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The DC Independent Film Festival

At AMC Mazza Gallerie and Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue to March 6

A trip through the desert with two boys with no names—well, they call each other “Gerry”—Gus Van Sant’s latest film is a moderately defiant return to Indieland by a director who’s recently made such routine Hollywood fare as Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting. Gerry is an improvisational stunt, a tribute to hopelessly unmarketable Hungarian director Béla Tarr, and, above all, a rejection of MTV-era pacing. As the opening shot of the two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) driving along a sun-baked road is designed to announce, this is a movie that refuses to cut where you’d expect it to. That’s not the film’s only source of drama, but it is its principal one.

Based very loosely on a true story of two friends who got lost while hiking in the desert, Gerry dispatches its protagonists—let’s call them, oh, Matt and Casey—on a hike that leads to a “thing.” Disgusted to encounter a few other people at the trail head, they leave the marked path and set off in what they think is the right direction. More easily bored than Van Sant, the utterly unprepared guys—no map, no hats, no canteen—soon decide to turn around and head back to their car without seeing the thing. Eventually, they realize they’re lost. Night falls, and they smoke cigarettes around a campfire; Casey tells Matt about a round of the video game Civilization. After this moment, the film’s sense of time and place becomes blurred.

Far from unprecedented, Gerry evokes such precursors as Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Wenders’ Kings of the Road, and even The Blair Witch Project. It also suggests Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, another existential buddy picture that contrived to bring two straight guys to a moment of intimacy. Van Sant has cited Tarr’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half-hour 1994 anti-epic, as a principal inspiration. Viewers who weary of Gerry’s long, unbroken takes of shifting clouds or of Matt and Casey’s wordless trudging—scored to nature sounds and bits of mournful music by Arvo Pärt—may assume that the movie is as patience-taxing as Tarr’s work. They’d be wrong.

Stark as it is, the 103-minute Gerry is no Sátántangó. For one thing, Matt and Casey chat some of the time, their improvised dialogue covering everything from a particularly clueless Wheel of Fortune contestant to how to spot their car. The rapport between the two actors, who are childhood friends, softens the film’s austerity; the guys allow access to their private jokes, notably the use of the name “Gerry” as an all-purpose (but playfully pejorative) noun and verb. And Van Sant not only cuts more often than the most minimalist of directors, he also changes his vantage point fairly frequently; the movie’s opening sequence may seem fanatically rigid, but it actually alternates playfully between two different views of the car.

Things do happen in Gerry but often in a way that is purposively anticlimactic, such as when Casey figures out how to descend from a large boulder. Much of the film’s eventfulness is provided by the story’s natural backdrops, which often become foregrounds. Shot in widescreen format in both the American Southwest and Argentinian Patagonia, the film covers far more territory than two men lost in the desert without water possibly could. Whether or not this is an intentional alienation effect, the shift of terrain from scrub to mountains to salt flats adds to the film’s sense of unreality. Rather than Sátántangó’s dark, constricted sense of place, however, Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides provide open vistas that belie the characters’ increasing desperation. Still, Gerry is a hell of an ad for GPS devices.

Technically, Gerry would qualify for the DC Independent Film Festival, which is in its fourth year of presenting indie fare from around the globe. There isn’t any work by well-known directors in this selection of more than 100 shorts, features, documentaries, and animated films, but there are plenty of movies that are entirely professional. This is not a compendium of the sort of stuff that appeals only to the casts and crews and their friends and relatives.

Of the 12 films I previewed, most are fiction features about the travails, romantic and otherwise, of teens and 20-somethings—which reflects the relative youth of most of the filmmakers, as well as the fact that such films don’t require expensive locations or techniques. About half of them include scenes in which major characters enthusiastically expound on such subjects as chaos theory, gangsta culture, the marketing of Cocoa Puffs, the potential deadliness of Pop Rocks, and youthful romantic strategies—which reflects the ongoing influence of Quentin Tarantino and John Hughes. The influence of Béla Tarr or any other cinematic maverick is not apparent.

The most thoughtful of the fiction films is a semicomic action flick from South Africa. Director Oliver Schmitz’s Hijack Stories (at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 4, at Mazza Gallerie) isn’t just about tough guys from the townships who revel in carjacking. It’s also about an aspiring actor who escaped from a township childhood to an upscale, integrated suburb and returns to borrow tough-guy mannerisms for an audition—and about how U.S. gangstaism has stolen the souls of young men with few other sources of inspiration. The story and its final twist are not exactly surprising, but the critique of gangsta chic is provocative, and the relationship between the young actor and the head carjacker is dynamic.

Young men who return is a recurring theme of the fest, and the returnee is usually a charismatic, sensitive troublemaker. Writer-directors Kelly and Tyler Requa’s film The Flats (at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at Mazza Gallerie) follows hard-drinking smartass Harper (Chad Lindberg), who reappears in his small, unidentified hometown (apparently in the Pacific Northwest) to face charges stemming from a drunken tussle with a cop while attempting to steal a street sign. A force for righteousness as well as a philandering narcissist, Harper gets into a fight with a guy who calls Paige—the new Indian girlfriend of Harper’s best friend, Luke—a “prairie nigger.” As Luke labors in a legal internship from hell, Harper and Paige (Jade Herrera) become close—which ultimately threatens Harper’s friendship with Luke (Sean Christensen). Not everyone will find Harper as endearing as the Requas do, but the film’s dialogue, performances, and milieu are all convincing.

Low-key and grungy yet essentially a fairy tale, Coney Island Baby (at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 6, at Mazza Gallerie) is the saga of Billy, who returns from upstate New York to his Irish hometown to retrieve his girlfriend, Bridget, the local beauty and an auto mechanic. Billy (Karl Geary) hasn’t exactly kept in touch, and when he arrives he finds that his true love is engaged. To raise money to buy Bridget (Laura Fraser) the gas station of her dreams, Billy gets involved in a variety of schemes, including a courier gig for two comic-relief drug dealers. Our hero is supposed to be hapless but charming, yet his appeal is dubious and his luck so good that the story lacks tension. The film is a credible solo directorial debut for Secretary producer Amy Hobby, enfeebled by a flimsy script.

Domestic drama gets a Coen Brothers-ly twist in Ball in the House (at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28, at Wisconsin Avenue), in which 17-year-old JJ returns home from rehab. A longtime alcohol and drug abuser, JJ (Jonathan Tucker) has plenty of problems with his buttoned-up mother, his hostile stepfather, the girlfriend who abandoned him, and his drug-dealing best friend, who’s demanding $3,500. What he doesn’t know is that a murder plot has entwined his family, which also includes a devious aunt played by the ever-conniving Jennifer Tilly. Once beyond the blatantly expository early dialogue, director Tanya Wexler effectively conjures a dark, seedy atmosphere, and her finale amusingly twists rehab-center wisdom into the service of a perverse agenda.

Beach-blanket bingo in the shadows of Brighton’s ersatz-Moghul architecture, writer-director Jonathan Glendening’s Summer Rain (at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at Mazza Gallerie) is a genial but predictable tale of shifting romantic alliances among

college-age kids in England’s closest approximation of South Beach. Michelle dumps longtime beau Gary at her 21st birthday party, and they pine for each other when not flirting with the new potential partners who immediately come their way. The roll call of friends and lovers also includes Michelle’s roommates, Vicky and Becky, and their acquaintances, who, if not quite interchangeable, are scarcely distinctive enough to remember the morning after.

Of the previewed documentaries, the most compelling are Renee Fischer’s 19-minute Those Who Trespass (at 9:30 p.m. Monday, March 3, at Mazza Gallerie), about four nuns who were arrested for protesting at the School of the Americas, the U.S.-run academy for troops of Latin American military dictatorships; and Anya Bernstein’s 29-minute Join Me in Shambhala (at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Wisconsin Avenue), which follows a lama who’s restoring Tibetan Buddhism to southern Siberia after 70 years of official Soviet antagonism to religion. Nathan Ackerman and Julian Mulvey’s Quiet Revolutionary (at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at Mazza Gallerie) is a 47-minute biography of longtime D.C. judge Harold Greene, the architect of much civil-rights law as well the AT&T breakup. It’s a worthy story, but the film is an unimaginative use of the usual array of talking heads, still photos, and shots of old newspaper articles. Despite some interesting testimonies, Charley Lang’s 26-minute work-in-progress Gay Cops: Pride Behind the Badge (on the same bill as Quiet Revolutionary) is equally pedestrian. At the other extreme, Ralph Torjan’s 109-minute Carlos Castaneda: Enigma of a Sorcerer (at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at Mazza Gallerie) uses an array of gimmicky digital effects to render voice-overs and talking-head interviews into a distracting neopsychedelic trip. Billed as both documentary and drama is Konstanin Bojanov and Ivaylo Simidchiev’s Lemon Is Lemon (at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, at Mazza Gallerie), a graphic 23-minute depiction of dopers in a Russian shooting gallery.

I also watched some of Colin Miller’s All Babes Want to Kill Me (at 10 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Wisconsin Avenue), a facetious action comedy about a disinherited kung-fu master whose unique scent causes buxom B-movie actresses to frantically attack him. Frenzy, however, will probably not be the audience reaction to this one-joke spoof—which is just the sort of stuff that appeals only to the casts and crews and their friends and relatives. CP