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By Brena Ullrich and Elle Bent, Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival

Austin Film Festival (AFF) returns to downtown Austin for its 29th annual conference. The festival brings together the entire film industry. Everyone from producers, directors, actors, writers, cinematographers to fans. Brena Ullrich recounts all of the festival’s excitement on Friday, while Elle Bent shares ruminates on her full schedule over the weekend.

Friday, Oct. 28

Rain and clouds seemed to smooth away as the second day of the Austin Film Festival commenced. Eager festivalgoers filled the streets, with eager lanyard wearers walking to the many different venue locations. Austin’s film crowd is quite the lively bunch, with conversations erupting between strangers on the streets, in lines and on pretty much every corner of the festival’s perimeters. 

Panel: A Conversation with Nikyatu Jusu, 2022 Recipient of the New Voice Award

Backlit by the stained glass of Central Presbyterian Church, Nikyatu Jusu sat down with moderator Casey Baron to discuss how she got to where she is now. Jusu, writer and director of science fiction feature film Nanny, spoke to the motivation behind the project and all that went into its creation. Charismatic and effortlessly funny, she captivated the audience to create a conversation-like presentation. A natural-born speaker no doubt, but a storyteller as well.

“I stumbled into my passion; it found me,” she said when asked how she got into film and the art of storytelling. Jusu’s adoration for the craft was obvious in the way she spoke about the eight-year writing process that went into the creation of Nanny. She emphasized the attention to detail, research, flexibility and creativity that went into building the world of the film. “Read, read, read, read everything all the time,” she said when asked how to effectively build worlds that feel real. She grew up being a voracious reader in a house full of readers, including her mother who self-published two books. Jusu’s speaking presence was refreshing and real, and all her words seemed to come out of her with a careful truth. 

Panel: State of the Industry — Features 

Buzzing with conversation and anticipation, people waited in a large crowd before entering the Rio Grande Ballroom. Moderator Ryan Hall sat down with panelists Adam Weinstein, Vanessa Taylor, Christina Hodson and Alex Lerner to discuss the future and current state of feature films. Taylor, best known for her writing on The Shape of Water and Game of Thrones, and Hodson, writer of Birds of Prey, garnered much attention at the event. They spoke to the future of films on streaming services and in theaters. Particularly as there has been a lot of change since the pandemic regarding what films make it back to theaters. 

Nanny

Now, I can’t give away any spoilers, but this film certainly lived up to all my expectations. There was quite the turnout, as a full line attendees waited outside State Theatre. The mix of sci-fi and supernatural horror turned out to be a perfect place to hone in on the immigrant experience, motherhood and what it is like to be a mother and domestic worker. Director Nikyatu Jusu’s inspiration for this film came from her mother, who was a domestic worker and immigrant, and she certainly captured her firsthand perspective in this film.

Nanny follows Aisha, a Senegalese nanny in New York who faces a difficult work life, the stress of bringing her son into the country and constant internal struggle throughout the film. A major one being that much of her energy as a mother is going to Rose, the child she nannies for. Powerful, beautiful imagery is used throughout the film, with a heavy connection to water and cultural traditions. (Look forward to mermaids.) This film was beautifully done, strong in theme while also being artistically enthralling.

Saturday Oct. 29

On Saturday, Oct. 29, the 2022 Austin Film Festival met for its third consecutive day. Austin woke up to chilly weather and winds thanks to prior rain. Festivalgoers picked up badges at the Omni Hotel, within walking distance of panels with notable speakers in the industry.  

Panel: New Era of Romantic Comedies

Moderated by Stephanie Whallon from the Texas Film Commission, romantic comedy writers Holly Hester (The Royal Treatment) and Rebecca Ewing (Love Hard) discussed what makes romantic comedies lovable and how they are entering into a new era. Topics included how romantic comedies switched from successful theatrical releases to now profiting from their new home on streaming services as the movie-going experience shifted. In the past few years, services like Hulu and Netflix have hosted stories that subvert typical tropes seen in the genre for years.

In Hester’s film The Royal Treatment, her main character, Izzy, has no interest in pursuing a prince romantically. Instead, Izzy is occupied with her career. But when romance finds her she chooses to make it an addition to her life. Romantic comedies are a form of escapism; that’s why audiences love them. But their message goes deeper than just finding the one. Finding that person comes from the main character’s accepting that being on their own is not a bad thing. As Ewing puts it, “It’s that realization of being okay with being alone but wanting to be with someone out of kindness and generosity rather than from a need to fill a void.” The panel catered to lovers of rom-coms and aspiring writers in the genre. Hester and Ewing were personable and funny as they discussed their craft in the gym of St. David’s Episcopal Church. 

Panel: From Fact to Fiction: Turning a True Story into a Series

This panel hosted speakers Liz Hannah (The Girl from Plainville, The Dropout, Mindhunter) and Michael Starrbury (Colin in Black and White, When They See Us, Legends of Chamberlain Heights). They discussed turning real stories into films and shows and shared tips for aspiring writers. AFF’s own Harrison Glaser moderated the panel. Hannah and Starrbury reflected on the relationships they made with the real people whose stories they shared. As fiction writers, Hannah and Starburry differ from documentarians by focusing more on the emotions driving these true stories. Starburry said that his shows can “resonate with people in a way documentaries don’t.” For Hannah, authenticity is a key factor in her writing. “If something feels inauthentic, that’s because it is.”

Sunday Oct. 30

On Sunday, the Austin Film Festival continued into its fourth consecutive day. Screenings for a program five of shorts, “In this Together,” began at 12:30 p.m. at the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre. The program featured eight back-to-back shorts made by independent filmmakers. 

The Lost Crystals of Jessica’s Room

From Australia, The Lost Crystals of Jessica’s Room is written and directed by Gary Hamaguci. The short follows a young girl, Lisa (Ella Harrold), as she brings her unamused friend, Jimmy (Sheldon Pickett), on an adventure to find a mysterious treasure. At first, the audience sides with Jimmy, believing the stakes aren’t very high on this adventure. But soon we find out the treasure is actually much darker. 

The Red Suitcase

From Luxembourg, The Red Suitcase is written by Guillaume Levil and directed by Cyrus Neshvad. One of my favorites of the day, this short follows a young girl who is terrified to leave the airport. The discovery of the reason why is so unexpectedly gut-wrenching. The storytelling and direction work together to keep the audience constantly on the edge of their seats, unsure of what might happen next. 

Novena

Novena, written and directed by Fernando Lopez, is set in East Los Angeles and follows two estranged friends who are reunited at a funeral. Over the course of the night, past dynamics between the two resurface. The short comments on religion, culture, machismo and the LGBT community. 

Fishing with Baited Breath

Fishing with Baited Breath is a short from Canada, written and directed by Nick Schelle. The short doesn’t depend on any dialogue in its narrative. Rather it focuses on the dynamic between actors Brendan Taylor and Alex Au-Yeung. The two playfully portray two fishermen spending a relaxing day at the river. Taylor’s character becomes humorously frustrated as Au-Yeung effortlessly upstages him the whole day. 

Merit x Zoe

Merit x Zoe induced tears and sniffles in the theater, striking the audience with its harsh reality. Written by Jay Blair and Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, Merit x Zoe follows the titular characters as we flashback from their time at a U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan in 2008 to a year after, in their group therapy session. 

A Killer Secret

A Killer Secret laughs at typical horror tropes and the imaginations of lifelong friends. Written and starring real-life best friends Bettina Bresnan and Julian Burzynski, A Killer Secret follows them as they watch a horror movie and are terrified at a knock at the door. A hilarious short with a simple premise, the theater erupted in laughter for the full six-minute runtime. 

ÑAÑOS

Written and directed by Educadorian filmmaker Emilio Subía, ÑAÑOS follows two brothers at odds when one reveals a desire to leave their home. The film examines the relationships between the siblings and the family and the cultural dynamics that impact their lives.

One For Sorrow, Two for Joy

Writer and director Ana Yang describes as One For Sorrow, Two for Joy as a “feminist film.” The short follows a high school girl (Yue Cheng) struggling with the realities of her 48-year-old mother becoming pregnant again after the Second-Child Policy passes in China. One for Sorrow, Two for Joy brilliantly captures the intense emotions of a young girl who feels trapped while patriarchal values close in on her life. The short won Best Short Narrative at Austin Film Festival the day before, quite a feat for Yang’s debut film.

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