Love or hate it, Damon Russell’s Snow on Tha Bluff is a captivating film that questions the notions of documentary and fiction.
Part documentary, part drama, Snow follows real life drug dealer and robber, Curtis Snow, during his day-to-day activities in Atlanta’s infamous ‘Bluff’ neighborhood. The Bluff is well known for heroin production, poverty and prostitution, and in 2010 was ranked the 5th most dangerous neighborhood in the US.
Much of the story is based on true events, so much so that Curtis (who plays himself) was arrested on suspicion that he committed crimes portrayed in the film. A notion that director Damon Russell chose to defuse by comparing the film to The Blair Witch Project (a completely fictitious film). Curtis explained in an interview with Vice that he could not outline which scenes were wholly real or fake. However, he did say that a lot of the footage was just shot during his day-to-day in the Bluff. And it does really show.
What is interesting about Snow is its ability to bounce back and forth from shootings and drug deals to heartwarming moments between Curtis and his family. There is also something exciting about a film that blends low grade, handheld camera footage with well composed, focused images from nicer equipment. This is due to the fact that Curtis began making the film himself, his first film in fact, and was only later joined by director Damon Russell. These two layers provide different focuses in the film: bouncing between clean observation and gritty narrative.
Its genuine approach harks not only on the real sets and non-professional actors that are landmarks of Italian Neorealism, but on reality television, documentary and gangster film. This is apparent during the opening scene when we see Curtis steal a video camera from a group of teenagers. There is something absolutely convincing about the crazed look in Curtis’ eyes during the robbery. However, this is quickly contrasted by the staged feeling of it: good camera placement, mediocre acting and reality-TV style ‘shaky cam.’ Interestingly, the same video camera becomes the lens from which part of the story is told to the viewer, pixilation and all.
The opening robbery not only jolts us into Curtis’ world, but is emblematic to the film as a whole. It shows us that we are merely outsiders watching what might as well be a documentary because we cannot separate fact from fiction. It does what any good documentary does, it teaches us about a place or subject otherwise unknown to us. In this case, a world that is as exotic as it is destitute, where a traditional documentary filmmaker would surely not survive.
In contrast, the staged qualities reduce the intensity of some of the poverty and violent crime represented in the film. Ultimately, this helps the movie from being pigeonholed as a gangster or exploitation film, while also allowing the audience an emotional way out. Curtis told Vice that he hopes that the film provides him and his son and the money needed to move away from the Bluff for good. He also hopes that it educates people around the US about the situation there so that the community can get the help it needs. Curtis also recently started a non-profit to further this goal.
This film is one of a kind, and like it or not, it is bound to get more critical notice in years to come. It is raw and character driven, and has already made it from bootlegged copies in the streets of Atlanta to Walmart, Amazon and even Netflix. You can guarantee we are going to see Curtis’ charismatic face again in the years to come.
I would love to hear what you think.