In a world where anything is possible behind the lens and Atlanta is re-imagined on film as frequently as condos go up in this city, it is often still hard to imagine women calling the shots. Out of the top 250 grossing films in 2015, only nine percent of directors were women. Less than 30 percent of films shown at Sundance and Toronto Film Festival are directed by women.
This year Atlanta Film Festival enters its fourth decade and with it comes a continued dedication to challenging these statistics and pushing the boundaries of what’s seen on screen.
“We’re always searching for characters on screen that you don’t see often or that you aren’t familiar with.” Creative Director of the fest Kristy Breneman said.
Breneman, along with Christina Humphrey, Alex James and Alyssa Armand, make up the team of film programmers that are responsible for curating this year’s 51 features and 100 short films.
The four women sat down over Tecates and pickle back shots to talk about their experiences bringing diverse films to the forefront of one of the largest growing film festivals.
“We want to represent southern films so we do make a priority to feature local films but it’s also about reflecting a worldly nature,” Shorts programmer Alyssa Armand explained. “Bringing in films from different countries is reflective to all the different types of people in Atlanta.”
This year’s festival features films from 37 countries—films that grapple with a range of themes but still manage to reach a diverse and varied audience. Films like Seide—a short film from Kyrgyzstan that features a teenage girl who loves riding her horse. “All those universal themes of being a teenager comes out, but then you find out in the narrative that her parents are arranging a marriage for her,” Senior Shorts Programmer Christina Humphrey explained. “You find out they’re going to slaughter her horse in order to pay for the wedding. That’s really out there, but that’s real.”
When it comes to documentaries, women take the lead this year. “Most of our strongest docs are by women filmmakers,” James explained. “It’s not something we go in knowing. We’ll watch it and it’s like that was amazing and we’ll look at the filmmaker and it’s a woman.”
This year the festival presents seven short documentaries by Syrian teenage girls. Through a workshop in Jordan, girls from fourteen to eighteen years old were handed cameras to tell their stories. “It’s this completely unparalleled view into refugee life. I don’t know if anything like this has ever been done,“ Humphrey said.
Diversity both in front and behind the camera has been discussed a lot in recent years and film festivals often come under the same scrutiny film sets do.
When Humphrey and Breneman started, women programmers were rare.
“We were all very aware that most other programmers we met were older men,” Humphrey said. “I’d never met another programmer that was my age and a woman.“
That was the landscape in 2012, along with crammed offices in the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and screenings at Midtown Art Cinema (the festival had not yet made the move to Seven Stages or The Plaza). But that year proved to be a turning point. The festival was pulled out of debt and was considered a huge success. “We felt the excitement in 2012. People were getting excited about film in Atlanta.” Humphrey said.
That was also the year New Mavericks was started—a scheduled block of short films comprised entirely of women directed films featuring strong women leads. “You could see all the potential the festival had because it was just recovering from a really bad time.” Breneman said. “So it was this opportunity to make this happen.”
As New Mavericks grew, so too did Breneman and Humphrey’s team and James and Armand were brought on. “One of the things Kristy told me when I interviewed for her was we really want to add diversity both on camera and behind camera and make a political statement because that’s what’s going on behind us.” James said.
In 2015 they expanded the New Mavericks program to include feature films and made it year-round with events and workshops for women filmmakers in Atlanta. That year, women-directed films made up just under 50 percent of the program.
Now in 2016 Atlanta Film Festival is presenting, among others, Speed Sisters (Amber Fares), a feature documentary about the first all women street racing team in the Middle East and Driving with Selvi (Elisa Paloschi) a documentary about the first woman taxi driver in South India.
There are a lot of firsts in this year’s program, but for Atlanta Film Festival’s programming team it’s about continuing to push for diverse stories on both sides of the camera. Though Armand points out that they still get letters addressed “Dear Sirs,” Breneman notes that she meets women programmers now more than ever.
Katie Hinshaw is a filmmaker and celluloid enthusiast. When she’s not making music videos or experimental super 8 films she’s blogging about women filmmakers on her blog methodmadnessblog.com.