Among the threads running through hundreds of films screening around New Orleans this week are social justice and “the South” — what it means, who defines it and what its future could look like.
Now in its 29th year, the New Orleans Film Festival returns this month with a broad spectrum of feature films, documentaries, shorts, music videos and interactive films, culled from more than 6,000 submissions and curated to ensure that the festival “champions voices that are not always represented on screen or behind the camera,” says artistic director Clint Bowie.
The festival screens more than 200 films Oct. 17-25 at the Contemporary Arts Center, The New Orleans Advocate, The Broad Theater, Orpheum Theater and Prytania Theatre.
An unreality TV show, a surreal southern docudrama, an impending earthquake, spam email and more experimental and southern short films at the fest
Its inclusive vision aims to carve out a space for filmmakers of color and local filmmakers, whose work is spread throughout the festival with bigger-ticket films, and to connect them with producers to help get their stories told on screens outside New Orleans and beyond. Sixty percent of the films in the lineup are by women directors, and more than half are by filmmakers of color.
Among the higher-profile prestige dramas screening at the festival is opening night film “Green Book,” starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen as pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur Tony Lip as they tour the Deep South in the ’60s.
The festival’s Centerpiece films include “Widows,” a thriller from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, and “Roma” from director Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity,” “Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), a love letter to his Mexico City childhood.
The festival also screens “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name by “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, among the slate of eight Spotlight films likely to make awards-season shortlists, including the latest Coen Brothers’ saga “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Wildlife,” the directorial debut from actor Paul Dano.
The 'Bayou Maharajah' filmmaker's latest film screens Oct. 21 at the New Orleans Film Festival
An unofficial thematic thread showcases Southern voices, letting “filmmakers take the lead and imagine what a Southern identity is,” says the festival’s Executive Director Fallon Young. “The possibilities are endless to shape for an audience what a more expansive South is — these are our stories, boldly told.”
Those include the documentary “The Unafraid” by Heather Courtney and Anayansi Prado, who chronicle three DACA recipients in Georgia. Harry Moses’ documentary “Guilty Until Proven Guilty” follows a man’s harrowing experience through New Orleans’ complex criminal justice system. Horace Jenkins’ rarely seen Louisiana-shot 1982 film “Cane River” also is screened on an archival 35mm film in 4K.
Louisiana filmmakers account for more than a quarter of the festival’s entire lineup.
“As the film community here has grown, so have the number of films and local voices that the festival has been able to spotlight,” Bowie says. “We’re having to carve out an increasingly large space within the slate to accommodate the local talent we have here in New Orleans. … That’s a really big part of what the festival is, a showcase for Louisiana talent as much as it is anything else.”
The film screens Oct. 18-19 at the New Orleans Film Festival
That growth has dovetailed with Louisiana’s reputation as a production hub and “Hollywood South,” but there also is more support, from grant-supporting organization Create Louisiana and programming through the New Orleans Video Access Center to the festival’s Southern Producers Lab and Emerging Voices programs for filmmakers of color, aiming to get filmmakers out of New Orleans’ “geographic siloing” that often stifles filmmakers’ reach, Young says.
“The landscape is so collaborative, what we really see is filmmakers growing together,” Young says. “Everyone working to support one another — the community really grows organically in that way.”
The festival’s closing night film is “A Tuba to Cuba,” which follows the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Cuba to trace the shared history of jazz in that country and in New Orleans.
That film ties the festival’s local focus to its Caribbean Voices programming, presenting a slate of films that highlight perspectives from the global South.
The festival also has expanded its free programming to make it more accessible to audiences. A “festival hub” at the Contemporary Arts Center houses a Krewe of Vaporwave installation and the festival’s new media program Cinema Reset, which showcases 15 virtual reality films and other immersive films, all of which are free to watch. There also are free film screenings, including New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber’s latest documentary “Buckjumping,” as well as panels and a game show to determine “The World’s Best Underrated Film.”
“There are a lot of ways to plug into the festival, a lot of free ways to be involved,” Young says. “We want to make the festival accessible to everyone.”
The documentary screens Oct. 21-22 at the New Orleans Film Festival
The trans bodybuilding doc screens Oct. 22 & 24 at the New Orleans Film Festival
The documentary screens Oct. 23 during the New Orleans Film Festival