Year of the Underdog 

Outsiders powerful symbol at this year's festival

If there is any reoccurring theme in this 30th annual Atlanta Film Festival, it's one that also marks the history of film itself.

While life often rewards the pushers and shovers, the self-promoters and silver-spoon-fed, the history of film is one of outsiders both behind and before the camera. Beginning with the hapless Buster Keaton and the struggling Little Tramp played by Charlie Chaplin in cinema's silent years, film has been an art form of underdogs, a tribute to the least among us.

That theme is certainly the order of the day at this year's festival.

The importance of underdogs to film's rich history is the central contention of the Georgia-made Turner Classic Movies documentary Edge of Outside: Independent Filmmakers featuring a cast of such indie icons as John Sayles and Spike Lee discussing the impact of maverick directors, including "Bloody Sam" Peckinpah, the subject of another AFF debut, the bio-doc Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah.

Iconoclastic film directors and walk-alone artists, even when they achieve fame, remain by definition outsiders, including the self-taught Miami painter Purvis Young, documented in Purvis of Overtown. But there are also several well-known and celebrated outsiders who are subjects of documentaries at this year's festival -- photographer Sally Mann to Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney to left-wing underdog Al Franken to folk music icon Woody Guthrie.

Oddballs of a far more esoteric stripe mark other featured documentaries, from Future by Design, about the Buckminster Fuller-meets-"The Jetsons" Miami architect/dreamer Jacque Fresco, to My Life as an Underdog, which reveals the desperate American scramble for celebrity at any cost. The reality TV and MySpace generation has nothing on Suzanne Muldowney, a middle-aged woman whose alter ego is the TV cartoon Underdog, whom she tirelessly and without irony portrays in small-town parades.

Outsiders such as Muldowney prove a powerful symbol in the festival, the end line of our own darkest desires. And like so many of the other nuts, visionaries, artists and heroes chronicled in this 30th film festival, it becomes difficult to tear your eyes away.


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