Georgia’s robust film industry plays a major role in the 42nd annual Atlanta Film Festival, which screens more than 150 movies at four venues April 4-14. Although the films come from all over the world and are told in a variety of languages, there is a strong local presence among the programming this year.
“I’m pretty sure we have more Georgia-produced content in our juried categories than we’ve ever had before, which is a huge testament not only to the amount of films being made from Georgia, but the quality is up there with everywhere else,” said Cameron McAllister, associate director of the Atlanta Film Society and a programmer for the festival. “(The quality has) caught up in terms of what they’re able to produce and how good it is.”
McAllister, 32, is something of a homegrown talent himself. After graduating from Kennesaw State University with a minor in film, the Atlantan began reviewing movies for a website he started called Reel Georgia.
“This was 2011, so it was just after the tax credits had passed and Georgia’s film industry was just starting to grow,” he said. “I traveled around the state going to the different film festivals and writing articles about all that was happening. There weren’t a lot of people writing too much about it. Then I founded the Georgia Film Critics Association.”
In 2014, he joined the staff of the Atlanta Film Society, which presents the annual festival and recently was awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Even though the organization is 43 years old this year, I think I might actually be the third or fourth longest-serving employee ever. There’s been a lot of turnover,” said McAllister.
“A lot of film festivals have more illustrious beginnings. Toronto was started by the Canadian government. Sundance wasn’t technically started by Robert Redford, but it didn’t really become what it is until he took the reins. Tribeca was started by Robert De Niro,” he said. “Ours was started by a lovable ragtag team of filmmakers who wanted to create a repository for film resources in Atlanta in the ‘70s. So even though we’re 43, we act kind of like a 7- or 8-year-old organization just in terms of our infrastructure and how much we’ve grown in that period.”
The Atlanta Film Society has 15 year-round employees, but its staff swells to 70 for the festival, which is augmented by 400 volunteers.
One of four full-time programmers, McAllister leads the team that programs the festival’s marquee films, which already have distributors or studios behind them. That means going to the Sundance Film Festival in January to scout for big buzz movies that are being showcased to distributors and studios.
“This year, as a prime example, our opening night film, ‘The Farewell’ that stars Awkwafina, that world-premiered at Sundance,” said McAllister. “And A24, which is about the hottest studio out there right now, bought it for $6 million and slated it for a summer release.
“Our closing night film is called ‘Them That Follow.’ It’s an Appalachian film made in Ohio, but it has a similar look to a lot of productions made in Georgia these days. It stars Walton Goggins, who’s from Georgia, and Olivia Colman, who just won the Oscar for best actress. That premiered at Sundance.”
Other movies among the 14 marquee films screening at the festival this year include “Teen Spirit” starring Elle Fanning and the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
But the majority of films that make up the festival’s programming are submitted by independent filmmakers. Organizers received 8,414 submissions this year, a thousand more than last year. When it comes to competing for prizes, all films qualify for the Audience Awards, but programmers nominate only eight films for juried prizes, including best narrative feature and best documentary feature. Winners of the best short films — narrative, documentary and animated — are short-listed for Academy Award competition.
Along with Kevon Pryce, McAllister also programs a selection of Georgia films, totaling 33 this year. To encourage local filmmakers to submit their movies for consideration, the submission cost is subsidized for films made in Georgia by Georgia filmmakers.
“Local films mean so much to us,” said McAllister. “Twenty percent of our programming is locally tied films.”
A highlight among Georgia films nominated for competition is “Always in Season,” a powerful documentary directed by Jacqueline Olive about lynching and the death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy, whose body was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, N.C., in 2014. Local authorities deemed it a suicide, but those who knew Lacy insist he was lynched. His tragic story is juxtaposed with a story about the annual re-enactment of what is commonly called the “Moore’s Ford lynchings,” the 1946 murder of two couples in rural Georgia near Monroe. Narrated by Danny Glover, it is an unflinching film that examines the horrors of “racial terrorism,” the devastating scope of it and its blithe acceptance by white society.
Among the Georgia-made narrative films competing for a juried prize is “Reckoning,” a world premiere written and directed by husband and wife team Ruckus and Lane Skye. Set in an isolated community in the Appalachian Mountains, this taut tale of revenge pits Lemon Cassidy (Danielle Deadwyler), a mother willing to do anything to save her child, against a chilling villain named Tommy Knox (Catherine Dyer), a molasses-mouthed mother figure who spouts blood-curdling “bless your heart” threats while rolling out biscuit dough in her sunny kitchen.
Also competing for best narrative feature is the offbeat black comedy “Greener Grass,” set in a surreal, pastel-colored suburb where trying too hard to fit in can lead to tragicomic circumstances. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe co-wrote, co-directed and co-star. The film also features “Saturday Night Live’s” Beck Bennett and D’Arcy Carden, who plays Janet on “The Good Place.”
Other Georgia films of note include “Pageant Material,” a feel-good dramedy directed and co-written by Jonothon Mitchell about a small-town Southern teen who struggles to embrace his sexual identity, and “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” a haunting, 20-minute music video directed by self-taught artist and musician Lonnie Holley and Cyrus Moussavi.
In addition to screenings, there are a variety of related events, including the Image Film Awards Gala and the Creative Conference of panels on producing, acting, casting, distribution and funding and more. For details, go to atlantafilmfestival.com.
Atlanta Film Festival. April 4-14. $13 advance, $15 door. $50 opening and closing nights. $125-$175 festival badges. $30 Creative Conference day pass. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. Dad’s Garage Theatre, 569 Ezzard St., Atlanta. And other locations. 470-296-0170, atlantafilmfestival.com.
Opening Night: ‘The Farewell.’ 7 p.m. April 5. Plaza Theatre
‘I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.’7:30 p.m. April 4. Plaza Theatre.
‘Always in Season.’ 4:30 p.m. April 7. Plaza Theatre.
‘Reckoning.’ 7 p.m. April 7. Plaza Theatre.
‘Pageant Material.’ 9:15 p.m. April 9. Dad’s Garage Theatre
‘Greener Grass.’ 9:30 p.m. April 12. Plaza Theatre
Closing Night: ‘Them That Follow.’ 7:30 p.m. April 13. Plaza Theater
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.