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Southern culture is the focus of the 17th Carrboro Film Fest

Still image from "The Smell of Money."
submitted image
Carrboro Film Fest, The Smell of Money
Still image from "The Smell of Money." The documentary -- produced by Kate Mara and David Lowery -- will close the Carrboro Film Fest on Sunday night.

The Carrboro Film Fest is not like other film festivals. When he took over as director of the festival some four years ago, Bradley Bethel made sure that was true.

Sure, Carrboro could have a festival that shows a slew of international features, or one that brings in movies aiming for Oscar nominations. But Bethel saw it as something that could fill a void — a place that provided a platform for southern filmmakers and films about the South.

“All of our films that we select have some connection to the South. That was the major change I made when I became director. I really wanted to do something different. I really wanted to give Carrboro Film Fest a more focused mission and identity,” Bethel said. “Carrboro is a great place for a film festival, because it's a really artsy and engaged town. I really want the festival to be a venue for both celebrating and interrogating southern culture.”

All of our films that we select have some connection to the South...I really wanted to give Carrboro Film Fest a more focused mission and identity.
Bradley Bethel

The Carrboro Film Fest returns for its 17th year this weekend, opening Friday evening and closing on Sunday. The festival this year features two full-length features – which will open and close the festival – and more than 40 short films, which have been grouped together in themed blocks.

And almost half of those films, Bethel says, are based in North Carolina.

“That's significant because we didn't set out to do that,” Bethel said. “Our goal is to screen the best southern films that we can find. So, I think it speaks a lot about how good the filmmaking in North Carolina is right now.”

All films will screen at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, and tickets are available online. Folks attending the film festival need to wear a mask during screenings and provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or recent negative test.

“I do think it is unique,” Bethel said of the festival. “Our programming is high quality, but also regional and local. And you get that in an intimate setting where the audiences get to meaningfully interact with the filmmakers. It's really easy to connect with the filmmakers.”

Folks in the audience should be able to recognize various locations in the festival’s opening film, “Tableau.” It’s the first feature for Chapel Hill native and UNC graduate Stuart Howes, and was filmed at a few locations in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area, including the Carolina Coffee Shop and the Weaver Street Market. Its run time is under two hours, and Howes and members of the cast will participate in a Q&A after the screening.

Bethel said tickets for “Tableau” are almost sold out.

“The director, Stuart Howes, even describes the film as a love letter to Chapel Hill and Carrboro. So, it’s very local,” Bethal said. “And at the same time, it’s a good film. It’s a thought-provoking family drama. We’re really excited to be the local premiere of the film.”

The festival will close on Sunday night with a screening of a documentary, “The Smell of Money.” It was written and produced by North Carolina native Jamie Berger and focuses on the story of Elsie Herring and her fight against Smithfield Foods and the pork industry in eastern North Carolina. The film dives into aspects of environmental racism, pollution and community activism.

Berger’s film has already been shown at several film festivals and has taken home a handful of awards. It was an audience favorite at the HotDocs Festival, won the Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival, won for Best Feature Documentary at the Bushwick Film Festival, and won for Best Life & Liberty Film at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.

Executive producers credited for their work on the film include Kate Mara (House of Cards) and David Lowery (The Green Knight). After the screening on Sunday, Berger will participate in a Q&A with the audience.

“It’s a really great and well-made documentary, and it also hits home,” Bethel said. “We are still not yet serious enough about climate change and environmental issues, and this film confronts some of those issues head-on here in our own state.”

Saturday and Sunday at the film festival are filled with themed groupings of short films. One on Saturday is dedicated to stories that don’t get told enough, while another focuses on documentary shorts.

“Our Saturday night block called ‘Magnetism’ is a really compelling and eclectic mix of short films,” Bethel said. “There’s no one way to be southern or experience the South. I think we really do represent the diversity of the southern experience.”

One block of films – beginning Sunday at 2:15 p.m. – will be preceded by a special presentation from photographers Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor about their new book, “Our Strange New Land: Narrative Movie Sets in the American South.”

“Not only is it a block of fascinating and really well done, really beautifully-made short films, but (Harris) is going to be presenting some of his photographs,” Bethel said. “They're beautiful photographs and his experience spending years on movie sets is going to be really interesting to hear.”

For more information about the films and tickets, visit

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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