Atlanta film-lovers are in luck. The 41st Atlanta Film Festival is back from March 24 to April 2, presenting a busy schedule of over 190 films including features, documentaries, animation, shorts, upcoming major studio releases, music videos, pilots and virtual reality at multiple venues across Atlanta.
“We’re growing in a way the organization has never grown before,” says Atlanta Film Festival Executive Director Christopher Escobar, highlighting Atlanta’s recent development as a filmmaking hub as the reason why the festival has grown by leaps and bounds. “We’re hitting marks between attendance and submissions, stability and support, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We’ve grown the program as our audience has grown to speak to that broader spectrum of interests.”
The annual festival runs at venues across the metro Atlanta area including the historic Plaza Theatre, 7 Stages in Little Five Points, downtown’s Rialto Center for the Arts, Dad’s Garage, Avondale Towne Cinema and the Chattahoochee Hills development of Serenbe. Selected from over 6,000 submissions from 120 countries, the festival’s 191 films include 40 films with Georgia connections, representing the festival’s interest in featuring films connected to the state.
“Featuring Georgia is something we’re really proud of, whether you’re literally seeing Georgia on screen or it’s talent from Georgia in front of or behind the camera,” Escobar says. “It’s something we’ve always wanted and strived for.” Atlanta now regularly has high-profile talent in town, so festival events, panels and Q&A’s can attract big names, Escobar points out. Recent years have seen events with William H. Macy and James Franco, and such events often pop up shortly before they happen. Organizers say that a few are in the works for this year.
The process for a film to gain inclusion is a pretty rigorous one. The entries are selected by first being shown to the 150 members of the AFF’s screening committee, many of them Atlanta-based, then the films are slowly winnowed out as they’re shown to smaller teams of associate programmers, then programmers and then finally the programming director. “They’re watching thousands of films,” Escobar says. “It’s a big process narrowing it down from 6,000 entries to the 200 that we have.”
But in the end, the process, Escobar says, allows the festival to screen everything from the commercially viable blockbuster to the most esoteric arthouse flick, from works by established directors to first-time filmmakers. “A lot of stories and a lot of storytellers tend to be dismissed and regarded as not commercially viable by this industry,” he says. “There are people whose names you’ll recognize and whose previous work you’ve seen, but there are also people who you will recognize in a few years and be able to say ‘I got to see their first film way back when.’ … We’re proud to have that as a strong component of our programming. There really is something for everyone.”
Below are some Atlanta Journal-Constitution critics’ picks for the festival:
‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’
Based on American author Diane Ackerman’s best-selling 2007 nonfiction book, the film stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska, who, with her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), runs the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 Poland and tries to help save lives in the Warsaw Ghetto after the German invasion. (7 p.m. March 29, Plaza Theatre)
This Iranian feature directed by Abbas Raziji follows the struggles of impoverished 30-year-old Maryam, born a woman and living as a man, as her daughter faces cancer and she must find a way to pay for treatment. (9:45 p.m. March 27, Plaza Theatre)
‘WonderRoot’s Local Film Series’
Atlanta-based independent arts organization WonderRoot helps get the festival started with an evening of short films created right in Atlanta’s own backyard. (7:30 p.m. March 23, Plaza Theatre)
The Atlanta-based Fear Haus team presents a one-hour block of hand-picked horror shorts. (10:15 p.m. March 25, Plaza Theatre)
‘Food on Film: My Cousin Vinny’
Celebrate Marisa Tomei’s somewhat baffling Oscar win and the Southern tradition of grits with a screening of Jonathan Lynn’s classic 1992 comedy. The afterparty, free with a movie ticket or festival badge, includes all things Southern and grits. (Film, noon March 26, Plaza Theatre; afterparty, Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, 980 Briarcliff Road N.E., Atlanta)
‘City of Joy’
This documentary follows the first class of women students at a leadership center in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, who, despite the horrific abuse they have endured, strive to come together as a community to positively revolutionize a place long deemed by many as hopeless. (2:30 p.m. March 26, Plaza Theatre)
A new documentary directed by American filmmaker Maisie Crow focuses on the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, seeking to illuminate and humanize both sides of the debate. (7 p.m. March 31, Plaza Theatre)
This Georgia-made world premiere directed by Tamlin Hall tells the story of “boy-next-door” Holden Layfield, a small-town Georgia football player, who succumbs to a secret battle with mental illness. (11:45 a.m. March 25, Plaza Theatre)
‘San Fu Tian (Dog Days)’
A new Chinese feature film directed by Jordan Schiele tells the story of Lulu, struggling to support her family as a dancer, who comes home one night to find her husband and child missing. (4:45 p.m. March 25, Plaza Theatre)
‘Planet of the Children’
This family-friendly program of shorts for ages 8 and up includes everything from a story about a Louisiana Bayou girl who discovers she has magical powers to an Iranian animated short about a city-dwelling cat. (12:15 p.m. March 25, Avondale Towne Cinema)
Atlanta Film Festival
March 24-April 2. Multiple Atlanta venues including the Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta; 7 Stages Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta; and Avondale Towne Cinema, 106 N. Avondale Road, Avondale Estates. General admission: $10 per screening, $50 on opening and closing nights. (Opening night: the quirky comedy “Dave Made a Maze,” 7 p.m. March 24; closing night: the Yiddish comedic drama “Menashe,” 7:30 p.m. April 1. Both films are at Plaza Theatre.) Festival Badge $50-$750. http://atlantafilmfestival.com.