Leading Ladies


[Written by Kathleen Stevens Moore | Photography Courtesy of Atlanta Film Festival; Danielle Beverly; Ashley Nicole Jones; Jiyoung Lee]
Ah, March, you breezy thing. With the Oscars wrapped and spring break still a chilly month away, what’s an Atlantan to do? We say keep the cinematic ball rolling by attending the 39th annual Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF). Running March 20 through 29, the ATLFF is one of only two dozen Academy Award-qualifying festivals in the United States. Kristy Breneman, the festival’s programming director, is a powerhouse in the local arts community, serving on the Board of Directors for three of the city’s most influential creative organizations — WonderRoot, Association Internationale du Film d’Animation Atlanta chapter and The Plaza Theatre Foundation. The latter benefits the city’s oldest, continuously operating independent theater. Built on Ponce de Leon Avenue in 1939, The Plaza’s rich velvet curtains and original sconces lend historic sparkle while hosting the bulk of the festivities. And while Breneman is busy overseeing one of the largest and longest running film festivals in the country, she’s not the only woman calling the shots this year at an event proud to acknowledge the girl power of female filmmakers.

Points North Atlanta spoke with four of them, picking their brains on storytelling, sexism and rolling tape on
anti-antebellum sentiment deep in the land of Scarlett O’Hara. Pass the popcorn as we celebrate independent female filmmakers brimming with moxie, and a movie industry cranking away on our home turf.

New Focus, Old SouthOLD SOUTH. director Danielle Beverly photo credit to Dana Leonard
Danielle Beverly is a documentary filmmaker on constant surveillance for a story that matters. And it had better be a good one. On average, the director spends three to five years camped out wherever she needs to be listening, following and filming. No rush jobs allowed. When an old friend rang Beverly up and told her what was brewing in a little town we like to call Athens, she threw cameras in the car and headed deep into Dawg Nation.

Shot entirely in Athens, “Old South” traces the fall out when Confederate flag-flying Kappa Alphas at the University of Georgia decide to build their new plantation-style fraternity house in an African-American neighborhood that is 150 years old. In response, Hope Iglehart, a soft-spoken professional, hits the gentrification pause-button, fighting to save the historical integrity in the community she was raised.

“Love Athens,” I gushed. “Great town!”

“Athens,” Beverly schooled, “is an extremely racially divided town.”

The director shot scenes during a three-and-a-half year duration, grabbing her camera and tearing down the street whenever action called. She admitted feeling a deep responsibility to the people she films, mindful of their trust. Though the KA chapter undoubtedly creates a contentious situation, the boys start philanthropic work in the community garden and install irrigation piping. Both sides start to chill and accept each other. In the end, Beverly summarized the work with a single word: legacy.

When conversation flipped its focus, Beverly described herself as an observational documentary filmmaker, meaning she feels more like a professional listener than a movie director.

“Documentary making is very good for me,” Beverly reflected. “It allows me to be quiet and observe, not talk.”

The one-woman gusto is unfazed working solo, often playing triadic roles of director, producer and cameraperson.

After all, a lone-wolf filmmaker has distinct advantages. Think about who you would feel more comfortable filming you: a bulky camera crew comprised of a dozen men, or a petite lady sporting pixie tresses
and a single lens?

“I’ve found people will open up more to a woman than a man,” Beverly said. “Especially men. A man might not share his personal thoughts with another man, but he will with a woman.”

She conceded that hurdles remain for female filmmakers, with sexism and difficulties garnering funds topping the list. Credit goes to her mother for loading daughter up with fortitude, and an oh-so-handy indomitable spirit that never gives up. When asked her advice for local girls aspiring to be filmmakers, the director enigmatically switched focus again.

“I would encourage moms to pick up a camera and start filming a movie.”

“Moms?” I repeated.

“They’re the ones who have something to say,” she offered, voice turning decisive. “They’re the ones with stories.”

The Sound of ActivismIMBA MEANS SING. Singing national anthem at Atlanta Braves game
The Northside’s own Erin Bernhardt graduated from Centennial High School before bounding off to the University of Virginia and the Peace Corps. A former CNN writer/producer, the perky blond with a super-sized heart describes herself as a creative activist, committed to making movies that matter. Her dedication to the developing world could not be more evident than in her independent documentary “IMBA MEANS SING.”

For producer Bernhardt, this isn’t just her film; it’s her baby. While living overseas, she fell in love with the African Children’s Choir and their mission to train young people via music, education and travel. After touring, the program returns kids to their homelands stockpiled with tools for bettering their communities’ future — a bonafide help-us, help-ourselves operation.

Bernhardt has spent the past three years bringing the story of a young boy named Moses, a drummer from the slums of Kampala, Uganda, to cinematic life. She’s poured heart, soul and a zillion sleepless nights into crafting this film, so the least we could do is scoot across town and watch it.

“I wanted to do something 100 percent meaningful,” Bernhardt explained.

If you guessed “imba” translates into “sing,” you earn a gold star. The uncomplicated Swahili word pops off the tongue like a happy staccato note, weaving together a fitting title to this character portrait.

One of the coolest aspects of the film? Its success stands on the shoulders of not one superwoman, but two. Director Danielle Bernstein is also a native Atlantan who is passionate about creating environmental and social-impact documentaries. Years ago Bernstein and Bernhardt met at a benefit concert, instantly clicked and swapped contact info. When time came to nab the right director for this project, Bernhardt didn’t flip far through her Rolodex. “I firmly believe a beautifully told story can make a difference,” Bernstein explained, dark lashes framing somber ecause they give a voice to people who don’t normally have one.”

Not that it’s easy. Bernstein cautioned she’s learned the hard way that no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. Considering the accolades and awards her past work has garnered, she seems to have
it figured out.

In 2006, Bernstein founded Atlanta-based Clear Film Productions and now operates it with filmmaker and photographer Jason Maris. This unique film production company is on a mission to partner with organizations that offer solutions to social movements. Creating beautiful imagery is a must, yet it is half the battle. People like Bernstein and Bernhardt crave viewers willing to act.

For example, after watching “IMBA,” easy action steps would include plugging into nonprofits like Atlanta Music Project and Girl Talk or, calling Bernhardt directly. She and Bernstein will come out to your school, church or synagogue, loaded with educational materials and discussion guides to accompany a screening.

Many of us muse about changing the world, or at least making a dent. This talented duo is actually doing it.

From LA to ATLFemale Pervert's jiyoung_lee_set_1_director
Of course, not every feature at this year’s ATLFF is a documentary striving for epic social impact. Some movies are born to make you laugh. Or jar you. Or somewhere in between. Take “Female Pervert,” a narrative written and directed by Jiyoung Lee, for instance. The story follows a young Asian woman named Phoebe as she trips from fellow to fellow making uncomfortable, ah … blunders.

“It’s a dark comedy,” Lee described, “about a female sociopath dealing with the world as she travels down a path to self improvement.” Let’s just say this one’s not for the kiddies.

Hailing from South Korea and Los Angeles, Calif., Lee migrated to Atlanta seven years ago and plans on staying. She can create here. Her film was shot entirely in Georgia, and Lee was quick to praise Atlanta for supporting filmmaking through ease of securing location permits, tax incentives and good old community support.

Lee insisted loads of hidden culture is tucked into her adopted home town, if one knows where to look. For aspiring writers, she suggested Write Club Atlanta — a group of wordsmiths who dual against each other on opposing concepts in timed competitive bouts. The linguistic brutality takes place every second Wednesday of the month at the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge. The filmmaker revealed she digs the creative writing process possibly more than directing, but it’s a close call.

She learned the fundamentals of her trade by surviving film school at Syracuse University, yet counsels aspiring filmmakers here in the Southeast to consider North Carolina School of the Arts.

“So many of their alumni have been successful in their fields,” Lee said, adding, “It’s a great place to make connections that will help later on in a career.”

The 39th annual Atlanta Film Festival is another opportunity to mix and mingle with creative minds.

The best way to attend the ATLFF is with a Pass or a MovieHopper Card. These options allow you to see as many films as you want on a priority seating basis. Don’t have the right red carpet ensemble? Relax — this film festival is for everyone, with general tickets starting at $10 and discount passes available for teachers, students and military.

The Atlanta Film Festival

The Plaza Theatre
Briarcliff Plaza Shopping Center
1049 Ponce De Leon Avenue Northeast