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Five Southern Film Programmers Answer Our Questions

On connection, community, and curation

Design proposals for Puck Theater, 1941, by Winold Reiss. Courtesy of Artvee

The 122nd issue of the Oxford American celebrates the impact and complexity of Southern film. Some of the most important (and often under-heralded) champions of the region’s rich cinematic offerings are the festival programmers who—as Indie Memphis’s Kayla Myers explains—work as “a connector between filmmakers and audiences.” Here, we asked five programming professionals (from Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee) about their career journeys and individual approaches to curation. Their answers highlight the indispensable role that programmers play in bringing new stories to the South and sharing Southern stories with the world. We are grateful for their time and energy in responding to our queries.   

Han-’Naeh Belser (NFFTY) is an African American artist, screenwriter, film programmer, and producer born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. Her Southern roots have inspired fantastical and romantic narratives that center Black women who often go unnoticed in modern mainstream narratives.

Dan Brawley (Cucalorus) is the Chief Instigating Officer of the Cucalorus Film Festival and the Executive Director of the Cucalorus Film Foundation. Cucalorus is a five-day celebration of film and performance taking place in historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina and was recently named one of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World by MovieMaker. Brawley graduated cum laude from Duke University and was the founding President of the Film Festival Alliance.

Zandashé Brown (New Orleans Film Festival) is a New Orleans-based writer/director and programmer born-and-bred in and inspired by southern Louisiana. Her work raises a Black femme lens to the tradition of the Southern Gothic by exploring the axis of self-excavation, spirituality, and lived experience in the American South.

Krupa Kanaiya (NFFTY, ATL Film Party) is a multi-hyphenate with experience in film programming and the creation and management of marketing campaigns and animated content. She has worked with ASIFA-South, the Atlanta Film Society, Out On Film Festival, and other organizations to bring awareness to their brand missions. Krupa's current work with NFFTY and ATL Film Party focuses on highlighting work by—and promoting opportunities for—new and marginalized filmmakers.

Kayla Myers (Indie Memphis) is a film programmer, writer, and filmmaker from and based in Memphis. Currently, she works as a programmer and Black Creators Forum Manager at Indie Memphis. She’s previously been the Features programmer for the San Francisco Documentary Festival and the Series Producer for The DocYard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is passionate about making film more accessible to those not living in large filmmaking centers and especially supporting Southern independent filmmakers’ work.

OA: What made you fall in love with cinema? Can you tell us a bit about the film communities that fostered you? 

Han-'Naeh Belser: Since I was a small child, I have loved classic film. TMC was such a touchstone to me, as they provided introductions to classic films and contextualized these masterpieces. Soon, I discovered IFC, which taught me that not every film had to be a blockbuster or shiny in presentation, speaking to parts of me that were introverted and introspective. Over the years, I found communities online who loved the same kinds of films and television. The camaraderie has helped me develop as a screenwriter, inspiring me to create countless worlds. Programming truly blends my love of film and writing through critique. 

Krupa Kanaiya: Film has always offered me connection to my own community as well as [communities] around me. I chose this industry because I love the way animation and film offer new worlds to explore. I wanted to be a part of bringing that experience to people.

Zandashé Brown: I'm a filmmaker whose love for storytelling ultimately comes from being brought up in rural southern Louisiana. I don't think there's a way to separate those two parts of myself. When my first film brought me to film festivals around the country, I felt isolated as the lone Southerner in a sea of filmmakers who had come from resourced places along either coast or other parts of the world. I remember feeling like my lens was smaller in comparison, but eventually learned to lean into it wholeheartedly. 

Dan Brawley: I spent a lot of time in the library at Duke University watching anything I could get my hands on.

How did you come to program at your festival?

Kayla Myers: My programming journey has always somewhat felt like a beautiful happenstance to me, because it was not a job or career that I had any awareness of growing up and throughout most of my college experience. The concept that there were people whose job was to select work and be a connector between filmmakers and audiences just didn’t occur to me. I attended college in Columbia, Missouri, and attended a film festival for the first time there, and that’s where I became connected with those who would later become my Indie Memphis colleagues. They believed in my taste and interest in wanting to do this work in my hometown—and they were, most importantly, so trusting of my instincts, even as I was learning what programming and supporting filmmakers looked like, for me as a programmer, and Indie Memphis overall as an organization. It’s a job that I feel quite grateful to have learned—and continue to learn—to do in the South, but especially in Memphis.

Brawley: I sort of slid sideways into working at Cucalorus. I started volunteering as soon as I returned home to Wilmington, North Carolina after college. I was working very briefly at the studio on the Muppet movies, and a guy named Brent Watkins dropped by to see if I wanted to help out. I just kept showing up and showing up—that really was it. The festival was at a real turning point. People really loved Cucalorus, but it had to make that seemingly impossible leap from a fun thing that survived on passion to a real, sustainable organization. I took all sorts of odd jobs, from roofing to selling custom-made suits, to make it possible to keep working for Cucalorus. I also spent some time working at the Edinburgh Film Festival for a couple of years. That was really a pivotal experience and opened my eyes to the amazing number of important films that weren’t making it to audiences in my community. 

Kanaiya: I have had the pleasure of volunteering as a screener with festivals like the Atlanta Film Festival and [Atlanta-based LGBTQ+ film festival] Out On Film. When I became the marketing director of NFFTY, I expressed interest in utilizing my previous experience. Our small but dedicated team was very open and welcomed me into the programming team here.

Brown: I was first introduced to the New Orleans Film Society through the Emerging Voices Program, which I took part in while I was still a student at LSU. It was a foundational experience, and my introduction into the world of indie film. I found a way back to the festival every year—as either a presenting filmmaker, pitch participant, or through grants I received—and became just as well-acquainted with the staff as I was with the filmmaking community. I really resonated with their mission of uplifting Southern stories, and reached out with interest in programming in 2019.

Belser: As a self-taught independent filmmaker, I have come to rely on social media filmmaker groups to learn more about filmmaking, writing, and opportunities. One of my groups is called blck film twit [sic], started by director and programmer Tishon Pugh. A fellow member named Christl Stringer asked if anyone was interested in programming. I had been trying for a long time to break into film programming, so I immediately reached out. Christl had been a juror for NFFTY and referred me for the role. I interviewed for the position and was hired shortly after. This experience has been one of the highlights of my time working in film and television.

“I'm a filmmaker whose love for storytelling ultimately comes from being brought up in rural southern Louisiana. I don't think there's a way to separate those two parts of myself.”

Zandashé Brown

What does your process look like? 

Brawley: Buckets of second-guessing and moving things around. I’m not sure I ever feel like I get it just right, but at some point you have to stop playing with the ingredients and put together a good meal for folks. The big stretch I think is coming up with a group of trusted programmers who can expand beyond my own vision, so that the festival isn’t just films that I like.

Myers: Recently, I’ve been considering a lot about what my environment is like when watching through many submissions for the slate. So, for me, that means making sure I’m comfortable in where I’m watching, ensuring there aren’t distractions like notifications from my phone or email, and making sure I take as detailed notes as possible while I watch. Notes are invaluable to me, especially once you’ve watched quite a few films and may need to rewatch to see if you feel the same way as you did with that initial watch. In addition to notes, discussion with my fellow programmers and considering how films may or may not be in conversation with each other; what feelings, moods, or questions they inspire; and how they may challenge us or may resonate with the audience—formally, aesthetically, playfully—is imperative to this process. 

Brown: I look for a personal connection between the story and the storyteller. That doesn't have to mean that the filmmaker is doing something autobiographical in nature, just that they're leaning into the uniqueness of their voice and lived experience and using that to explore an idea or curiosity or situation. What sets a filmmaker apart is the clarity they have about their stories. Beyond that, I look for craft. How did this director use the tools available to them to shape this story? And when a film does this by leaning into some aspect of the Southern experience—that's one that we're especially excited about. 

Kanaiya: When programming for NFFTY, we take the age of the filmmaker into account. It is not fair to judge the skills of an elementary-school-aged filmmaker the same as our young professionals. In our programming process, we start by defining a NFFTY film selection by the following criteria: It tells an engaging story, pushes the limitations for their age range, and utilizes the languages/techniques of cinema in interesting and innovative ways.

Belser: I really enjoy screening films. I broach it like a filmgoing experience: I make snacks, turn off the lights, and have my notebook and favorite pen next to me. There is a rating system and comment section that helps me track the films that may fit the bill later on. As the Head Programmer fields the offerings and develops the blocks, she tells the team what she is looking for, and we give her suggestions and recommendations from the films we've screened. It is a very collaborative process.

Brown: At the core, I'm always just looking for people who really have something to say, and have been delicate and intentional about how to convey it to a viewer. I can be forgiving with those who don't quite reach their mark, so long as they're aiming for something. And truthfully, not many people aim.

Myers: Programming for a festival feels most comparable to putting a puzzle together, but without any sense of what the pieces will look like until you’ve reached a certain point of the process. It’s like a breath of fresh air when it comes together. 

How has the work you’ve done been informed by the communities the festivals take place in? In turn, how has the work affected those communities?

Brown: At any New Orleans gathering or event, it's important to hold space for culture and community. Tradition seeps into the way our festival operates and makes for a really warm environment. We're lucky to regularly see the culture bearers here in the films we showcase and at our screenings. In New Orleans, I had mentors that I could lean on for support, and they gave it with such generosity and grace. I remember feeling so privileged. Now that I find myself stepping into that mentorship role for others, I understand that they, too, were committed to seeding storytellers from this region and filling the gaps left by the lack of funding, trust, and value placed in the hands of Southern filmmakers. They filled those gaps with their own precious time and effort, lifting as they climbed. So passing the torch has become a fundamental part of being an independent filmmaker in New Orleans—a tradition I'm happy to carry.

Brawley: Being responsive to your community is so essential to making it work. In Wilmington, we really want to give people something they want and feel comfortable with, but also [are interested in] challenging people. There’s a balance there that we’re always thinking about and playing with. The festivals that we help to organize in other communities are a little different. There’s a lot more listening, because we don’t have the benefit of being there all the time. So with the Lumbee Film Festival, the decision-making originates in the community with members of the tribe. And with Surfalorus, we rely on strong relationships with Dare Arts, Jennette’s Pier, and with the Eastern Surfing Association. 

Kanaiya: At NFFTY we recognize the importance of filmmakers who are making films about their background and identity, and want to ensure they are seen not just on a regional platform, but on a national platform.  

Belser: I often hear pejorative statements and negative stereotypes about the South from the media at large, but that has never been my actual experience as a lifelong Southerner. I think about the world of the stories and people made here, and always want to herald them. In my work for NFFTY, I was able to do filmmaker outreach and extend waivers to a Southern filmmaker. Ultimately her film won two awards.

Brawley: Maybe the best example of what happens after the festival is over happened in Robeson County this summer. At last year’s Lumbee Film Festival, Malinda Maynor Lowery, a filmmaker and Lumbee Tribe member, connected with Montana Cypress, an L.A.-based filmmaker and Miccosukee Tribe member. This summer, they collaborated to produce a short narrative that was shot entirely in Robeson County. Those small connections sometimes turn into really wonderful long-term collaborations. 

Photo by Andrew Bunting. Courtesy of

What is a recent or forthcoming festival film that you would like to recommend, and why?

Kanaiya: Imran and Alykhan was a film I was ecstatic to see on our screen. Made for hopeless romantics, the short film is incredibly sweet. It features queer South Asian representation—two communities I am honored to be a part of and highlight.

Brown: I was blown away by Monica Sorelle's Mountains, which chronicles a Haitian family in Miami navigating gentrification and a housing crisis. It's such a tender film that manages to be so full of love in the midst of dizzying change. And it's very relevant to what we're seeing in New Orleans and other major Southern cities.

Belser: There are two films that have excited me this year and completely captivated me: Paloma by Brittany Alexia Young and Janay Kelley’s The River. I highly recommend Paloma because it is such a touching portrait about sexual assault through a lens I’ve never seen. The River is a must-see experimental short that is nothing short of a revival of the Black Southern Gothic film. 

Brawley: Cucalorus will share one of those classic Southern stories as our opening night film this year. A film made in North Carolina by Honey Head Films [called] A Song for Imogene.

What makes a film Southern?

Brown: Simply put, I think a Southern film is invested in telling some story of the South—who we were, who we are, who we will be—using the sensibilities that come naturally to born and raised Southerners. The ability to hold both life and death in the same hand. Both preservation and transformation. The work is expressed through the shared emotional language of the people here. 

Belser: In a perfect world, the definition of a Southern film would be a film set and filmed in the South that features Southern actors. This is an idealistic definition that doesn’t consider the complexities of the world. My personal definition is inclusive of films set in the South but not filmed here that have non-Southern actors with inauthentic accents. Sometimes I still consider a movie a Southern film if the writer or director [is] Southern, if the work is reminiscent of the South.

Myers: This is something quite difficult to put into words. The rhythms of phrases, the musicality of accents, and the often overbearing heat are all aspects that come to mind for many when they think of the South, certainly me as well, and that is often what gets represented by those not from this region. Those aspects are easier to mimic—and as much as Southernness is defined by distinct regionality, food, and complicated history—I think I’m most moved [by] and can feel Southerness in work not only made within this region, but by its slowness, its familiarity, and its warmness. That warmth can look different in Memphis, New Orleans, Jackson, or Birmingham, but it’s apparent when there is reverence and honesty.

Brawley: I’ve been thinking more and more about who is telling the story these days—whose voice is front and center. So maybe Southern films don’t have to be about the South; maybe it’s more important that the flavor is distinctly situated in the Southern U.S. experience. And that can be so many things—think of the range, from Appalachia to the Tidewaters of the Carolinas to the hot beaches of Miami. So many different cultural influences and perspectives can fall into Southern film as a broader movement. And then, of course, there is a genre of gritty, hardscrabble stories about people overcoming adversity that would define a sort of history of Southern U.S. film. Taking ownership of that narrative is an important part of the Southern film conversation.

Myers: It’s a film that asks questions beyond, “Why do you still live here?” It’s work that never considers working anywhere else in the first place, and continues to build towards making that a sustainable possibility. 

For more stories about Southern film, order a copy of 
Oxford American's 2023 Film Issue.

Oxford American

From the editors of the Oxford American.