From the start of Snow on tha Bluff, which runs without any introductory credits, this jolt of a film drops into a you-are-there crime scene: Three college students — one manning a video camera — drive into the “Bluff”, a desolate neighborhood in West Atlanta (“ghetto” would be understating it), looking to buy drugs. A dealer approaches the car, smoothly talks his way in, directs them to a secluded street, and takes the students’ drug orders. Suddenly, the dealer pulls out a handgun, robs the screaming students of their money and the video camera.
The dealer, Curtis Snow, steals one other thing too: the idea of filming everything he does. Using the stolen camera as the audience’s point of view, we tour the Bluff as seen through Curtis’ world. We are introduced to Curtis’ crew, his baby mama and two toddlers, his grandmother, and the street corner where his brother was fatally shot. We also learn about Snow’s business: selling drugs that are largely supplied, it seems, by ripping off other dealers at gunpoint during late-night raids. “They say drugs kill you,” Curtis says to the camera, before disagreeing: “They help you out. They pay the rent.”
The simple use of a POV camera makes Snow on tha Bluff riveting. Unlike the countless other independent films glorifying thug life, Snow on tha Bluff does not glamorize; rather it portrays the impoverished survival of the urban dealer, punctuated by constant profanity, nearly undecipherable slang, occasional violence, constant drinking, and weed or crack smoking. By the time the film closes, there’s no shaking the sense of wasted souls in a forsaken sector of society.
Often makers of feature films using a documentary’s tools — hand-held cameras, jumpy cuts, ambient lighting, fragmented narrative — say they do so to approximate reality. The makers of Snow on tha Bluff flip that reasoning. Because the footage is so raw, they say, the Atlanta police sought it as evidence in some criminal investigations. The director, Damon Russell, initially coy about what was real and what was scripted, has since emphasized that Snow on the Bluff is not a record of actual events, that it’s just another lo-fi indie film, like The Blair Witch Project. Make no mistake, though: real or not, there’s plenty to see, most of which you’ll find hard to forget.