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Ready for its close-up 

The Atlanta Film Festival hopes for a spring rebirth

When Dan Krovich began his new job as the program director of the Atlanta Film Festival, it was like entering a DVD player set on fast-forward. Shortly after Krovich officially began his duties on Oct. 1, 2006, the IMAGE Film and Video Center finalized the decision to move the festival from June to April.

"It was definitely an accelerated schedule," says the 36-year-old Krovich. "You never have enough time [to organize a film festival] no matter when you start, and we first had to put on the Out on Film Festival in November."

Between his start date and the completion of the 31st Atlanta Film Festival's lineup near the end of February, Krovich watched 631 narrative, documentary and animated shorts and feature films, out of the 1,300 submissions the festival received. Cherry Coke fueled his late-night and weekend movie marathons. "You sit down there and keep feeding them into the DVD player, one after another. What's amazing is that you keep watching and watching, and the really great stuff still jumps out and grabs you, even if it's the 20th thing you've seen that day."

The festival opens its 150-film program on Thursday, April 19, with Lauren Lazin's documentary The Last Days of Left Eye, about deceased TLC singer Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, an Atlanta resident.

This year's festival will receive the kind of scrutiny reserved for the box-office receipts of Hollywood blockbusters on opening weekend. In the past three years, the IMAGE Film & Video Center, best known for producing the festival, has endured turnover at the top, going through three executive directors and three film-festival directors. Gabe Wardell stepped in as IMAGE's new executive director last September and quickly hired Krovich, a former colleague at the Maryland Film Festival.

The 35-year-old Wardell emphasizes the breadth of this year's program, from the uplifting Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose to the grotesque Hungarian drama Taxidermia.

He acknowledges that moving the festival up two months kept him from scouting February's Sundance Film Festival, but believes one of the lineup's strengths is that it's based on submissions, not acquisitions. He points to the nine features and 10 documentaries in the festival's Competition Program, which are "all culled from submissions and filmmakers we knew who had films coming out. They're 'discovery' titles. The inquisitive filmgoer can go to just the competition films and get an idea of what's happening on the independent-film scene."

Both Wardell and Krovich believe any trade-offs will pay off in the long run. "In June, it's overwhelmingly hot," Wardell says. "[April] puts us in an environment when people not in town in June are around in April. ... I can't tell you how many people have told me that they missed the festival because they're out of town."

The new timetable allows the festival to present all of its programs at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. "You can treat the festival like tapas or a full meal, but you can snack all day," Wardell says. "In the past, it has been like a drive-by situation."

The festival includes several films with strong local connections, such as Alex Orr's satirical horror film Blood Car and the Gary Weimberg/Catherine Ryan documentary Soldiers of Conscience about conscientious objectors to the Iraq War, which features Georgian Kevin Benderman as one of its subjects. With Atlanta being the home of the Cartoon Network, it's appropriate that the festival includes one animated feature and two programs of animated shorts.

Wardell points with pride to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Media Health Program, featuring the Oscar-winning documentary The Blood of Yingzhou District and Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life. The latter film is about an Athens, Ga., native with muscular dystrophy who solicits MTV's "Pimp My Ride" to customize his wheelchair. "The CDC program allows us to give it a good profile and present it in a venue which focuses on global health issues."

Overall, the Atlanta Film Festival feels less like an event shaped by its Southern location or any emphasis on particular kinds of film but more of a cross-section of the state of independent film. Krovich sees that as part of the event's strength: "There are a lot of film festivals from city to city, and they all serve a great purpose: They are the distribution of these independent films. At the core, AFF is similar, exposing the market to the films that are out there."

Krovich points to Joe Swanberg's romance Hannah Takes the Stairs (April 22, 7 p.m. and April 23, 2:45 p.m.) as embodying the value of film festivals: "The entire cast is made up of people who have directed films that were on the festival circuit last year. Now, with the Internet, MySpace, YouTube, this [film] community is growing up. When so many festivals are going up all over the place and with so many films available on DVD, people wonder what is the point of a film festival. Hannah is an answer to that, because you see filmmakers forming a community with each other and with audiences."

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