Meet The Recipients of the 2023 AFS Grant for Feature Films

You know the feeling you get when you give a gift to someone you really care about, one you’re sure is going to mean a lot to them? That’s how it feels announcing the filmmakers chosen in each cycle of the AFS Grant. And with summer drawing to a close, it’s time for us to hand you, our film community, your present: the list of filmmakers receiving the 2023 AFS Grant for Feature Films.

But before we get into who we awarded support to, we wanted to share something special about this announcement. This year, we were able to fund the highest amount of projects we ever have in a single grant cycle: 15 projects received a combined $110,000 in cash and in-kind support in the form of digital cinema packages (DCP) and camera rentals. 

It’s a big deal for us because supporting Texas filmmakers — especially those who’ve been previously underrepresented in the industry — is coded directly into our DNA at AFS. This grant is not just for filmmakers in Austin but for artists throughout the Lone Star State, and the fact that we’re helping the careers of so many artists means the world to us. 

Read on to get to know the recipients of this year’s features grant, and keep an eye on these projects as they continue on their development, production, and post-production journeys.


Amy Bench is the director of the documentary WALKER, her first feature-length project (and recipient of the MPS Camera and Lighting Austin Grant). Bench has made many shorts before this, including MORE THAN I WANT TO REMEMBER, which won an NAACP Image Award, “Best Animated Short” at Tribeca, and was shortlisted for an Oscar® in 2023. WALKER explores the relationship between a deaf father, Walker, and his hearing daughter, Leslie, and was born out of Bench’s project BREAKING THE SILENCE, which was also supported by the AFS Grant. “I’m excited to get to know Walker and his family more deeply and to help share the life of an everyday hero.”

Benjamin Flaherty is a filmmaker from Austin, TX, and his film SHUFFLE was also awarded a Stuck On On DCP Award. He’s a filmmaker and a photographer with 15 years of experience making everything from documentaries and art films to commercials for major brands. His journey to sobriety in 2018 is the basis for SHUFFLE, which he hopes will have a long life on the festival circuit before he finds distribution. “While it’s a small movie, the subject matter is not. It’s an issue that affects millions of people.”

Cesar Aranda, director of SLEEPING WITH YOUR EYES WIDE OPEN, is a recipient of the North Texas Pioneer Film Grant. While he is originally from Longview, TX, he is currently based in Denton and is a graduate of UNT. This is his first time receiving support from the AFS Grant, and when asked about his goals, he says “looking for the meaning of life through movies.” SLEEPING WITH YOUR EYES WIDE OPEN is about the surrealist journey of a painter in the big city, and it’s full of peculiar characters worth getting to know.

Dana Reilly is a documentary filmmaker whose film OUR BODY ELECTRIC focuses on female bodybuilders in America and the challenges they contend with through the sport and in society at large. Reilly is based in San Antonio, TX, but before that, she lived in Austin. “I was actually introduced to strength training at Hyde Park Gym. Lifting weights completely transformed my relationship to food, my body, and my physical abilities, and my interest in women who found purpose through physical transformation and accomplishment grew from there.” OUR BODY ELECTRIC is a recipient of the Stuck On On DCP Award.

Edwin Oliva’s film 3RD PLACE explores the themes of small-town identities and Latinx representation. Oliva, himself, was born in the small town of Cuero, TX, and raised in nearby Yoakum, TX. “I have a special place in my heart for small Texas towns in the southeast region and decided to set my film in that area.” Oliva is now based in Austin and is a recent graduate of UT as well as a previous recipient of the Harrison McClure Endowed Film Fund Grant for undergraduate students, which is part of the AFS Grant for Short Films.

Hang Luong Nguyen’s narrative feature ROOFTOP LEMPICKA started out as a proof-of-concept short that was previously received AFS Grant funding as a short. Nguyen grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, which has helped foster interest in exploring the Vietnamese female identity, family relationships, and grief. “By making this film I hope to capture the essence of a time in Vietnam’s recent past and how, in that very specific moment in time, the lives of different Vietnamese women of different generations and backgrounds are interconnected.”

Jack Kyser is an Austin native, and his grant-supported film RUSTY LIGHTNIN’ dives into the world of a struggling actor turned ATF informant. Kyser spent 11 years in New York and said he has always felt a little out of place wherever he’s lived. “This reckoning with one’s identity is at the heart of RUSTY LIGHTNIN’, and it was what drove me to write the film in the first place. It’s about one’s relationship to their hometown and the performative nature of existing in two very different worlds.”  He’s made seven short films that have screened at film festivals nationwide, and he is currently an editor for The Daily Show.

Lauren Paige Sanders’ documentary WHY AM I LIKE THIS? ADOPTION AND THE SEARCH FOR THE SELF is about a transracial adoptee exploring her origins and connecting with others like her. It’s a subject that is personal to Sanders. “After my adopted mother died, I watched a film called ROSE PLAYS JULIE. The basic plot was so eerily similar to my experience, that I began to wonder if my story could actually be worthy of telling.” Sanders is a graduate of UT’s RTF program and has 20 years of experience in editing, post-production, and composing.

Lauren Yap, Hannah Varnell, and Ivy Chiu are the directors of I NEED SPACE, which focuses on three queer performance artists in Austin as anti-LGBTQ legislation goes into effect across Texas. The co-directors bring a variety of media experience to their project, including commercials, music videos, and other documentaries, and their goals for this film show the importance of their documentary. With I NEED SPACE, Yap hopes to empower others looking for safety and belonging in the face of adversity, Varnell wants to contribute to national and international conversations across generations and communities, and Chiu wants their work to expand society’s collective knowledge of queer history.

PJ Raval received development funds for an UNTITLED PHILIPPINES PROJECT in 2022, a project that’s currently receiving post-production support in this cycle of the AFS Grant. While the details of this project are still under wraps, Raval’s previous feature documentary work includes TRINIDAD, BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, and CALL HER GANDA, the latter of which inspired several Philippines human rights organization chapters in Texas.

Robert Hope and Anna Japaridze are co-directors of THE TUSHURAI, a previously supported AFS Grant recipient that started out as a proof of concept in 2022. The documentary is about the people living in the Caucasus mountain region of Tusheti, Georgia, which is at the crossroads of Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Hope grew up in northern California, but his connection to the area began while traveling as a college student. Japaridze, on the other hand, grew up between Tbilisi and London. Hope says, “Through our work, we aim to raise awareness of the challenges faced by communities like Tusheti and hope to inspire conversations about the ways in which we can foster sustainable development and maintain a sense of collective belonging.”

Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda is the director of A SILENT WAVE, a narrative film about a housewife in post-Roe Texas and her unlikely friendship with an outspoken Muslim-American woman. The film is this year’s recipient of the New Texas Voices Award, which is given to a first-time filmmaker of color making a feature-length film. Mudigonda said, “My aspiration extends to bring A SILENT WAVE to theaters in the United States after its festival run.” Mudigonda and his spouse, Janani Vijayanathan, founded Kinostreet, an independent production house in Texas aimed at creating films about marginalized people and communities worldwide.

Seckeita Lewis is a Fort Worth-based filmmaker and another one of this year’s recipients of the North Texas Pioneer Award. Her film, ImPOSSIBLE, deals with its main character, Brandon, struggling with type 2 diabetes while pursuing his goal of becoming a police officer. In real life, the actor playing Brandon also struggles with type 2 diabetes, and Lewis says, “The goal of the story is not only to save Brandon’s life but the lives of millions of others through this inspirational film that features the protagonist fighting against the disease and winning.”

Shaun Michael Colón is from Dallas, TX, and is a recipient of the North Texas Pioneer Film Grant for his documentary AGE OF AUDIO. Colón is best known for his documentary A FAT WRECK, which chronicles the history of the punk-rock record label Fat Wreck Chords. His passion for audio and his support of art and culture are what have led him to create AGE OF AUDIO, a tale of modern audio storytelling.

Vanessa Uhlig is the director of DEFENDER, a documentary in development about the challenges of an Indigenous politician in Guatemala 20 years after the country’s civil war. Uhlig’s previous short film LAS CRUCES also explored Guatemalan politics and premiered at the Austin Film Festival. Of DEFENDER, Uhlig says “I see this story and its protagonist as a bridge not just in Guatemalan politics but in our conversations about the migration crisis, the legacy of U.S. economic involvement in Central America, and the way media can construct, constrain, or challenge ideologies of otherness.”

To read more about past AFS Grant recipients, click here. The next cycle of the AFS Grant is for feature-length films, and applications will re-open again in April 2024.