25 March, 2014

Georgia filmmakers stray from home in Atlanta Film Festival documentaries: "Limo Ride" (****), "Mayan Blue" (****)

Georgia filmmakers travel near and far for these ATLFF selected documentaries;
"Mayan Blue" (top) filmed in Guatemala, "Limo Ride" (bottom) filmed in Alabama.

As is usually the case with the Atlanta Film Festival, Georgia independent film is featured with an especially high visibility. This year, there are two documentary features, two narrative features and a host of short films from Georgia filmmakers. To go beyond that, several films are 'Georgia connected,' meaning they come from a filmmaker that grew up in Georgia, have a producer from here or some other connection that makes them slightly less of a Georgia production—but still something we can claim as our own.

This year's two local documentary features—"Limo Ride" and "Mayan Blue"—are anything but 'local.' "Limo Ride" comes from Atlanta filmmakers and ATLFF alumni Gideon C. Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater (also a Senior Animator on the excellent Georgia-made television show "Archer"), but was set and shot in Alabama. The film tells the tale of a group of friends who rented a limo to take them to-and-from a crazy New Years Day party and wound up with a little more adventure than they bargained for. "Mayan Blue" was directed by Atlanta-born, Athens-based director Rafael Garcia from Standoff Studios, but showcases Guatemala's beautiful Lake Atitlán. The film explores the recent discovery of the underwater Mayan city of Samabaj and the implications of the city's destruction on Mayan society.

A signature scene on the beach in "Limo Ride"
"Limo Ride" is pretty easily the most unique of the two-dozen-plus documentary features in the ATLFF lineup this year. Narrated by ten friends who partied hard and lived to tell their story, "Limo Ride" is a feature-length reenactment of 'the greatest bar story ever told.' After hiring the only limousine they could find to take them from Mobile, Alabama to the Gulf Coast for the annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Years Day, the group was stripped, abandoned, attacked, separated and stranded—all while seldom ceasing to party.

There is a trend in documentary filmmaking to get as close to narrative film production as possible, even going as far as to 'trick' the audience into believing that what they are watching is archive footage. "The Impostor" and "Stories We Tell"—two hit documentaries in recent years—both (differently) utilize actors heavily to aid their non-fiction storytelling. Alternately, "Limo Ride" exists in two codependent entities—an audio track of the accounts of those involved, and a wild reenactment without any dialogue of its own. Sure, you could listen to the audio by itself for a fun story or watch the video on mute for some great production values—but together, a story that would get lost in the 'I guess you just had to be there' abyss turns into a riveting, nutbar yarn so crazy, it must be true.

Without ever compromising its 'down-home' appeal, "Limo Ride" has exceptionally sharp photography and editing. A great opening credits sequence is the first clue that the film was in the hands of inventive filmmakers. The film never uses archive footage, and never attempts to look like it does. Careful and creative lighting transforms a real-life event into one that would happen in your imagination—complete with more polish, more colors and all the right embellishments. Thankfully, the editing is just as on point, since linking an hour-and-a-half long audio track of a ten-person story to recreated visuals is no easy feat. Some dips in the pacing occur, but such is the case with stories like this.

An individual among any group of documentaries, "Limo Ride" might not appeal to everyone, but will impress anyone with its creativity and detailed execution. 4 out of 5 stars.

Get tickets for the World Premiere of "Limo Ride" at the 7 Stages Theatre on Sunday, March 30th at 6:30 PM.

Much of "Mayan Blue" takes place beneath the surface of Lake Atitlán,
"Mayan Blue," much like "Limo Ride," is a unique selection in the ATLFF lineup. The only film at this year's festival with a scientific and geographic lean on the examination of a culture at large, "Mayan Blue" makes tremendous use of its settings with some of the best photography you will see this year.

Having first visited the Georgia film festival circuit at the 2013 Savannah Film Festival—where it won the Audience Choice Award—"Mayan Blue" is the product of Athens-based Standoff Studios, which is run by several SCAD graduates. The film centers around the discovery of an ancient city beneath the waters of Lake Atitlán, a highland lake at the base of several volcanoes in Guatemala. While the crew was initially down there to film something else, their focus shifted upon news of the discovery—a move that turned out very well for them. "Mayan Blue" takes a look at not only the excavation and exploration, but what the city's destruction meant for the Mayan people and how it shaped their views of the afterlife.

There are still so many pieces missing in our picture of the Maya, but the findings at Samabaj (the underwater city) help shed some much-needed light on how they might have changed after one of their principle locations was devastated. The underwater footage is as beautiful as can be; the deep blues and ancient grays feeling as alive on screen as they do peacefully motionless. Equally as beautiful is the B-roll footage of the wilderness, ruins and the area's modern civilization; as well as crisp interview footage of the experts involved. A complete narrative is told, from the first diver's findings through the heavy duty search efforts and analysis.

The film has been selected for distribution through National Geographic in a slightly shorter edit—something that will perfectly suite its audience. An artistic and meticulously crafted look at an important discovery and what it means, "Mayan Blue" is one of my favorite documentaries in recent memory. 4 out of 5 stars.

Get tickets for the Atlanta Premiere of "Mayan Blue" at The Plaza Theatre on Saturday, March 29th at 4:00 PM.


Potentially unnecessary disclaimer: Cameron McAllister is currently in the employ of the Atlanta Film Festival, which has probably only led to a reduction in Atlanta Film Festival content on Reel Georgia.

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