Think Globally, Film Locally

AG Picks for the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival

When the going gets tough (or stays tough), it’s time to go to the movies! The New Orleans Film Festival returns for its 32nd year, and we’ve rounded up some standouts to help you sift through the 170-plus films slated for 2021. More than 60% of this year’s offerings were filmed in the American South, but there is no shortage of global focus. Some will serve to distract and some will force you to confront—a valuable and necessary balance. The fest kicks off in-person this year on November 5 and ends on November 14. In addition to in-person screenings, this year’s picks will also be available online from November 5 to 21.


Joseph Sackett’s Homebody is a pretty straightforward trans discovery narrative. We follow 7-year-old Johnny (Tre Ryder) who somehow transports himself into the body of his babysitter Melanie (Colby Minifie) whom he idolizes. Melanie is leaving her babysitting job soon to become a doula, and Johnny’s inability to accept that lands him in this predicament. As Johnny moves about the world in Melanie’s body, he discovers he likes all the parts of her body that he doesn’t have, relishing in her feminine qualities and how those feminine qualities are perceived by others. Later, Melanie and Johnny are trapped in her body at once, their voices talking to each other in Melanie’s head—a stylistic choice that’s difficult to pull off, and I’m not sure it sticks the landing. There are many heartwarming moments, including a shot that bridges a previous gulf between Johnny and his mother. The film doesn’t go much further than being heartwarming, though maybe heartwarming is enough. (Sunday, November 7 at Broad Theater) —Marisa Clogher



Known for sending low income and working class Black students to Ivy League universities, TM Landry College Prep set itself apart as the Cinderella of educational institutions. A small unaccredited private school in Breaux Bridge, Landry garnered national attention as word of 100% college acceptance rates and viral videos of Ivy League acceptance celebrations spread like wildfire. However, like all fairy tales, a villain remained a stone’s throw away. In 2018, the New York Times published an exposé on the school’s founder Mike Landry, which revealed allegations of abuse, transcript fraud, and the inspiring refrain on college admissions essays of, “My father was never in my life, my grandmother on a fixed income raised me, but I managed to keep a 4.0 GPA and found a volunteer organization for fatherless children”—stereotypes that made predominantly white institutions (PWIs) eager to admit and diversify their student body with minority students who were the poster children of resilience despite the odds. As the fairy tale unravels and enrollment at the school plumments, director Dan Chen follows a small group of seniors as they struggle to face the reality of the school’s standing and redefine success. Juxtaposed against the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal of 2019, Landry proves to be a microcosm on the wide spectrum of a greatly flawed education system. (Saturday, November 6 and Saturday, November 13 at AMC Elmwood Palace) —Jamilla Webb

The Bengali
The Bengali is a poignant story of family and homecoming, and the lengths people will go to fully grasp their identities from root to branch. Indian-American filmmaker Kavery Kaul follows the Black New Orleanian writer Fatima Shaik on her journey to India to see the home of her Indian grandfather, Shaik Mohammed Musa. Growing up in the 7th Ward, her grandfather was a popular character of family legends; and while the family was deeply rooted in Black life in New Orleans, they all shared the dream that one day they might travel together to India. When Hurricane Katrina took everything from family members—from in their homes to the heirlooms that represented the last remaining ancestral connection to India—Shaik sought an opportunity to broaden her kinship circle in the wake of her community’s loss. Kaul goes on the journey alongside her, translating the disappointing verdicts of Bengali recordkeepers on her frustrating search through the archives, and the curious questions from the villagers in her grandfather’s home region. Melding beautiful footage of New Orleans and India, The Bengali brings to life both the complex historical realities of the people who made new lives in New Orleans, and the intercontinental connections that remain alive for those who seek them out. (Tuesday, November 9 at The Broadside and Saturday, November 13 at Broad Theater) —Holly Devon

Betye Saar
Whether or not you’ve encountered the exquisite art of Betye Saar before, this full immersion into her life and work is a treat for the senses and the soul. At 95 years old, Betye Saar is one of America’s oldest and most illustrious artists, and as this documentary shows, she is very much still working. The film follows Saar from her Los Angeles home to her Laurel Canyon studio, where she energetically applies herself to the assemblage art for which she is so well known—proof that when she says she wants to keep making art until she breathes her last breath, she means it. Ostensibly, the narrative arc of the film is shaped by the late but widespread recognition Saar has recently received by top tier institutions like MoMA and LACMA, pointing out the lengths a Black female artist has had to go in order to get art world airtime typically dominated by white men. As one Black artist interviewed by the filmmakers puts it, “we’ve had enough Andy Warhol retrospectives—he has plenty of contemporaries that it’s time we heard from.” But while Saar is clearly enjoying her moment in the sun, perhaps the most inspiring takeaway from the film is how little she has allowed outside recognition (or lack thereof) to shape her life and art. Every piece showcased in the film is absolutely luminous with her own internal vision. Saar has spent a lifetime collecting old, well-loved objects from around the world to give them a new meaning that touches the eternal. As one of the curators interviewed says, “A lot of current art is about beauty, but beauty is fleeting… Betye Saar puts a mirror on society for forever.” Her work is political, magical, curious, and always true to herself, so when you hear her oft-repeated tagline, “Make better art!” her living example makes you want to do just that. (Saturday, November 6 and Thursday, November 11 at Broad Theater)  —Holly Devon

Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away
This is Buddy Guy’s story straight from the blues man’s mouth. He recounts his journey from a hardworking childhood under sharecropper parents in Lettsworth, Louisiana, all the way to being a featured performer in front of the Obamas at the White House. The often turbulent journey in between shaped not only Guy himself but his piercing guitar playing, one of the most iconic sounds in electric blues music. His playing continues to inspire musicians decades after the likes of The Rolling Stones and Stevie Ray Vaughan dug deep into his records. This documentary draws upon insights from a few guitarists, such as John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. However, the filmmakers wisely recognize that this is Guy’s story to tell and don’t rely too heavily on talking heads like Eric Clapton. While much of the documentary focuses on Guy’s life after his big move to Chicago, he does provide some valuable insight into his seminal years in Louisiana, including the heavy influence of New Orleans’ own Guitar Slim. From start to finish, this documentary is a testament to one of the last living blues greats. (Saturday, November 6 at AMC Elmwood Palace) —William Archambeault


Al-Sit is the story of a proposed marriage between Nafisa, a young Sudanese girl who has never left her village, and a dashingly-attired young male heir to a textile factory, whose family originated from the same village generations earlier but are now modern business people living in Qatar. Nafisa watches alongside the audience as he and her family decide her fate. The would-be groom, a macroeconomic true believer, makes it clear that his primary interest is in her father’s cotton, and Nafisa’s parents seem delighted by the prosperity he dangles before them. But Al-Sit, an ancient old woman holding a spindle of cotton in her hand like one of the Greek fates—and who tradition holds must approve of all village marriages—sees in him the obliteration of the village’s traditional way of life through Western notions of progress, and thus opposes the marriage. Though supposedly it is her wedding being discussed, for the adults in her life Nafisa’s future seems to be more about them than it is about her. But the film never neglects its 15-year-old subject. Her silent perceptions and desires bring the film to life, and her view of the infinite possibilities this crossroads represents allows the film to transcend the material plane where Nafisa’s wedding is being negotiated. Though its 20-minute running time means Al-Sit is technically a short film, its thematic depth and power leaves you feeling by the end that you have lived through centuries since the film began. (Tuesday, November 9 at Broad Theater) —Holly Devon

The Binding of Itzik
In Anika Benkov’s short, a classic tale of catfishing gets a Hasidic twist. Its protagonist is Itzik, an aging bachelor from a Brooklyn orthodox community who rehabilitates the book bindings of antique Judaic volumes. One day, while looking for book binding materials on Craigslist, Itzik stumbles across an ad for a woman looking to fulfill a submissive bonding fantasy. Itzik responds under the name of Serena, and the two forge a connection that is as tender as it is raunchy. Living with his married brother and his family, Itzik struggles to carve out his own place in a world that is forever trying to force him to assimilate. His sister-in-law is determined to find him a wife, his brother dismisses his work—but while talking to MeatMaster500 he can reveal parts of himself that he spends the rest of his life trying to hide. While The Binding of Itzik is occasionally melancholy, it’s also charming and surprisingly funny—the film never takes itself so seriously that it can’t see the humor of a man in payes (Hasidic side curls) and a kippah discussing BDSM while his orthodox sister-in-law comes in and out of the frame with a vacuum cleaner. At its essence, however, the film is about a courageous act of self-discovery, and you’ll be rooting for Itzik all the way through. (Saturday, November 6 at Broad Theater and Sunday, November 7 at  AMC Elmwood Palace) —Holly Devon

Cold Wall (冷墙)
Cold Wall takes its time revealing the real story it’s telling you. Directed by Lilly Hu, it opens on a teenage girl having a miscarriage in the bathroom, while the main character, Katie (Jiaxin An), scurries out of the bathroom in a panic. As the film progresses, the audience is given more and more details about Katie’s life and the complications that plague her. While I’m normally a fan of films that don’t tie up their loose ends—this usually feels most honest—Cold Wall felt incomplete. This speaks to Hu’s success in crafting characters that the audience can invest in and in An’s holistic portrayal of Katie’s fearful innocence; but it left me wanting more, and subsequently dissatisfied when I didn’t receive that. Still, this short film is worth the 19 minutes it gives you. (Sunday, November 14 at Broad Theater) —Marisa Clogher

Execution isn’t for the faint of heart, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. The plot is straightforward enough: A group of women recite the crimes of men—all involving sexual assault and rape—then subsequently execute them through a variety of bizarre methods. The film’s style, however, undercuts the extremely heavy and nauseating subject matter with bright colors and quirky animations that alleviate some of the violence: blood going “splat!” and guns going “bang!” while a woman in a suit monotonously reads the men’s crimes aloud. Each woman has a role: one makes sandwiches, some cry, some comfort the crying. It’s a difficult watch, but it maintains whimsy and also a profound level of care. Juxtaposed with the horrific violence, the women care for each other calmly and with love. It’s a concept that could easily feel tedious, but director Stavit Allweis manages to find the right balance. (Thursday, November 11 at Broad Theater) —Marisa Clogher


Meltdown in Dixie
Take barbecue, ice cream, and the Confederate flag, throw in some senile Sons of Confederate Veterans, and you’ll find yourself in the nightmare situation captured in the documentary Meltdown in Dixie. Tommy Daras, a humble ice cream shop owner in Orangeburg, South Carolina, finds himself reluctantly sharing a parking lot with a giant Confederate flag owned by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. Following the catastrophic 2015 Charleston massacre—when a young Confederate flag-waving white supremacist shot and killed nine Black Bible study-goers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—Daras demands that the flag come down. Sadly, this is only a catalyst for the Sons to double down on their “Old South” clutches, fighting to keep it up. In a legal and personal firestorm, the Daras family fights to relieve the enormous implication of the flag connected to their shop. No one is spared in this documentary that examines the role of Confederate symbolism in 21st century America and the lingering racial oppression these symbols (and systems) help perpetuate. (Wednesday, November 10 at The Broadside)Danielle Dietze

Resurrection! Airto Moreira & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
This 21-minute short documents what happens when a Brazilian percussion master joins forces with one of the longest-running institutions in New Orleans jazz. During an eventful Mardi Gras season, Airto Moreira, known worldwide for his collaborations with the likes of Miles Davis and Chick Corea, makes himself right at home with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This short mixes his insights and experiences in New Orleans with three different performances with the Pres Hall band. Their collaborations at Preservation Hall, Congo Square, and an intimate rehearsal room each feel vibrant in unique ways, showcasing the elastic nature of the chemistry behind this team-up. At one point, Moreira reflects, “It takes me back to that place I grew up: a small town in Brazil,” firmly reminding viewers that the world is much smaller than we often give credit. (Wednesday, November 10 at Broad Theater) —William Archambeault

Sweet Soul
While Motown was rising in Detroit in the early 1960s, Deep City Records, Florida’s first Black record label, was forging a mecca for local musicians to cut their music to tape without traveling out of the South. Deep City’s first featured artist was Helene Smith, a warm and friendly woman with a voice steady as a freight train. But Smith’s rising stardom as “Queen of Miami Soul” was cut short of massive success. Unwilling to justify her career with the music industry’s sub-par treatment and lack of financial stability, she traded the center stage for the classroom, happily teaching in a public elementary school. Sweet Soul captures Smith’s venture back into the studio after 40 years, recording her first original material. At the City of Progress studio in Miami, Smith is matched with a diverse group of professional and skilled musicians. More importantly, she is surrounded by people who treat her with respect and patience pivotal for her to find her voice again. A well-cut and powerful performance by Smith makes this documentary short a strong reminder to appreciate and nurture our musical foremothers. (Monday, November 8 at The Broadside)Danielle Dietze


Hair holds a sacred place in Black culture and identity. Its care requires knowledge, time, and appreciation—a philosophy Anastasia Ebel fosters each day at her Mid-City salon BABYBANGZ. Hailing from a long New Orleanian lineage, Ebel aspired to join the legacy of natural hairdressers not just to cultivate its physical beauty but to provide a dialogue between herself and her cherished community. The rejection of natural hair has been prevalent throughout history, with many salons opting for heavily-processed relaxers and chemical products on curls. Ebel’s mission to enhance natural hair has earned her tremendous trust with her clients, and for many, has changed the way they look at themselves. In this documentary short, we’re welcomed within Ebel’s salon walls, where patrons voice their struggles, reflect on morphing neighborhoods, and garner appreciation for being—and showing—who they are. (Sunday, November 7 at Broad Theater and Saturday, November 13 at AMC Elmwood Palace)Danielle Dietze

Bad Boy of Bonsai
Bad Boy of Bonsai is an experimental art house short featuring Guy Guidry, a Louisiana bonsai aficionado. A portrait of an unusual man with an unusual preoccupation, the film owes its artistry to director Alex Moreno’s eye for detail. The camera encounters Guidry at sunrise, climbing into the back of a pickup truck to scout for trees he can transform into tiny versions of themselves. It stays rolling as Guidry’s voice narrates the story of his journey to the world of bonsai over soft ambient background music. Moreno sets Guidry’s rough edges (he compares his passion for bonsai to a drug addiction) against the gentler elements of his intimacy with the bonsai, and each moment of the early morning ride seems to reveal a new layer of his subject. At only six minutes long, the brilliance of the film lies in its restraint; like the bonsai trees Guidry loves so much, Bad Boy of Bonsai shows the simple beauty of scaling down. (Saturday, November 13 at Broad Theater and Saturday, November 13 at The Broadside) —Holly Devon

Blue Country
Blue Country begins with a well-known Louisiana conundrum: to evacuate or stay as a hurricane closes in. The decision to ride it out is simple for the longtimer and weathered Macon (Dane Rhodes). “Don’t leave it to chance,” his neighbor (Justin Davis) warns as he finishes assisting Macon in securing his home for the approaching storm. But soon, Macon is faced with a new decision when a severely injured woman surrenders herself—and her jacket full of cash—at his doorstep. In this suspenseful short, your decisions can be your detriment or your destiny. With convincing acting, the characters are surprising yet believable, revealing the messy terrain of morality and desperation atop a natural disaster. (Saturday, November 6 and Sunday, November 14 at AMC Elmwood Palace)Danielle Dietze

Different Mardi Gras
This short documentary shows what happens when a pandemic shuts down the largest party on Earth. Drone footage across New Orleans starkly contrasts the usual Carnival season chaos. Barricades stand tall on Bourbon Street while a few people stroll down a mostly empty Frenchmen Street. Tom Thayer, the owner of Frenchmen favorite d.b.a., reflects that Mardi Gras Day marked 11 months since he had to close his bar due to the pandemic with no signs of a certain reopening date at that time. Mardi Gras 2021 was a time of uncertainty for most. As a result, much of this footage feels somber. Still, some held onto their hope. A small group dances around their car to the tune of carnival season staple “Hey Pocky A-Way” in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Elsewhere, a small group of Mardi Gras Indians go about their signature pageantry in front of an audience of none. Aerial footage of house floats reminds viewers that many adapted and found new ways to celebrate Carnival. Perhaps we are too close to this year’s celebrations to properly appreciate this short, but this footage will certainly be viewed in a whole new light years later. (Sunday, November 7 at Broad Theater and Saturday, November 13 at AMC Elmwood Palace) —William Archambeault

Ghost Girl
Ghost Girl opens on Michelle (Jamie Neumann) in the middle of a performance art piece, thrashing and gasping on stage while the camera focuses on a woman in the audience, Ashley (Sepideh Moafi), who ends up leaving before the performance is over. Their friendship is hanging on by a thread, and the tension between the women surfaces quickly. The women run lines at Ashley’s apartment for an upcoming audition—the character of Ghost Girl—that Ashley has in Los Angeles. They talk around their frustrations with each other, refusing to admit their real hang-ups about the other. As this builds, Michelle becomes desperate, picking up the script and aggressively reciting lines, forcing something that isn’t working simply for the sake of not giving up on it. Michelle offers brief, underhanded support, then wraps her hands gently around Ashley’s neck and says, “Take it easy, Ghost Girl” before leaving. The performances are haunting and claustrophobically realistic, leaving the viewer reflecting on the crumbling relationships of their past and present. (Friday, November 12 at The Broadside) —Marisa Clogher

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Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away

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