequent recovery. How she presents as female proves an important issue with her, and at one point she disagrees when someone compares her looks to pop singer M.I.A. — but she's not displeased, either.

Anyone who believes that transgender individuals make their decisions lightly will be dissuaded by Mohammed to Maya. The anguish with which Maya describes her family estrangement is hard enough, but her surgical procedures, in which she's surrounded by hospital workers who barely speak English, prove to be a major ordeal. (Occasionally the film briefly shows graphic images from other surgeries, so be prepared to avert your eyes.) Maya also undergoes some drastic mood swings from depression to elation, but given her hormone therapy, the challenges of recovery, and a timespan that covers months, one can cut her some slack.

Mohammed to Maya benefits from an off-the-cuff home-movie quality that leaves some gaps in the narrative: We see almost none of her California life and learn very little of her medical practice in the United States or India (which she visits at the end). Maya explains that she relies heavily on her Muslim faith, which proves understandable, since she lacks family support and has few on-screen friends apart from director Jeff Roy. The film broaches the religious issue without exploring the Islamic attitude toward gender matters.

Overall, Maya Jafer comes across as a singularly unique individual, yet also a powerful case study for the trials a person has to face when gender identity comes into conflict with family and faith. As the leading lady of her own movie, Maya comes across more as a role model than a stereotype.

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