Guest of honor Monte Hellman was on hand to receive his Maverick Filmmaker Award during a sold-out opening night screening at Guild Cinema. Actress America Fererra briefly winged her way through town to support the Iraq War PTSD drama The Dry Land. The film, shot partially in New Mexico, captured the festival’s Film 4 Change award for “using the narrative form to illuminate consciousness about a social problem.” Response to the film was so overwhelming, organizers had to move the screening to a larger venue. Best Documentary went to The Shaman and Ayahuasca, an ethnographic look at the psychoactive plant use among Peruvian healers. The Best Feature Film winner was American Cowslip, a dark comedy about a heroin addict / gardening enthusiast in small-town California starring Peter Falk, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd and New Mexico boy Val Kilmer.
The weekend’s big winner, though, was Pickin’ & Grinnin’, a funny, tuneful piece of indie film uplift from actor-turned-director Jon Gries. (He’s probably best known as Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, but he’ll always be Lazlo Hollyfeld in Real Genius to me.) The film—about a pair of down-on-their luck musicians traveling across the Southwest in a battered RV—walked away with three awards: Best Comedy, Best Marketing and the coveted Cinephile Award, which was given to the film’s writer/composer/star Johnny Dowers. The Cinephile Award is handed to the individual who “watches the most movies at the festival”—an honor Dowers was happy to earn. Dowers spent much of the festival watching films and getting to know other filmmakers but figures he got the award just for “being so loud.” He was especially proud of the Marketing Award, though. Dowers and much of his cast and crew showed up in an RV (just like the characters in the movie), spreading word about the festival far and wide. “It’s what we love to do,” Dowers said via phone while trekking back to California. “We were overwhelmed by the response.” AFF was only the third screening for the film, after festivals in Nashville and Flagstaff. Dowers and his compatriots decided to shy away from bigger film festivals and concentrate on smaller fests along Route 66—“cities we actually shot in,” as Dowers puts it. With luck, they’ll be back this way next year.