Documentary filmmaking flourishes at 48th annual Atlanta Film Festival

True crime podcast, slavery, Olympic goals and the South’s influence on hip-pop among topics explored.
"Makayla's Voice: A Letter to the World" is a short documentary by Georgia-based filmmaker Julio Palacio featured at the 48th Atlanta Film Festival.
(Courtesy of Atlanta Film Festival)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

"Makayla's Voice: A Letter to the World" is a short documentary by Georgia-based filmmaker Julio Palacio featured at the 48th Atlanta Film Festival. (Courtesy of Atlanta Film Festival)

For the first time in its history, the 48th annual Atlanta Film Festival will take place entirely at the Plaza Theatre and Tara Theatre, two historic movie theaters owned by Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, which produces the Atlanta Film Festival. Shockingly, the Tara has never been a part of the annual film festival until this year.

In addition, a portion of the festival’s programming will be available virtually. A remnant of our COVID-era filmgoing, the virtual screenings offer a second chance to experience films at home, although Escobar notes that part of the beauty of the Atlanta Film Festival is its IRL component and “bringing people together to watch it as a community,” he said.

It is that human connection that activates and expands cinema as a communal art form. This year’s festival offers audiences the chance to see a number of films before they debut in theaters like opening night’s “The Idea of You” from director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), who will be in attendance. Starring Anne Hathaway, the film is about a romance between a middle-aged single mom and a young boy band singer.

The Atlanta Film Festival is also an opportunity to see a whole roster of films not likely to ever show up at the local AMC: both feature-length and short documentaries — many made by locals. So, by all means, check out narrative film offerings like the absolutely delightful and wise geriatric caper film, “Thelma,” about a 93-year-old woman (June Squibb) who exacts revenge on the elder-scammers who targeted her.

But if you want to enjoy the true novelty of a film festival, to see something that may not come around again, don’t miss the slate of notable documentaries offered at this year’s AFF, many of which also tell stories of community and its necessity in our lives. Here are some highlights.


This exceedingly stylish melding of first-person documentary and personal narrative centers on the unlikely transformation of David, a deeply troubled Miami man fixated on how his dark brown eyes stand between him and happiness. So he embarks on a scheme to travel to India for a surgery that will transform his brown eyes to a startling husky blue. Filmmaker Liza Mandelup reveals this strange wrinkle in the outsourcing of plastic surgery abroad following David and an array of other surgery patients from around the world — many of them people of color — all seeking what they see as BrightOcular’s life-changing transformation of their eye color. Many of the patients arrive in India with stories of painful childhoods, poverty and abuse, and it is clear they see this outer transformation as linked to an urge for an inner overhaul. 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Plaza Theatre

“Happy Campers”

Who deserves an idyll by the sea? Is it the wealthy homeowners in the Hamptons or on Kiawah and Sea Island? The documentary “Happy Campers” advocates for a very different kind of respite by the sea enjoyed by generations who occupy converted RVs, tiny homes and ramshackle-but-beloved beach shacks on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. An ode to the balm of community, to family legacies and a special slice of paradise that has united families for decades, “Happy Campers” directed by Amy Nicholson shows the magic of this place for the people who congregate there and brings genuine heart and respect to her subjects’ lives. 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25, Plaza Theatre and 6:15 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Tara Theatre. Available to stream.

The delightful, poignant documentary "Happy Campers" directed by Amy Nicholson
charts the escapism and community offered in a trailer park by the sea for generations of blue-collar vacationers and the painful impact of its imminent destruction.
(Courtesy of Atlanta Film Festival)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

“Citizen Sleuth”

A more cynical look at the idea of citizen journalists and the true crime podcast craze, this cringey doc follows a hapless but likable budding true crime podcaster Emily Nestor who sees herself as a kind of real-life Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Emily thinks she’s stumbled upon a murder masquerading as an accident in a local girl’s gruesome death in her West Virginia town. Emily has a gift for storytelling and an engaging presence, but her slightly bumbling naivete and lack of knowledge about how to conduct an investigation becomes painfully obvious as the documentary unfolds. Things get even murkier when Emily’s Mile Marker 181 podcast begins to gain some notoriety. 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, Tara Theatre. Available to stream.


It’s hard not to marvel at the odds stacked against undocumented Mexican immigrant David Avenando, who fixes pianos for a living in a business that employs most of his family. Avenando lives with his three young children and a wife who has become exhausted by their struggles in a tiny apartment in Yonkers, New York. You can look at Sunny Liu’s “Pianoman” as a tale of immigrant pluck, but it is also a window into the grinding toll that financial struggle can take on a family and how easily immigrants can be exploited in the capitalist enterprise of every person for themselves. 1 p.m. Sunday, May 5, Tara Theatre. Available to stream.

“Rape Play”

The kind of film you go to a film festival to experience, this ambitious experimental doc is ostensibly about the strange subculture of pornographic One Direction fan fiction and the young women who both write it and read it. But Gabriella Mykal’s layered, incisive film it is also about the murky line between desire and reality and how some of the graphic, violent fantasies expressed in fan fiction can have troubling results when transferred to real life. 4 p.m. Saturday, May 4, Plaza Theatre. Available to stream.

“Baghdad on Fire”

We tend to be glued to our televisions for the nightly news during the heat of global conflict and then lose interest in the aftermath. That is certainly the case for the Iraq War, once a 24-7 media event on our screens that has moved into our rear views as fresher Middle Eastern conflicts nudge it aside. Understandably resentful of past American interference and the current chaos and political unrest in their country, the young people of Iraq are the outspoken, passionate advocates for change in this documentary centered on 19-year-old Tiba and her friends who camp in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest government corruption. Their sense of justice and fury at how badly their elders have run their country will resonate with anyone watching our own politics unfold today. 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Plaza Theatre. Available to stream.

In the studio with Atlanta producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri. Dupri talks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his headlining at Essence Fest 2023 in the documentary "The South Got Something to Say." (Tyson A. Horne /

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Credit: Tyson Horne

“The South Got Something to Say”

Produced by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and directed by the Horne Brothers, this documentary chronicles the rise to dominance of Southern hip-hop beginning with the moment Andre 3000 announced at the 1995 Source Awards: “The South got something to say.” Featured is a who’s who of Southern hip-hop artists including Killer Mike (interviewed with a background of his vintage car collection), Speech, Lil Yachty, Jermaine Dupri, Goodie Mob and T.I. (who called Andre 3000′s statement a “battle cry”), as well as influential music writers like Sonia Murray. This documentary and the “Freaknik: The Wildest Party Never Told” documentary streaming on Hulu are further proof that Atlanta continues to influence everything. 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 1, Plaza Theatre. Available to stream.


One of the many short documentaries featured at this year’s Atlanta Film festival made by Georgia directors, Lev Omelchenko’s “Olive” documents one of Atlanta’s old-school hipsters who give the city its soul. From her funky Cabbagetown bungalow, scrappy Olive creates meals for the needy, cleans houses and has been known to dress up as a baby in an enormous diaper for a party at the indie arts venue the Bakery founded by her daughter. Shown with “Pianoman,” 1 p.m. Sunday, May 5, Tara Theatre. Available to stream.

“About a Bow Shot Away”

A beautiful portrait of parental devotion and the desire to support a child in her passion, Kennesaw State University professor Sangsun Choi’s documentary short centers on a young Atlanta Korean-American archer trying to one day become the youngest Olympic archer. Her father builds an archery stand in their yard and becomes her coach, and both her parents find a way to make their daughter’s passion their own. Doc Shorts: Honoring the Call, 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 28, Tara Theatre. Available to stream.

“Makayla’s Voice: A Letter to the World”

Georgia State grad Julio Palacio has created another ode to great parenting in a sweet, wonderfully constructed doc blending live action and animation. The film’s center is Makayla, whose devoted parents have hired a teacher to help their non-verbal daughter communicate. For the first time, at age 14, Makayla uses a letter board to tell her family what she thinks and feels inside. Shorts: Georgia All Stars, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2, Plaza Theatre. Available to stream.

“Map to the Sirens”

A powerful collision of past and present, this short documentary by Georgia State University grad Demetrius Antonio Lewis is a stylized portrait of a modern city. Snippets of overheard conversations on MARTA, on ride-share drives and field recordings are juxtaposed with the secret history of Atlanta — the train routes that shipped slaves through the South; a former slave cemetery where headstones have toppled and been consumed by ivy and kudzu; and the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, site of a former slave market. Experimental Shorts, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 28 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday, May 4, Plaza Theatre. Available to stream.


Atlanta Film Festival. April 25-May 5. $13-$16 individual tickets. Passes and badges $50-$1,000 (price increases April 25). Streaming available May 6-12. Virtual all-access badges $50-$100 (prices increase April 25). Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta, Tara Theatre, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road NE, Atlanta.