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Like others of its kind around the globe — those that weren’t canceled entirely,  — the Atlanta Film Festival soldiered through the COVID year of 2020 as a hybrid of drive-in and virtual screenings. In our new era of vaccinations, that model will continue. But in a big-sigh-of-relief change from last year, there will be a handful of in-person screenings at the Plaza Theatre, which reopened in September with an updated heat-and-air system and ionization procedures to keep patrons safe.

“They’ve done a lot of work there, and we’re very lucky to be returning, even in a limited capacity,” says ATLFF programming director Alyssa Armand. “It kind of feels like a move back toward normalcy, or hopefully a step in that direction.”

Now in its 45th year and beginning Thursday (April 22), the 11-day event features the familiar and the unpredictable mix of narrative and documentary shorts and features, local, domestic and international.

While there was some concern last year that the shutdown effect of the coronavirus on film shoots might result in a marked diminishment available to screen this year, that has luckily not been borne out. (Granted, a lot of the films programmed for ATLFF were made before the start of 2020, so who can say what the 2022 slate might look like.)

“We’re trying to provide a platform that still does justice to the work the filmmakers created,” says Armand, even if that means most of them won’t experience the big-screen thrill of traditional festivals. “There are so many filmmakers who didn’t think their films would be able to grace any screen anytime soon.”

And the pandemic has had the occasional plus side.

“We have a more robust virtual catalog than we had last year,” she says. That may be partly because ATLFF organizers, like many others, hoped that delaying the festival by a few months might allow enough time for COVID-19 to significantly fade away. That didn’t happen, and the 2020 festival launched five months later than usual, in September, with staff having to retrofit programming into a safe hybrid. This time, they were prepared for the challenges and the new format.

“It’s kind of a benefit this year that films are available in ways that the audience can choose how they watch,” Armand says. “They can customize their viewing based on their own level of comfort.”

She continues, “I think film has always been a source of escape and also a means to create connection, either within a community or with the people they see on-screen, or the people who made the films. That doesn’t go away, no matter what changes around it.”

When a film festival has been around as long as ATLFF, it tends to build longstanding relationships with filmmakers. The opening–night screening, for instance, SOCKS ON FIRE (7 p.m. Plaza Theatre) is a feature documentary developed from the 2018 short ATLFF screened in 2018. Bo McGuire’s film about a feuding Alabama family won the top documentary awards at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Armand also notes three works from ATLFF alumni that screened at the Sundance Film Festival: All Lights, Everywhere by Theo Anthony, whose previous documentary Rat Film won ATLFF’s documentary award in 2017; the narrative feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair from Jane Schoenbrun, “an exploration of teenage identity and isolation, and how that can be shaped by the internet,” Armand says; and Marvelous and the Black Hole, Kate Tsang’s “really charming and whimsical coming-of-age story” about a young girl who becomes friendly with a magician (Rhea Pearlman).

If you’re more interested in behind-the-scene, practical information about the filmmaking process, check out what’s happening with ATLFF’s Creative Conference. Now in its 11th year, it includes 40 events and 24 master classes with industry experts from around the nation. For all things related to Atlanta Film Festival: atlantafilmfestival.com.

Here are short takes on 11 of the fest’s 190 films I was able to watch in advance.

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AKILLA’S ESCAPE

USA. 2020; 90 MINUTES. A Toronto- and New York-set drama from director and cowriter Charles Officer. His modern noir stars Morehouse College graduate Saul Williams (who co-composed the score) as Akilla. A longtime soldier in the drug trade, he’s trying to get out of the business before it’s too late. An encounter with a teenage gang member (Thamela Mpumlwana, who plays the young Akilla in flashbacks) changes his plans as he attempts to rescue the boy from his own fate.  Williams is a solemnly charismatic center to the story. But the film is running on overly familiar tropes from too many other procedural hard-boiled films about drugs, gangs and vengeance. Streaming throughout festival. In-person showing at 10 p.m. April 24, Plaza Theatre A.

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CARTERLAND

WORLD PREMIERE. USA, 2021; 122 MINUTES. Hagiography of the best sort. This informative documentary by Jim and Will Pattiz lionizes Plains native Jimmy Carter in a way that, well, is only supported by his radical, single, four-year term in office as president. From this distance of 40-plus years, it’s startling to see the risks the former peanut farmer took in office, clear-eyed about the repercussions he faced. He was ahead of his time in conservation and concerns about the environment. Unfortunately, he had a little too much faith in the public’s ability to make personal sacrifices to benefit the nation’s greater good, and it cost him. Fans of Carter’s post-presidential work with the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity might feel let down by the film, which ends with his failed bid for re-election. That would require a whole ’nother documentary, one I hope will be made. Streaming throughout. In-person showing at 8:15 p.m. April 24 at the Carter Presidential Center.

2021 AFF

President Jimmy Carter unveils 32 thermal solar panels on the roof of the White House in this archival photo from June 1979.

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 CLEAN SLATE

WORLD PREMIERE. USA, 2021; 96 MINUTES. Here’s a lovely, full-circle documentary for the festival, and a valentine to indie filmmaking. When we meet them, Cassidy Detmer and Joshua Litton are residents at A Better Way, a strict, no-excuses home for recovering drug addicts. They’re also major film buffs. Slate, directed by Jared Callahan, documents their against-all-odds struggle to make a short film about recovery while personally struggling with their own addiction challenges and relapses. The result: On the Fence, which screened at the 2018 ATLFF. This film features the friends’ triumphant experience watching their movie screen at the Plaza. (Clean Slate is one of the few titles that will also screen there in person.) This is the sort of documentary that can alternately break your heart, then lift you out of your seat. Streaming throughout. In-person screenings at 4 p.m. April 25; Plaza Theatre A.

2021 AFF

Georgia filmmakers — and recovering drug addicts — Cassidy Detmer (left) and Joshua Litton watch their film on-screen at the Plaza Theatre.

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CULPA

FRANCE–SPAIN–GERMANY. 2020; 84 MINUTES. The idea of actors and a director improvising an unscripted relationship drama can make you fear the worst sort of self-indulgent result. The lovely surprise of this German film, shot in Spain, is that, well, it’s a lovely surprise. Director Ulrike Grote gives us the tale of an estranged couple, Hanna (Janna Striebeck) and Mads (Joachim Raaf), trying to decide if their marriage should end. When Hanna escapes to their beach house without leaving her husband so much as a note, her behavior seems capricious and selfish. But when Mads arrives, you gradually come to understand — through the actors’ sensitive work — the characters’ tensions and contradictions, and ultimately the source of their anguish. Uneven, but a fascinating exploration of an emotional impasse. Streaming throughout. Part of the narrative feature competition.

AFF 2021

An estranged couple tries to put a trauma of eight years ago in their past in “Culpa.”

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A FIRE WITHIN

USA–CANADA–ETHIOPIA. 2021; 85 MINUTES. In 1989 Atlanta, Ethiopian refugee Edge shows up for work at the Colony Square Hotel and finds herself face-to-face with the brute who terrorized her neighborhood during the so-called Red Terror of the 1970s. Kelbessa Negewo personally tortured Edge and her sister Elizabeth and was involved with the deaths of many innocent people. Now he’s Edge’s coworker, pretending that he, too, was a victim of political atrocities. Through direct interviews and re-enactments, Christopher Chambers’ unsettling, educational documentary tells us how the sisters and two other women victimized by Kelbessa brought him to trial in Atlanta. Their perseverance and bravery are powerful to see. Streaming throughout. In-person showing at 8:30 p.m. April 30 at the Plaza Theatre Drive-In.

2021 AFF

In “A Fire Within,” three Ethiopian women survive torture in their homeland, immigrate to American and find their coworker at an Atlanta hotel is the man who tormented them.

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LANDLOCKED

WORLD PREMIERE. USA, 2021; 83 MINUTES. In director and cowriter Timothy Hall’s drama, a young Atlantan named Nick (Dustin Gooch) plans to scatter his mother’s ashes on St. Simons Island, and reluctantly, invites his estranged father in Arkansas to join him. What complicates his plans is that Dad is now a trans woman named Briana (Delia Kropp), and it’s unclear which angers Nick more: the transition, or the bad memories of how his father treated him before he left the family. The fascinating situation and a sensitive performance from trans actress Kropp is sadly undermined by an abundance of pedestrian dialogue and the glum, sullen nature of Gooch’s character. Streaming throughout. In-person showing at 8:30 p.m. April 26 at the Dad’s Garage Drive-In.

AFF 2021

An estranged son, a dead mother and a transgender drive the story of “Landlocked,” one of the festival’s world premieres.

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NEGRA

MEXICO, 2020; 72 MINUTES. The instigating incident came when writer-director Medhin Tewolde Serrano, age 7, was playing with friends in her Mexican hometown and was called the title word by some rowdy boys. Until then, she’d hadn’t realized that the color of her skin set her apart from others, made her a “less than” in the eyes of some. Her thoughtful documentary includes a variety of fellow Mexican women of various shades of skin, and we see how they all moved from suffering from so-called “otherness” while finally embracing it. The film reminds us that while racism takes different forms in different cultures, it has an insidious, awful way of taking root just about everywhere. Streaming throughout.

AJFF 2021 - Negra

“Negra” explores what it means to be a Black woman in Mexico through the eyes of five Afro-descendant women living there.

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SEE YOU THEN

USA, 2021; 74 MINUTES. Another ATLFF feature starring a trans actor. Director and cowriter Mari Walker’s drama centers on the reunion of a couple who were together several years in college, until the guy walked out without saying goodbye. That was more than 10 years ago, and when Naomi (Lynn Chen) next meets her ex, she’s the post-transition Kris (Pooya Mohseni). As you might imagine, it’s a tricky evening of catching up. For the most part, the movie is a long dialogue between the two as they drink and walk and reminisce. Naomi is now married with kids, a former performance artist who gave up her work to teach. Kris is now into men, though she’s only had one real boyfriend in all these years. Their conversation is sometimes trivial, but thoroughly grounded in character and observation. (There’s a great exchange about Kris’ post-transition, firsthand experience with male privilege, something that, as a man, she never thought was real.) As in Culpa, the real pleasure here is the pleasure of slowly starting to understand who these two people are — or who they think they are. The movie makes a couple of melodramatic missteps near the end, but for most of its running time, See You Then is a fascinating, beautifully acted work. Screening throughout. Part of the narrative feature competition.

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THE SLEEPING NEGRO

USA, 2021; 73 MINUTES.“I am viewed as a monkey, a freak and always, always viewed as a threat,” says the main character in voiceover at the start of this racially charged drama about the perils of being a Black man in America. He’s played by writer-director Skinner Myers, and when you learn that the character is known only as Man, you’ll get a sense of the film’s wish to be symbolic. That often comes with a hefty dose of self-indulgence. We follow the Man through a day of angry encounters — with his manipulative White boss, an old Black college buddy and improbable Trump supporter and, worst of all, his White fiancée (Julie McNiven), who seems to know exactly all the worst things to say, starting with, “Can you just, for one day, not point out the color of your skin?” The film is remarkably, horribly timely. It’s just too on-the-nose and blunt in its approach to its ideas. It often demonstrates the gap that exists between effectively dramatizing an issue, rather than just telling the viewer what the issue is. It comes off like a play composed of a series of angrily didactic, two-person confrontations. Screening 8:30 p.m. April 25 at the Plaza Theatre Drive-In. Part of the narrative feature and  cinematography competitions.

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WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR

USA, 2021; 86 MINUTES. Trans writer-director Jane Shoenbrun feature debut fools you into thinking it’s an internet horror film along the lines of Creepypasta or Slender Man. It’s actually a meditation on the dangers of online isolation, especially on vulnerable teenagers. In a phenomenal performance that carries almost the whole movie, Anna Cobb plays Casey. A teen with apparently no friends or support group, and a family presence that manifests only as an angry man’s voice on the other side of the wall, Casey cocoons in her black light-lit attic bedroom. We watch as she records a post announcing that she’s taking on the latest internet fad, the World’s Fair Challenge, which supposedly sucks the participants into a kind of living horror film (shades of The Ring). Of course, like most teens, Casey is both a drama queen and a victim of her own fears and phobias. Things get ominous when a middle-aged man, who refuses to show his face on-screen, takes interest in Casey’s posts. Trust me, Fair doesn’t go where you might expect. With a slow, claustrophobic pace that can sometimes feel demanding, the unusual, sensitive film is worth the investment. Screening at 7 p.m. April 24, Plaza Theatre B.

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WET HOUSE

USA, 2021; 83 MINUTES. Think of it as an opposite take on addiction from the one seen in Clean Slate. Here the focus is again partly on a substance-abuse facility, but at this Minneapolis home, the residents aren’t expected to recover from their alcoholism, but to imbibe under supervision. The caretakers are mainly concerned with keeping their charges from living (and dying) on the streets. The documentary throws us into the deep end, immersing us in a cluster of weaving codgers (pretty much all White, middle-aged and older men) who, to be honest, are hard to differentiate. The film has some gripping, uneasy scenes, as when one of the younger men goes home to see his long-suffering father and stepmom, and he takes an open bottle of vodka with him. Lacking much of a structure, Benjamin May’s documentary can sometimes feel like it’s crossing the sensitive line between humane observation and thoughtless exploitation. Sure to spark discussion. Streaming throughout fest. Part of the documentary feature competitions.

AFF21 The Wet House

“The Wet House,” part of the documentary feature competition, looks at life on the fringe for residents in America’s largest harm-reduction facility for alcoholics.

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