The 2020 Atlanta Film Festival, which looks a bit different than in previous years, starts Thursday (September 17) and will feature 11 days of films viewable online and at daily drive-in screenings, and a virtual creative conference with experts speaking to various aspects of the business.
If the timing seems off, you’re not wrong. The annual festival normally arrives each spring, but this spring was anything but normal. As Covid-19 expanded across the United States, yearly traditions were abandoned or modified.
“The week of March 12 was when things really started escalating,” says Cameron McAllister, the festival’s associate director. “South by Southwest was the first festival that had to make some hard decisions.” In its case, the timing could not have been worse. With encouragement from Austin leadership, the massive Texas film, music and interactive media festival decided to skip the event entirely for 2020.
It wasn’t a good harbinger for the Atlanta fest, which always followed in the slipstream of SXSW. And things had been looking great. For the first time in the event’s 44 years, organizers had a “programming shut-in.” The entire staff assembled to watch clips and trailers of all films selected this year in order to gin up a sense of enthusiasm. “We were doing so well with how far ahead of the game we were,” McAllister says, “and we wanted everyone to have a buy-in for the festival,”
Even when news outside the office worsened, festival leaders, including executive director Chris Escobar, hoped they could just postpone, that in a few months an in-person (or partly in-person) festival could be engineered. But no, the health of filmgoers — and the filmmakers who would normally come to town to sit for Q&As about their work and mingle with the audience — was foremost.
“The first decision that we made was, we can’t cancel the festival,” McAllister says. Though it’s long-established, it doesn’t have the deep pockets or institutional backing other national festivals do. “We weren’t founded by Robert De Niro, and Robert Redford has never assumed control of our organizations. We don’t have the kind of padding that comes with those sorts of associations. Also, we’re kind of the scrappy underdog of the bigger U.S. festivals. And even if we don’t have the big names, we have the indie filmmakers. That’s kind of our vibe.”
So this year’s festival tripled down on the pop-up, drive-in screenings that the Atlanta Film Society (its operating organization) has hosted throughout the pandemic, held in the parking lot behind the Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland, which Escobar owns and operates. Drive-in venues added for this festival are Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in southeast Atlanta and Pullman Yard in the Kirkwood neighborhood.
Of nearly 150 films programmed, McAllister says his favorite is probably Ema, from Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie, Neruda) about a couple dealing with an adoption gone wrong. “Ema is striking and it’s hardboiled and colorful,” McAllister says. “It’s almost difficult to watch because it’s so hard-hitting in its story, and it’s infused with these magnetic reggaetón sequences.”
He also feels strongly about the opening-night film Blast Beat and the closing-night film The Glorias. Blast Beat, shot in Atlanta, follows two Colombian brothers new to America and trying to adjust to suburban life. The Glorias, shot in Savannah by Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King, the films Across the Universe and Titus), stars Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander as Gloria Steinem at two stages of her life. Also of local interest, in a festival brimming with Georgia connections, is Uncle Frank, about an 18-year-old girl’s road trip in 1973 to a funeral accompanied by her gay uncle (Paul Bettany). It was written and directed by Oscar-winning Marietta native Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under).
I didn’t get a chance to review those titles in advance but here are quick takes on some of the films I did watch from a schedule rich in female directors and films about culturally diverse subjects and characters. One important note: If you plan to attend any of the drive-in screenings, you must buy tickets online in advance. No ticket sales will happen on-site.
For tickets and to see the full schedule, click HERE.
15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot: Number 1 Will Blow Your Mind
In this Georgia-shot comedy, Brian Emond (who cowrote the script with director Zach Lamplugh) plays a journalist stuck with reporting clickbait junk for an outlet called Compound (think TMZ, only less respectable). His latest assignment finds him in North Georgia, hacking through the woods in search of Bigfoot with an amiable but inept “expert” in cryptozoology, getting lost and running into redneck drug kingpins. Think a cracked version of The Blair Witch Project. Sometimes uneven in tone, with jokes that miss as often as they hit, Bigfoot wins you over by the end with its sheer good, goofy nature. It’s absurd in ways that are all too plausible these days.
Once upon a time working at a Kabul cinema was an esteemed gig. Girls would swoon for the projectionist, who made the on-screen magic happen. Then came the Taliban. In this slow but cumulatively moving documentary, Cinema Pameer is looked on as barely more decent than a brothel. For survival, it depends on a front-door barker hustling in business from the street — almost entirely men and boys, raised without education, to the despair of the dedicated crew that runs the theater. A strict older staffer, known as the General, has no qualms about viciously slapping young men who break the rules by sneaking in hashish, or shampoo (for, um, self-lubrication). There’s a sweaty integrity and nobility in crew members’ devotion to their work. Though the films they show — action flicks smuggled perilously across the border from Pakistan — look like crap, they do the job that movies do: making our real world a little more bearable.
Dwight Henry, a New Orleans restaurateur lured into acting as the dad in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, plays the title role in writer-director Chris Bailey’s drama about a one-time basketball star mired in mental illness. Ranting to anyone he meets about his VIP play in the long-ago big game, he’s obsessed with his championship ring. Which he loses in an altercation he can’t quite remember. A teenage boy with hoop dreams of his own befriends the man, looking for a coach and hoping to get the ring back. You can understand the film’s goal to be an uplifting drama. It just doesn’t follow through. Without convincing character development or depth, and with a central character who’s as frustrating as he is pathetic, Curtis is too often a well-meaning chore.
Fandango at the Wall
Yes, it’s another one of those slightly exploitative musical travelogues we’ve known since Buena Vista Social Club. But the guilt you might feel is outweighed by getting to slip past the border to Veracruz, Mexico, to meet musicians keeping alive a type of indigenous music known as son jarocho. Varda Bar-Kar’s documentary takes an amiable ramble through homes and music halls, with climactic stops at the title concert at the border wall between Tijuana and San Diego, plus a quick trip to New York. It’s a celebration of culture and cultural disparity that only underscores that we’re all in this together.
For the Love of Rutland
In this documentary, the failing Vermont town of the title (population: 15,300) tries to do good and get some positive headlines. Chris Louras, its mayor since 2007, opens the doors to 100 Syrian refugees. Well, that happens before the 2016 presidential election, when the new administration spreads Islamophobia across the land. And the good, underinformed townsfolk hit the streets with RUTLAND BEFORE REFUGEES picket signs and organize to vote the mayor out of office. “I think that’s the eighth Horcrux,” Louras says when asked what he thinks is going on in Donald Trump’s brain. “I think that’s where Voldemort put the last soul.” The funny thing about documentaries is that a filmmaker may start with a single focal point in mind but life will throw in complications. Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s film begins on one path but constantly has to shift focus — from immigration issues, to health care, to the opioid crisis. In its tension, messiness and melancholy, the fate of Rutland — and the tone of this film — aptly reflects the country and the times we’re in.
The Killing of Two Lovers
A movie that begins with a man aiming a pistol at the heads of a sleeping couple triggers you for a dangerous narrative. What’s interesting is how Robert Machoian’s working-class, almost-thriller — screened this year at Sundance — fulfills and subverts those expectations. Clayne Crawford (a compelling, natural presence who can veer from warm to scary) plays David, a father of four who’s taking a break from the family at his wife’s behest. David is adorable with his kids, and totally rational when trying to hash through things with wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). Alone, he flies into rages, and we follow him one morning as he stalks Derek (Chris Coy), the guy his wife has been seeing. Sometimes director Machoian seems a little too in love with unbroken shots (David drives his truck, David runs through a neighborhood) that blur the line between artsy and boring. But some of those single takes, especially a tense encounter with David, Nikki and Derek, pay off spectacularly. Killing can surprise you in quiet ways you don’t expect.
Visually compelling but narratively limp, this Dominican Republic-set fable centers on twin brothers, the dark-skinned Braulio (Luis Bryan Mesa) and an albino named Candido (Ariel Diaz). Though their strict grandfather/guardian takes Braulio along on market days to the crime-ridden village of Malpaso, Candido must stay home in their isolated shack. When Grandpa dies, the boys struggle to survive while dreaming that their long-lost father will rescue them. The film is beautifully shot in black-and-white, and heavy on atmosphere. Too bad the script feels like an afterthought. The movie means to be timeless, but instead feels thin with characters who remain symbolic ciphers, not believable people with depth, agency or idiosyncrasies.
Some things shouldn’t be done on impulse. Like offering to be a surrogate mother for a gay guy you hardly know. Still, that’s the decision Milo (Molly Bernard) makes when she becomes acquainted with Roger (Patrick Breen), who’s older and mentions, in passing, that he’s always wanted to be a father. He shows more caution than Milo does when she offers to be his baby mama, and the caution helps ground a comedy that is, early on, a little too Brooklyn-hipster-glib. Gears shift when Milo gets pregnant and starts to imagine her role in the baby and Roger’s life as something more than they agreed on. She gets pushy and stalker-y in ways that make it uncomfortable to watch but also really interesting. (Bernard is up for the challenge of being quirky-awful.) Just when you think the movie is about to turn into some sort of baby-centric melodrama, like a descendant of Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and you’re just as tired of Milo’s antics and self-absorption as everyone around her, the movie corrects itself and slides into a wise, balanced ending. (This title is also featured in this year’s Out on Film festival, which starts September 24.)
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela
Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ immersive, cinema verité documentary embeds us in the floating village of Congo Mirador, a mirage-like vision of homes and businesses perched on stilts above a remote Venezuelan lake. The place has seen better times, and deeper waters. And it’s about to get even worse. The focus of the film, shot impressively over seven years, is on two women who live there. Mrs. Tamara is a Hugo Chávez fanatic, now equally devoted to his successor, the openly corrupt Nicolás Maduro. As a party loyalist, her opinion is heard — and, because it is, she openly accepts bribes from the locals, or bribes them to vote along party lines. Her opposition is Natalie, a schoolteacher Tamara would love to have fired because, well, Natalie has weird ideas, like wanting to have classroom supplies and actually give children an education. (Millions allocated for funding of schools mysteriously goes missing, and Tamara resents that Natalie makes an issue of it.) Meanwhile, the lake they live on is an increasing victim of sedimentation. The sludge is piling up and the water is leaking away, as is the community’s future. The documentary is rewarding in ways that only come with this sort of time-intensive commitment from a filmmaker.
The Outside Story
Charles (Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta), a web designer who rarely leaves his Brooklyn apartment, gets a new perspective in the days following his breakup with his much-too-good-for-him girlfriend. Locked out of his New York apartment in writer-director Casimir Nozkowski’s comedy, Brian — with no warm clothing and only socks on his feet — has to navigate the neighborhood with the help of people he barely knows (but who loved his ex). A little safe and predictable, Outside reminded me of the 1996 French film When the Cat’s Away, in which a young woman must explore her neighborhood in search of a runaway cat, opening herself to the wider world on the way. Being reminiscent of a film from the heyday of indie cinema isn’t such a bad thing.
Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill) haven’t been a couple too long, but they seem solid. Things change when Renesha goes out for a drink with her BFF, and gets drugged and raped by a stranger. (Yes, it’s basically the setup for HBO’s recent series I May Destroy You, but it comes from its own, original perspective.) It isn’t the sexual assault that’s the real focus of writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford. It’s the agony that follows, particularly the limbo of one long day when Evan insists on taking Renesha to the hospital to be tested with a rape kit. Make that several hospitals, as they face bureaucratic obstacles and their relationship threatens to unravel. Raw and often unpleasant (exactly what it’s trying to achieve), the film smartly dramatizes the unspeakable and unmeasurable collateral damage of something that has more than a single victim.
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