Atlanta Film Festival 2013 | Day 1

atlantaFF 2013 75Among some people, the love for unrealistic absolutes knows no bounds, particularly when forcing them on others makes them feel superior.


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The 2013 Atlanta Film Festival got underway on March 15 with an opening-night screening of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, but thanks to SXSW and day-job duties, I’ve only gotten to two films so far. Fortunately, they’ve both been good ones.

God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams, looks at a phenomenon I didn’t even know existed: the undue influence of American evangelical churches on the national health and criminal justice systems in Uganda. In the 1980s, Uganda had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, but was able to bring it down rapidly by a combination approach emphasizing condom use, abstinence, and monogamy, and also by reducing the stigma of infection. Rather than supporting this successful approach, some American evangelicals decided that their interference was called for, and have been pouring money and manpower ever since into promoting abstinence-only programs, as well as running political campaigns aimed at making homosexual behavior a crime punishable by death.

You might wonder not only why people who enjoy all the benefits of modern science and an enlightened democracy would want to inflict something so completely based in ignorance on anyone, let alone on a society less fortunate than their own. The second half of that sentence is part of the answer—unable to peddle their nonsense in the U.S., the evangelicals have found a ready target in Uganda, an English-speaking and primarily Christian country with a long history of evangelical missionary work, and which has the lowest median age in the world (15.1 years), only moderate literacy (66.8 percent overall, 57.7 percent among women), and relatively high child poverty (16.4 of children under the age of five are underweight). Given the high population growth rate (3.3 percent, fourth highest in the world), you might think more condoms rather than fewer would be called for, but among some people, the love for unrealistic absolutes knows no bounds, particularly when forcing them on others makes them feel superior.

Nichols’ primary focus is on members of the International House of Prayer, a Kansas City-based church referred to unironically as IHOP, including minister Lou Engle, missionary Joanna Watson, director of media Jono Hall, and a whole succession of fresh-faced missionaries utterly convinced that they are doing God’s work and bringing enlightenment to Uganda. Also appearing are Pastor Scott Lively, an American anti-LGBT activist now standing trial in U.S. Federal Court on charges of inciting the persecution and murder of gays and lesbians in Uganda; the Uganda Pastor Martin Ssempa, whose mission is to “kick sodomy out of Uganda” (in case of failure, he maintains a home in Las Vegas); the truly heroic Reverand Kapya Kaoma, an Ugandan Anglican priest now in exile due to his activism support LGBT people in Uganda; and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a LGBT activist who was stripped of his position in the Church of Uganda but continues to provide humanitarian and religious services to Ugandans.

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Casting By, directed by Tom Donahue, is a love letter to the casting industry in general, and to the pioneering casting director Marion Dougherty in particular. Along the way, it provides a history of how the production of Hollywood movies have changed over the years, from the early days of contract players—who specialized in types, and were often placed into roles because they were available, rather than because they were right for the part—to our present-day belief that casting is an art, and that getting the right actor for a role is a huge factor (80 to 90 percent, according to some directors) in a film’s success.

Dougherty got her start in television, working on Kraft Television Theatre, Naked City, and Route 66. She developed an aesthetic favoring interesting actors (many with experience on the New York stage) rather than Hollywood glamour boys and girls. A steady procession of movie stars who got their start with her testifies to her good judgment—James Dean, Gene Hackman, Jon Voigt, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Maureen Stapleton, Warren Beatty, and Robert Duvall among them. Even when they were bad at an audition or in their first role, Dougherty could see potential and had the courage to argue for them in later performances—a notable example being Voigt, who recalls how terrible he was in a Naked City episode, and marvels at how she later championed him for the career-making role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy over the better-known Michael Sarazzin.

A secondary theme in Casting By is the lack of industry appreciation for the importance of the casting director. Even that title is contested, as the Director’s Guild claims that a film can have only one director (I guess that explains the popularity of referring to the director of photography as the “DP,” even though everyone knows what it means). There is still no Academy Award for casting, a rather bizarre choice given that specialties such as makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing, and visual effects all get their own Oscar. Dougherty, who died in 2011, didn’t let the lack of recognition, or the inevitable back-stabbings (she does have a great Michael Eisner story), bother her too much—at least as presented in this film. She concentrated on doing her work, and on nurturing the talents of young casting directors, as well as actors and directors—Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis, and Lynn Stalmaster are among the casting directors who got their start working for her. | Sarah Boslaugh

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