The titles in the 37th annual Atlanta Film Festival, happening March 15-24, can take you as far away as Argentina and Cambodia. But a large number of the shorts, features and documentaries center on our own city. That’s intentional.
“We have been a lot more aggressive this year about trying to find films that represent Atlanta in an interesting way,” says festival Director Charles Judson. “We definitely have a blessing and a curse, in that we have such a diverse city.”
Think about it. Atlanta is poised between cutting-edge technology and sleepy Southern history. We’re rich, we’re working class, we’re black, we’re white, we’re married with kids and we’re LGBT. We’re the city of tomorrow and the historic cradle of the civil rights movement.
“It’s important to stay relevant about what’s going on right now,” says Judson, a born-and-bred Atlantan himself. “I still keep discovering new things about this city myself.”
Among the 24 narrative and 13 documentary features, plus 15 omnibus programs of short films, 43 of the works were locally shot or include the involvement, in some way, of Atlantans. The opening-night feature, “Mud,” is a story of two Arkansas teenegers, starring Matthew McConaughey. It co-stars former Atlantan and Oscar-winning director Ray McKinnon, who’ll attend the screening. The festival’s last premiere will be “The Spectacular Now,” a Sundance prize winner for acting, directed by Georgia native James Ponsoldt.
In between those two, there are a whole lot of other local connections. But the truth is that most of these films are being shown not because of Atlanta ties but because they’re good — the ever-increasing fruit of a city that continues to grow artistically and commercially as a cinematic incubator.
Judson points to the deadpan, absurdist feature “Congratulations!” as an object lesson. “Here’s a good example that represents what I envision for Atlanta, both as a creative city and also as a production hub,” he says. “We have a lot of films coming out of the state, but one thing we’re missing so far is a recognizable voice.”
While Austin, Texas, for example, boasts established writer-directors Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge, Atlanta is still creating a recognizable cinematic community — though the makers of “Congratulations!,” working under the name Fake Wood Wallpaper, have been honing their skills here for a decade.
If writers and directors are still forming recognizable signatures, acting in Atlanta has been strong for some time. But local performers (Ed Helms, Julia Roberts, Dakota Fanning) have slipped outside the Perimeter before making distinctive marks here. Maybe that will be changing.
Some festival films that don’t have specific Atlanta ties still speak strongly to community issues. The documentary “Zipper,” about the politics of development on Coney Island, speaks to our own city’s struggle with progress and identity, while “Losing LeBron” could be a mirror reflecting Atlanta’s own deep emotional investment in our sports teams and athletes.
Among the blocks of short films, Judson also thinks highly of the documentaries included in “This Is Atlanta” because … well, look at the title. “It has a lot of diversity,” he says. “It covers hip-hop, race in Stone Mountain, autism and more. It’s a little primer on Atlanta that comments on different aspects of the city and gives you a sense of the breadth of what the city is like. Including zombies — because we are a zombie town.”
He means the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” in case you didn’t know — one of the many series and films that are shooting in the Atlanta area, and making the city an ever-busier place in which to make a cinematic mark.