ArtsATL > Film > Preview: The Atlanta Film Fest enters 39th year with higher ambitions, more local fare

Preview: The Atlanta Film Fest enters 39th year with higher ambitions, more local fare

James Franco, who stars in I Am Michael, will be in Atlanta for the film's screening.
James Franco, who stars in I Am Michael, will be in Atlanta for the film's screening.
James Franco stars in I Am Michael.

Now in its 39th year, the Atlanta Film Festival kicks off 10 days of feature-length narrative and documentary films and a whole bunch of shorts subjects. Venues include the Plaza Theatre, the Woodruff Arts Center and others. The titles range from the global to the local, with emphases on films with Georgia ties, LGBT themes and work directed by women.

Creative director Kristy Breneman, at the helm of her first festival, recently discussed with ArtsATL the state of the festival as it comes close to the end of its fourth decade. Below the Q&A you can find mini reviews of five of the festival’s narrative features that I recommend, including the opening night film I Am Michael. And be sure to read Jeff Stafford’s ArtsATL story on Monday about the festival’s local ties. 

2015-ATLFF-Square-Logo-Main-TransFor full info on the festival, click here.

ArtsATL: New eyes are always good ones, so I’d like to know what your perspective on the festival was when you first got involved.

Kristy Breneman: I have been involved with the festival for four years now, but this is my first year as the creative director. When I first got involved, we were still hosting the festival at Midtown Art Cinema. It was awesome, but I think the people who traveled here didn’t get to see much of Atlanta as a result, and that was kind of reflected in the programming as well. Moving to Virginia Highlands and Little Five Points coincided with, and almost seems a little symbolic of, our shift back towards including more independent and local work, as well as highlighting diverse films from all over the world. 

ArtsATL: At 38 years, the Atlanta Film Festival is the city’s oldest. It has gone through many changes over the decades. What do you think has sustained it?

Kristy Breneman
Kristy Breneman

Breneman: There’s a strong emphasis on the up-and-coming, a dedication to the exposure of independent artists and a definite sense of modernity to each [festival]. I think one of the reasons the festival has seen increased success in recent years is a revitalized effort to include that original spirit and attitude in our programming and curation.

The other thing I’d like to add is that the same thing could be said of Atlanta. That is, it’s gone through many changes over the decades, a lot of serious challenges, but here we are in this amazing town that people all over the country are looking at as the next great American city, right? And the film festival is through and through an Atlantan organization. One of the questions you get, especially as a programmer, is about the identity of your festival. What does your festival stand for? I have a hard time answering that sometimes, and I think it’s because our identity is Atlanta. How do you sum that up succinctly? 

ArtsATL: You started WonderRoot’s Local Film Night. Obviously Atlanta is increasingly a strong city for independent and mainstream filmmaking. But what is your sense about the audience for adventurous film in Atlanta?  

Breneman: It’s growing every day. I think indie film is something a lot of people need to be coaxed into. If you go to a city like Austin, or Portland, screenings are everywhere. It’s a huge part of the social scene. Is that because people in those cities are more “hip” or in tune with their artsy side than we are in Atlanta? No, of course not, they’ve just been to amazing theaters like Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and seen that the film community is not limited to a bunch of guys in berets who get together to watch Chelsea Girls once a month on their home projector. It’s a thriving, exciting, fast-paced world.  

Kentucker Audley (right) in Funny Bunny.
Kentucker Audley (right) in Funny Bunny.

ArtsATL: Every year, certain themes often emerge in films that are curated by festivals around the globe. I’m wondering if certain ones stand out for this year’s festival?  

Breneman: Definitely. This year is going to see a huge focus on women’s roles in film. We even have a panel called “Filminism.” Our program “New Mavericks” highlights some amazing new female voices and work, and I’m so excited for everybody to see the incredible films we have lined up. That’s one of the coolest things about being a programmer: you get literally thousands of submissions, and you spend all this time wading through them, and as you’re watching these little ideas start popping up, and certain films stick out and you think, “That will be perfect alongside (blank),” and all these themes start really solidifying. 

Every year it’s different. I hate to use the word zeitgeist, but I’m going to, because when you’re watching you can’t help but feel like you’re getting to look through a little window into what this year is, and what it will be looked back on as. 

Harper Graham, left, in God Bless The Child.
God Bless the Child.

ArtsATL: A film festival, like a restaurant, has to cater to clients’ palates. Some people just want comfort food, some want new and challenging tastes. Where does this year’s festival stand in regard to those opposed needs? 

Breneman: It’s always one of the absolute hardest elements of programming a festival, and it’s something we have to constantly be aware of and take into consideration. The most important thing to remember, though, is that just because something is comfortable and feels good doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad or unworthy. Find me one person who doesn’t think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a good movie. You like that movie, your parents like that movie, Roger Ebert liked that movie, and the girl out there making the next gut-wrenchingly challenging piece of art still hesitates to change the channel when it’s playing on TBS. And the whole thing is based on a story that Plato and Shakespeare liked. 

Everything we program is something we believe is genuinely worthy of praise, but some definitely cater to different audiences. This year encapsulates that with some incredibly diverse films: there’s an enduring one about a 70-year-old woman who decides to start dating again, but there’s also a film about a deaf school in Russia without a single subtitle in it, so unless you know Russian sign language it’s definitely going to be a pretty “difficult” watch. 

James Franco
James Franco

ArtsATL: Direct contact between artists and audience is one of the great things about festivals. Can people expect a lot of that sort of in-person interaction?  

Breneman: It definitely is one of the best things about festivals. One of the cooler things about Atlanta is that you don’t really get the paparazzi and the people who are just out there to meet celebs. Most people at an event are genuinely there to have some awesome conversations and just let somebody know they really appreciate their work. Every artist and actor is different, and you’ll have plenty that will shy away from jumping into a crowd and shaking hands, but I know a lot of people have come here to Atlanta and ended up at the Clermont hanging out with festival staff, volunteers and patrons alike. 

ArtsATL: The festival is a great mix of shorts and narrative features and documentaries. Also, there is an acknowledgment of works with Georgia ties, as well as those that are directed by women or that have LGBT content. Why are those categories important? 

Breneman: They’re important because they’re the only way the film community, or any community, will ever survive. Gone are the days of three channels and two newspapers, here are the days of fragmentation and do-it-yourself. People don’t have to turn on the TV and watch things that don’t apply to them any more, they’re going to gravitate towards media that resonates with them. Whether that’s their gender, race, orientation or their geographic location. 

On the flip side, people want to see new voices that are different from them. I’ve seen I Love Lucy a million times, and it’s still great. But now I want to see I Love Luke. Sleepless in Seattle was cool, but how about Surviving in Savannah? We take the opportunity to expose new audiences to new artists really seriously, and it’s a huge honor for us to be in that position. So you can expect to see more and more of that as we grow to meet those needs.  

ArtsATL: What new elements do veterans of past festivals have to look forward to, and what should newcomers expect?  

Breneman: First of all, we’re at a lot more venues this year. We’ve got screenings at 7 Stages and Plaza, just like always, but now we’ve expanded to include the Woodruff Arts Center, Georgia State’s Rialto theater, Serenbe, and the Fox. Plus we have all kinds of additions and improvements to our every-year events, like a totally reimagined “Sound and Vision” at the Goat Farm, and a “Food on Film” party at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. 

Newcomers who haven’t experienced the film festival before will probably be surprised to find that this is anything but sitting in a theater all day, every day. Each day there’s a slew of parties, bands, food, drinks, classes, workshops, installations and maybe a few puppets here and there. You definitely won’t want to miss it. 

* * *

Here are mini reviews of five films from the festival that I recommend:

Christmas, Again. We don’t know a lot about Noel (Kentucker Audley), except that he wears plaid, he’s not very good with people and he’s recovering from a failed relationship. Stuck in a trailer parked on a freezing New York City sidewalk, he’s selling Christmas trees — a job that lets writer-director Charles Poekel deliver a deadpan, lovely cross-section look at very different city dwellers all looking for just the right greenery. There’s not much of a script. That’s to the movie’s credit. Noel argues with his coworker. He saws a lot of pine trunks. And he has an almost-maybe connection with a young woman (Hannah Gross) whose current personal life may be packing as much potential sorrow as Noel’s past relationship. The movie is about close encounters and near misses. Sweet and melancholy, it’s a lot like life. 

Drown. A very hot gay movie, especially considering that it’s about homophobia. This accomplished Australian drama from director Dean Francis features a riveting, scary performance by Matt Levett (a physical hybrid of Charlie Hunnam and Guy Pearce). He plays Len, an alpha-male lifeguard whose supremacy is threatened by a hunky new guy on the beach (Jack Matthews). When Len realizes his new colleague is gay, things get very tense . . . especially when we realize Len isn’t sure whether he’d rather punch the guy or plant a kiss on him. Hopscotching through time, the movie nearly overstates its premise and takes longer to tell the story than it needs to. But it’s beautifully shot and powerfully acted. And did I mention hot?  

Funny Bunny. Whimsy is not my thing. That’s why I’m surprised by how much I was drawn into Alison Bagnall’s comedy drama. Mostly it’s due to the commitment of the three main actors, playing lovably damaged people. Gene (Kentucker Audley, from Christmas, Again, again) goes door to door trying to raise awareness about childhood obesity. One of those doors is opened by an unworldly 19-year-old trust fund kid named Titty (Olly Alexander), who says to this total stranger, “Do you want to have a sleepover? I have champagne!” The third member of what becomes a sorta-love-triangle is Ginger (Joslyn Jensen), a manic pixie dreamgirl and animal rights activist who lives in her own reality. All three characters are alternately charming and annoyingly twee, but the movie’s oddball dialogue and timing keep you watching all the way through to its ambiguous end. 

God Bless the Child. Nothing really happens in this movie — a lot of nothing. Unfolding with the steady realism of a documentary, Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s feature follows one day in the life of teenager Harper (Harper Graham). Not for the first time, Mom has run out on the family, leaving Harper to care for her much younger, rambunctious kid brothers. Those four are played by Graham’s actual siblings — Elias, Ezra, Arri and the diapered Jonah. That partly explains the remarkable naturalism of the kids as the camera follows them around their run-down house — bashing each other with Hulk hands, shampooing their two long-suffering dogs, playing hide-and-seek in the grassy wastelands near their California neighborhood. Some will be bored by the movie’s plotlessness. I was engrossed. Without any scripted manipulations, the movie creates an indelible portrait of familial love, endurance and forgiveness, and views chubby, unexemplary Harper as a patient heroine of near-epic proportions.

I Am Michael. In this fact-based drama, James Franco plays Michael Glatze, a fellow who went from being a San Francisco–based editor of one of that city’s leading gay weeklies to renouncing his homosexual “lifestyle,” becoming a Christian minister and marrying a woman. It’s a fascinating and provocative story, but tucked inside a fairly pedestrian movie. Here’s one problem: like hearing about someone else’s dreams (or, for that matter, their sexual exploits), watching somebody else’s spiritual quest can be tedious. As he dabbles with Buddhism, meditation, conservative Christianity and other paths, Michael consistently draws innocent people — straight, gay or whatever — into his own confusion and ends up hurting them. Then he dismisses their feelings by saying, “I’ll pray for you.” The movie wastes too much time showing Franco staring at himself in the mirror, or at himself on video. (Weirdly, considering how much acting he has done, Franco seems to grow less expressive with every passing year; he’s opaque.) As Michael’s loving, then bewildered, then angry partner Bennett, Zachary Quinto’s character is the film’s voice of reason. You wish the movie spent more time with him. Whatever its weaknesses, though, this is a real conversation starter and should be a great kickoff to this year’s festival. 

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