Chris Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival, is not exactly joking when he says, “It’s kind of a miracle we’ve been around this long.”
In its 46th year, the festival has been led over five decades by many people, none of whom stayed in the job for more than five years. This is Escobar’s 11th.
“This started very much as a grassroots organization,” he says. “It was not one person’s baby, but a community vision. And it doesn’t matter how great other people were if they didn’t stick around long enough to get relationships deep-rooted.”
Arguably, during his tenure, Atlanta Film Festival has been developing that sense of continuity, in tandem with Atlanta and Georgia’s explosion in film and television production.
Kicking off for 11 days on Thursday, the annual festival is returning to in-person screenings at Plaza Theatre, the 1939 neighborhood movie house that Escobar owns, and at Dad’s Garage, with outdoor screenings also at the Carter Center and Atlanta Botanical Garden. Though it’s also possible to view the films remotely, due to pandemic precautions, this marks the first festival in three years to have an ease to the proceeding that seems semi-post-Covid.
The actual screenings, and the socialization that comes during and afterward (lobby chats, discussions/arguments about films over drinks) are two of the three legs of the “tripod” that Escobar says gives the festival its foundation. The third is the educational-outreach aspect delivered by the Creative Conference, featuring film and TV industry experts sharing their knowledge; and informal hangouts, scheduled at venues where festival participants and audience members can mingle.
“We received 10,000 submissions from 30-plus countries this year,” Escobar says. “There’s no other arts organization in the Southeast, frankly, that gets that many works of art from any discipline.” More than 150 of them were chosen for festival programming, and it’s safe to say, with that number, there’s something here for everyone. Also of note: 74 percent of the films are directed by artists who identify as female or non-binary and/or are Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC).
Over his decade-plus run as Atlanta Film Festival director, Escobar says he’s realized one important thing. “Part of what I’ve learned is how to make it distinctly Atlanta, rather than our version of someone else’s thing,” he says. “It would be a fool’s errand to try to pretend to be a version of Sundance, which has 40 times more money than we do.” Instead he finds inspiration and ideas in other regional festivals, such as the ones in New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami and Sarasota.
As often happens with annual festivals, certain themes appear among the films. Escobar says he’s noticed a response to our global experience with Covid. “There’s still a lot of grieving that’s happening,” he says. The theme turns up in the kind of movies Hollywood doesn’t send any more to the multiplex. “Those films need a place and a space. They’re important stories to tell, and that’s one thing film festivals are vital for.”
This year, Escobar has a few favorites — and they reflect his background, studying documentary filmmaking at Georgia State University. They’re all three documentaries: After Sherman, In the Muck and Boycott. “There may be a lot of accomplished films that don’t work for me personally, but one that really does is After Sherman,” he says of the doc about South Carolina’s Gullah culture. “I’m a history nerd. I own the Plaza Theatre, so clearly I like things that have been around a lot longer than I have.”
Below are short reviews of films I was able to screen in advance of the festival’s kickoff:
To call this film a little all-over-the-place might sound like a diss. But it’s the various places it goes — determined by changing facts on its timeline — that make Jon-Sesrie Goff’s documentary so powerful. It begins as a celebration of Gullah culture and the way people whose families come from those South Carolina islands can never quite shake the call of that locale. Picturesque and atmospheric in its first half, with lovely animated interludes and beautiful views of the watery region, the film gains unexpected focus in its last act due to two modern tragedies: the mass shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, and the auctioning off of land (supposedly deeded in perpetuity after the Civil War to the African Americans living there) to contemporary white speculators hunting for vacation properties. Both things are heartbreaking in their own ways. After Sherman is a good example of the specific speaking to the universal.
Hands That Bind
For years, Andy (Paul Sparks) has toiled on the Canadian farm owned by Mac (Nicholas Campbell), assuming that the old man, estranged from his two sons, will ultimately pass the property on to him. Those hopes crumble when the prodigal, Dirk (Landon Liboiron, suitably awful), returns, now married but still a cocky, drunk loser. Andy wants the farm, but blood is blood, so he tries to find other opportunities — or, possibly, a way to get Dirk out of the picture. Meanwhile, strange lights prowl the empty skies above the fields at night, and cattle keep turning up, mutilated and drained of blood. The eerie desolation of these wide open fields is personified by the palpably lonely Hank (a fine Bruce Dern), an aging landowner with no family whom Andy rescues from hanging one day — something that Hank claims was a freak accident. The landscape and his employment prospects also start to take a toll on Andy, who grows beset by paranoia and by the preternatural. In addition to those lights in the sky, we repeatedly see him crawl into and disappear inside spaces that seem incapable of accommodating him. It’s a mystery. Sparks’ stony, increasingly fraught performance grounds a movie that’s haunting, and hauntingly good.
After she’s nipped by the dog she’s paid to walk, Kira (Julieta Brito) has an even less pleasant encounter with its owner, a walking male toxin (Federico Liss, sensationally despicable). He invites her in for a dinner she doesn’t want, along with his terrified partner Helena (Sabrina Macchi). It looks like Kira’s about to have a very bad night, but the tables are turned, and the two women are soon on the road and on the lam. Argentinian director Nadia Benedicto’s fable-like gem of female empowerment has a relentless, spare forward momentum, interspersed with some lyrical imagery of midnight woods pricked by torchlight. There are witches in those woods — or are they just women who’ve had enough of male ogres in their lives? A captivating film, a kind of South American Thelma and Louise fused with some fierce fairy-tale trappings.
In the Bones
The world premiere of this documentary (directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega, with Zandashé Brown and Jessica Anthony) follows three women-led families in different parts of Mississippi as legislation for equal pay for women and abortion rights are debated in the state legislature. You may have a good idea how those bills will play out . . . but the storytelling is appealing. The Strouds are a White family near the Gulf Coast with a history of derelict husbands and fathers. The Garys, also working class, are a Black family in the north of the state who ride horses and dress the bodies of deer that people bring them. And Cassandra Welchlin, in Jackson, is a Black professional working at the Capitol, trying to bring consensus among both GOP and Democratic legislators to give the women of the state their basic freedoms. The three storylines don’t always reflect each other in “ah-ha” ways, and the Garys seem to get less screen time than the others. But it’s a fascinating, dispiriting look at the state of our national (dis)union.
Learn to Swim
A talented jazz horn player, Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide) spends most of director/co-writer Thyrone Tommy’s feature not using his talents onstage. That’s because he’s on the mend from a tormented love affair with singer Selma (Emma Ferreira), a story that’s told in jigsaw pieces of fractured chronology that can take some getting used to. (If you’re like me, you’ll get lost in places.) Simmering with rage, Dezi is a hard character to warm up to. That, along with the warped timeline and the difficulty, sometimes, of understanding what the characters are saying, make Learn to Swim hard going at times. It’s more mood piece than plot-driven drama, most effective if you accept it on those terms and just go with its jazzy, hipster flow.
Master of Light
Atlanta-based painter George Anthony Morton has an extraordinary gift for portraiture, something he studied — inspired by Old Masters, especially Rembrandt — when in prison for a decade on drug charges. That his own mother may have been responsible for putting him behind bars, and not for noble reasons, is one of the driving psychological currents in Rosa Ruth Boesten’s compelling documentary. That’s especially true when Morton travels back to his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to paint his mom and try to understand their relationship. “Having a baby at 15, all I wanted was love — somebody to love me,” she says, which may not be quite the explanation (or excuse) her son needs. Morton is an impressive figure as both a man getting his life back together and as an artist. The film is an effective glimpse into the ways mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession can wreak havoc on entire generations. There’s hard-won power when Morton instructs his young nephew to write, “I am not what has happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
Miles from Nowhere
There’s a reason Miles (Seth Dunlap) is so unpleasant. He’s battling stage four colon cancer, something he’s kept from his onetime best friends Sammy (Shane Howell) and Victor (Cristian Gonzalez), whom he’s ghosted for the last few years. During that time, Sammy and Victor have become a couple, something Miles learns only when they all meet for what was previously a yearly weekend getaway at an isolated cabin. What follows is meant to be a series of emotional unburdenings, but it soon turns into wearying scenes of characters venting their grievances. Director and co-writer Jono Mitchell (whose sweet, baby-drag comedy Pageant Material premiered at Atlanta Film Festival in 2019) delivers his movie, also a world premiere, with earnestness, but he can’t redeem the whiny, navel-gazing characters.
Only I Can Hear
Whatever your thoughts might be about the feel-good best picture Oscar winner CODA, this is an insightful real-life tale about the challenges faced by children of deaf adults. Itaru Matsui and Heath Cozens’ documentary revolves among a group of teenage girls, each living with at least one deaf parent. The film captures the in-between-ness of their identities as they go to school, where classmates pity their home lives or think they’re weird. “I had thought that everyone knows [American Sign Language],” says Ashley, who recalls being tapped in kindergarten to sign for her class’ Christmas pageant. The kids find brief respite in a summer camp devoted entirely to CODA kids, who understand each others’ daily challenges. This sweet film helps spread that understanding to viewers as well.
Soul of a Beast
Whether you love it, hate it, are baffled by it, or possibly all three, Soul (among the films I’ve watched) is the likeliest to spark long, animated post-screening conversations. In Swiss writer-director Lorenz Merz’s film, Gabriel (Pablo Caprez), a single dad fond of skateboards and a samurai sword (good for hacking up watermelons) falls in love with a friend’s girlfriend, Corey (Ella Rumpf). The love triangle that develops is wrapped in a phantasmagoria chock-full of magic realism. (Atlanta Film Festival executive director Escobar rightly notes that there’s a flavor of Wong Kar-wai’s films at work here.) Escaped zoo animals roam the streets, but the most dangerous of them all might be Gabriel as he spins out of control through a narrative that’s fragmented in ways that seem determined to delight, irritate and puzzle you in equal measure. Watch it with someone you want to argue/enthuse with afterward.
You Resemble Me
Yes, the sisters are living a hard life, with an unresponsive mom who sleeps all day in their apartment on the outskirts of Paris. And they’re poor. But Hasna (played as a child by Lorenza Grimaudo) and younger sister Mariam (real-life sister Ilonna Grimaudo) make the best of things, playing in the streets and wearing matching birthday dresses that underscore their constant, teasing refrain to each other that gives the movie its title. But when their unsupervised frolics catch the eye of the police, then social services, the girls are placed in different foster homes. When we meet an adult Hasna (played alternately by Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani and writer-director Dina Amer), she hasn’t seen Mariam, who won’t answer her phone calls, for years. During this time of disconnection, in the wake of the 2015 shooting at the French publication Charlie Hebdo, Hasna falls easy prey to the charisma of a cousin she grew up with — now an ISIS recruiter in Syria, who has his eyes on other Parisian targets. With the relentless momentum of ancient tragedy, You Resemble Me merges with real-life headlines in devastating ways you might not see coming.