The number of film festivals has exploded in the past 10 years. More than 2,000 are staged around the world, dedicated to women directors, Japanese film, hip-hop and countless other themes.
As testament to that intense festival growth, this year the 46-year-old Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF) received 10,000 entries, an equation that can make getting your movie screened at a film festival feel as tenuous as a high school senior gaining entry into an Ivy League college.
The pandemic has done its part to hobble film festivals, but it hasn’t crushed them. Many, including ATLFF, responded creatively with drive-in films, virtual and now hybrid approaches. Following a hybrid model, this year’s ATLFF will return to indoor screenings at the Plaza Theatre and Dad’s Garage, and also feature special outdoor screenings at the Carter Center and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Viewers can choose to see films virtually or in-person, or a combination of both.
Running April 21-May 1, the festival can be loosely divided into Marquee titles (many of which debuted at Sundance Film Festival and have already been picked up for distribution) that ATLFF executive director Christopher Escobar compares to the headline acts at a music festival. Among them is “Emily the Criminal,” starring Aubrey Plaza as a debit-burdened gig worker who slips into crime or “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the feature film version of the absurdly adorable viral YouTube videos about a talking mollusk.
And then there are the “indie band” films (see our critic’s picks below) it might be harder to catch via streaming or in theaters.
Both the opening and closing night films are directed by women. Opening the festival is “892″ directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and based on a true story about a Marine vet trying to reintegrate into civilian life.
The festival’s closing night documentary, “Mija,” directed by Isabel Castro, centers on the challenges of undocumented Mexican immigrants in telling the story of music manager Doris Muñoz and singer Jacks Haupt.
For viewers who have spent the past two years trying to sort through thousands of streaming options, curation of great film as opposed to blind searches on Netflix is one of the appeals of a film festival.
“We really get a unique opportunity every year to bring people together that maybe wouldn’t otherwise interact or meet,” says Escobar.
The diversity of content (74% of this year’s films are directed by women and/or by Black, indigenous or people of color filmmakers), as well as the diversity of ATLFF’s directorial ranks, is one of the distinguishing features of the festival, says Escobar, the festival’s first minority executive director.
A lot of other festivals “are playing catch up to us in terms of representation for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community,” he says.
That interest in both diversity and Atlanta are themes conjoined in the homegrown documentary feature, “Refuge,” a Marquee film directed by Atlantans Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship.
“One incredible thing about our country is that we don’t need to leave it in order to encounter and know people whose lives, stories, faiths and cultures differ from ours,” says Blankenship.
“I am so proud of our city that has continued throughout history to not only be ‘too busy to hate’ but has also been on the frontlines of anti-racism and human rights progress,” says Bernhardt.
Here are our picks for some of the hidden gems to check out at the ATLFF this year.
A heartwarming film about the capacity for forgiveness and the human potential to heal after trauma, “Refuge” is set in the melting pot of Clarkston where immigrants fleeing persecution, war and seeking refuge come together. This stranger-than-fiction story centers on Syrian Kurd Heval, a cardiologist and pillar of the Clarkston community, who forges a friendship with Army veteran Chris, who has fallen into white nationalism. At its heart, this moving documentary is a layered picture of the complex, modern South and the potential for transformation offered in the American dream. (5 p.m., April 23, Carter Center)
“A Woman on the Outside”
An affecting family drama, director Zara Katz’s doc follows formidable young Philadelphia resident Kristal in her business shepherding wives, mothers and children on trips to visit loved ones in prison. Her mission to hold on despite tremendous odds and keep families together is personal, the result of incarceration in her own family. In telling details, Katz shows not just the unique challenges faced by Kristal and her family but the systemic ways the prison system and other institutions make life difficult — from the police who kick down her mother’s door to serve a warrant to the interminable bureaucracy that challenges efforts to keep a family intact. (8:30 p.m., April 25, Carter Presidential Center)
“The Balcony Movie”
Very relatable in our distanced COVID-19 age, this Polish film lark centers on filmmaker Pawel Lozinski, positioned on his apartment balcony asking passersby below to comment on the meaning of life. The people tell stories of isolation, glee at a partner’s death and exhibit a deep streak of defiance and a philosophical bent in this novel concept-documentary that feels like an Eastern European spin on Humans of New York. (Available online beginning April 21, watch.eventive.org/atlff2022)
“Master of Light”
This uniquely introspective, moody documentary directed by Rosa Boesten, which won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at SXSW, tells the harrowing story of Atlanta-based painter George Anthony Morton’s nine years in federal prison and his efforts upon release to heal, reconcile with his mother and pursue his art, inspired by the Old Masters but centered on Black subjects. The film’s technique of using copious close-ups and a rich, chiaroscuro cinematography cements you to Morton’s worldview and is a visualization of his ambition: to lend dignity to his subjects. The myriad large-scale injustices of poverty and racism are reflected in this deeply compassionate, incisive portrait of a remarkably resilient, determined man. (8:30 p.m., April 28, Carter Presidential Center)
“You Resemble Me”
This unsettling drama, based on fact, is set in the banlieues outside Paris. Hasna is a young girl with an abusive Arab immigrant mother who is taken from her family and her beloved sister, and spends the rest of her life searching for love and connection. When Hasna discovers a cousin has become a spokesman for Islamic extremism, she begins to see the remedy for her dehumanization in his message. The directorial debut of Egyptian-born, NYC-based Dina Amer, “You Resemble Me” played at the Venice Film Festival and was produced by Spike Lee and Spike Jonze. It powerfully conveys the loneliness and sense of injustice that might allow extremism to take root. (7 p.m., April 28, Plaza Theatre)
“Hands That Bind”
This creepy Canadian gothic about Alberta farmhand Andy (Paul Sparks), who has designs on his employer’s land but finds himself cut out with the arrival of the farmer’s toxic son, is a slow burn drama containing sci fi undertones with its night sky populated with hovering lights and fields of mutilated cattle. Sparks is captivating as a stoic, silent cowboy-type harboring simmering resentments in a joyless landscape where pain, hate and injustice are just business as usual. (7:15 p.m., May 1, Plaza Theatre)
“Soul of a Beast”
A melancholy modern love story, equal parts ardent and dire, with an utterly beguiling lead performance from newcomer Pablo Caprez, this Swiss film tells the story of a teenager raising his small son solo. A respite from life’s challenges comes when Gabriel (Caprez) falls hard for a kindred spirit and his best friend’s girlfriend, Corey (Ella Rumpf). A dreamy film that gets under the skin of true love and shows the intense paternal bond of a father for his son, this is a unique portrait of love and fatherhood with a very relevant, grim view of a world seemingly falling apart around its young characters with atmospheric direction from Lorenz Merz. (9:30 p.m., April 28, Plaza Theatre)
The insidious ways political policy is legislated is the subject of this shocking documentary directed by Julia Bacha. The film centers on how three private citizens in Arizona, Texas and Arkansas fight legislation that demands a pledge to support Israel as a condition for receiving state money (legislation secretly funded by the Israeli government). All three citizens are powerful advocates for First Amendment rights, but Arkansas Times newspaper publisher Alan Leveritt may be the most galvanizing of the lot as he laments how politicians are the new ayatollahs trying to legislate private lives and insidiously strip away our rights. (8:30 p.m., April 24, Carter Presidential Center)
Atlanta Film Festival. April 21-May 1. Various venues. Tickets $12-$50 tickets; festival badge $250-$350; digital access tickets $9.99, unlimited digital access $100. 404-352-4225, www.atlantafilmfestival.com