Atlanta Film Fest goes indoors, outdoors and online

A scene from the documentary "Socks on Fire" directed by Bo McGuire.
Courtesy of Bo McGuire
A scene from the documentary "Socks on Fire" directed by Bo McGuire. Courtesy of Bo McGuire

Organizers of the Atlanta Film Festival have become proficient at producing public events during a pandemic.

While so many arts venues and organizations have been shut down for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta Film Society has been busier than ever, producing three film festivals in nine months.

“Normally we have a full year in between festivals,” said Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival and the Atlanta Film Society, as well as owner of Plaza Theatre. “We had the 2020 Atlanta film festival in September, then we were the host of Sundance Film Festival in late January and February. And now the 2021 festival.”

The 45th annual Atlanta Film Festival takes place April 22-May 2 and will show movies online, inside Plaza Theatre with reduced seating capacity and on two outdoor screens located in the parking lots of the Plaza and Dad’s Garage Theatre.

It’s the outdoor screenings, Escobar noted, that have presented the biggest learning curve to his staff over the past year.

“We love doing Q&As with filmmakers after the screenings,” he said, “but we’ve learned along the way that a drive-in setting is not conducive because not everyone sticks around for those, and there’s no way to quietly sneak out the back in your car with your lights on.”

There was also a learning curve for the audience, he said. For instance, because the drive-in lots are in residential areas, the noise level is a concern.

“We’re so used to being able to clap and laugh, and at a drive-in, especially when people are there to support a local filmmaker they know, we have to teach people not to be honking their horns and showing their excitement that way because that’s not courteous to people who live nearby,” said Escobar. “We have to train people that flashing their headlights is a quiet but exciting way to show support.”

Despite the challenges of outdoor screenings, Escobar would like to see them be a regular part of the festival, even after the pandemic is over.

“Our festival was born in Piedmont Park in 1977,” he said. “We were born in a very non-traditional place and setting to watch movies. I’ve always wanted for us to bring back an element of that, so this has allowed us, out of necessity, to do that.

“This year we’re going to actually be doing a world premiere of ‘Carterland,’ an incredible documentary about President Jimmy Carter’s time as president and the impact of that, and we’re going to be able to do that on the lawn at the Carter Presidential Center,” he said.

ExploreNew documentary, ‘Carterland,’ re-evaluates Jimmy Carter’s presidency
From "Carterland," a documentary about Jimmy Carter's presidency.
Courtesy Atlanta Film Festival
From "Carterland," a documentary about Jimmy Carter's presidency. Courtesy Atlanta Film Festival

The festival lineup includes 25 feature-length films and more than 100 short films, in addition to other creative media, representing 52 countries, and they were selected with specific venues in mind.

“Last year, the vast majority of the films we programmed were selected with a normal format in mind,” said Escobar. “We had the advantage this year in that we prepared for still being in a pandemic and programmed films where we were thinking, OK, this one would work really well at a drive-in, whereas this one really should be in a theater, or this one would make more sense as strictly virtual. It’s much more catered and curated to operating in what 2021 is still like and optimized for that kind of experience.”

The majority of films were selected from filmmaker submissions, of which there were 9,400 this year.

About the selection process, programming director Alyssa Armand said, “It’s a process of thinking, what do audiences want to see? What does film provide? We came around to thinking largely it provides a bit of an escape and a healing experience.”

Reflective and resilient is how Escobar described this year’s lineup.

“That’s the point that we’re all in right now, reflecting on what the last year has been like, and, while there have been some trying moments, we’re also trying to have optimism,” he said. “I think these films speak to that optimism and hope for things ahead and appreciating the things we have.”

The films also provide an opportunity to connect with filmmakers and “perspectives that you don’t normally get to engage with,” said Armand. “We really just wanted to approach this year as offering kind of a respite to our audiences and, in many ways, it’s a celebration of this lingering, resilient power of cinema and the filmmakers that create it.”

A scene from the documentary "A Fire Within."
Courtesy Atlanta Film Festival
A scene from the documentary "A Fire Within." Courtesy Atlanta Film Festival

Festival highlights

‘Socks on Fire.’ The opening night film is a documentary directed by Bo McGuire about a family battle between the filmmaker’s homophobic aunt and gay uncle over their recently departed grandmother’s estate in Alabama. “We played the short version of this film a few years ago and have been following along on the journey to turn it into a feature ever since,” said Armand. “This film speaks to our identity as a Southern festival. It’s very much an exploration of Southern queer identity, and it kind of plays around in a beautiful way with this dreamy hybrid of narrative and documentary.” 7 p.m. April 23, Plaza Theatre. 8 p.m. April 23, Plaza Drive-in.

‘Carterland.’ Brothers Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz directed this documentary that examines Jimmy Carter’s presidency and “makes the case why Carter was probably the most underrated president in American history,” said Escobar. Online and 8:15 p.m. April 24, Carter Presidential Center, 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway, Atlanta.

‘Moon Manor.’ Erin Granat and Machete Bang Bang direct this narrative feature about Jimmy, a whimsical, flamboyant, fun-loving man suffering from dementia who hosts a farewell party for his assisted suicide. Joining him in the poignant festivities are his caregiver, a death doula, a journalist and the shaggy, shiny manifestation of “Intuition” that only Jimmy can see. Online and 8:30 p.m. April 29, Dad’s Garage Drive-in.

Riz Ahmed in "Mogul Mowgli."
Courtesy of Strand Releases
Riz Ahmed in "Mogul Mowgli." Courtesy of Strand Releases

‘Mogul Mowgli.’ Riz Ahmed stars as a rapper on the rise who is struck down by sudden illness just as he begins his first world tour. Having to put his dreams on pause, he’s forced to reckon with his past, his family and his future. Directed by Bassam Tariq. 7 p.m. April 30, Plaza Theatre

‘A Fire Within.’ This gripping documentary by Christopher Chambers is about a refugee who lands a job at Colony Square Hotel in Atlanta and discovers that the man who tortured her and hundreds of innocent people in Ethiopia is also employed at the hotel. She enlists the help of two friends, fellow refugees who also suffered abuse by his hand, in a quest for justice. Online and 8:30 p.m. April 30, Plaza Drive-in.


Atlanta Film Festival. April 22-May 2. $9.99 virtual events, $20 in-person, $15-$50 drive-in. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. Dad’s Garage Theatre, 569 Ezzard St., Atlanta. Creative Conference events are all virtual.