Austin Film Society Announces Recipients of the 2023 AFS Grant for Feature Films

(Still from I NEED SPACE directed by Lauren Yap, Hannah Varnell, and Ivy Chiu)

Will Stefanski

This Year’s Grant Funding Will Support 15 Projects Made by 18 Texas Filmmakers

September 5, 2023, AUSTIN, TX— The Austin Film Society is proud to announce 18 recipients of the 2023 AFS Grant for Feature Films, the annually renewed production fund for emerging Texas filmmakers. Since its creation in 1996, the AFS Grant has awarded more than $2.4 million in cash grants to 495 Texas filmmakers, creating life-changing opportunities for artists traditionally underrepresented in the film industry and working outside large industry centers. A vital resource for Texas independent filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, the AFS Grant is intended to support career leaps for emerging to mid-career artists. This latest group of grantees represent the creative potential of Texas filmmakers and are the culmination of AFS’s dedication to creating more access and equity in the regional independent film sector.

Grants in this funding cycle are awarded to feature-length films — those longer than 40 minutes — in any phase of production. In this cycle, $110,000 in cash was awarded to 15 projects, the highest amount of cash given in the features cycle of the AFS Grant to date. The 15 projects were selected from 66 eligible applications, which means that 23% percent of the projects reviewed received grant funding. 

The full list of 2023 AFS Grantees for Feature Films is below. Stills and headshots can be found here.

AFS CEO Rebecca Campbell said, “The completion of any independent feature-length project requires a tremendous amount of resources, and having a community of supporters is critical. The AFS Grant is essential as a Texas-based source of funding for artists and as a connection to a network of filmmakers and film enthusiasts who champion independent makers.” Erica Deiparine-Sugars, AFS Director of Programs for Filmmaker Support, added, “We are proud to amplify the stories of so many Texas filmmakers, opening doors for them throughout the national and global film communities.”

This year’s projects reflect AFS’s commitment to funding exceptional artistic voices that often come from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the film industry. In this grant cycle, female-identifying and non-binary filmmakers make up 56% of recipients, and 56% of the recipients identify with a community of color.

For the sixth year, AFS is proud to offer the New Texas Voices Award, a cash grant of $10,000 and industry mentorship, for a first-time filmmaker of color making a feature-length film. This year’s award is sponsored by the Warren Skaaren Charitable Trust, and the recipient was Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda for the narrative feature A Silent Wave. AFS continues to partner with Ley Line Entertainment, David Lowery and the Oak Cliff Film Festival to fund three debut feature projects by underrepresented north-Texas-based directors through the North Texas Pioneer Film Fund (a special section of the AFS Grant program). This year’s recipients of these funds included Cesar Aranda for Sleeping With Your Eyes Wide Open, Seckeita Lewis for ImPossible and Shaun Michael Colón for Age of Audio.

In addition to cash grants, AFS Grant partners offered significant in-kind support goods and services. Amy Bench received the MPS Camera and Lighting Austin award for her film Walker in the form of a multi-day camera package rental valued up to $10,000. In addition, two filmmakers received theatrical digital cinema packages (DCP) for their features through the Stuck On On DCP Grant: Benjamin Flaherty for Shuffle and Dana Reilly for Our Body Electric. These in-kind awards were accompanied by cash grants. 

The AFS Grant selections are made by a panel of industry experts. Those who jury the production grant reside outside of the state of Texas and are integral in selecting new and diverse talent. This year’s grant review panel included Rashaad Ernesto Green, a New York native and director of film (Premature and Gun Hill Road, both of which premiered at Sundance Film Festival) and television (including episodes for Marvel, Netflix, Showtime, Hulu, NBC, Fox, Warner Bros, VH1 and BET) as well as the winner of Film Independent Spirit’s Someone to Watch Award. The panel also included Andrew Ahn, a queer Korean American filmmaker known for his film Fire Island (starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho), which won the Ensemble Tribute at the 2023 Gotham Awards, a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Film Streaming/TV and was nominated for two Emmy Awards. The third panelist for this year’s grant was Lisa Ogdie who has been a short film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival since 2009, served as a shorts curator for the 2019 and 2020 editions of the Durban Film Festival in South Africa and is currently the head of cinema programming in North America for Soho House & Co.

A diverse committee of filmmakers, film industry professionals and former AFS Grant recipients act as first-round reviewers, providing feedback and recommendations to the panel. Reviewers included Daniel Laabs, Jean Anne Lauer, Christina Bryant, Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Carina Hinojosa, Gabe Van Amburgh, Joshua Martin, Michael Rowley, Neha Aziz, Monique Walton and Hilary Pierce. This year’s grant was administered by AFS Head of Film and Creative Media Holly Herrick, Director of Programs Erica Deiparine-Sugars, Senior Program Manager Sharon Arteaga and Filmmaker Support Coordinator Maryan Nagy Captan.

More About the AFS Grant

The AFS Grant is administered with two application periods and deadlines. The spring grant application cycle is for documentary and narrative feature-length film projects (over 40 minutes) in any phase of production or feature-length films in development. The fall grant application cycle is for short films, 40 minutes or under in length. The application cycle for short films will close on September 11, 2023, at 6 PM CT, and the next application cycle is in the spring for the AFS Grant for Feature Films, which will open in April 2024.

Some of AFS’s most successful program alumni over the years have received grants from AFS. Filmmakers Kat Candler (former showrunner of O Network’s Queen Sugar, Hellion, 13 Reasons Why), David Lowery (The Green Knight, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story), Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas (Skip Day, Directors’ Fortnight winners) and Annie Silverstein (Bull, Cannes 2019 and SXSW 2020) were all awarded support through the AFS Grant Fund. This year, AFS-supported director Margaret Brown’s feature-length documentary Descendant was shortlisted for the 2023 Academy Awards®.

The AFS Grant is generously supported by grant partners Ley Line Entertainment, David Lowery, Oak Cliff Film Festival, the Warren Skaaren Charitable Trust, Kat Candler, Kyle and Noah Hawley, MPS Camera and Lighting and Stuck On On, in addition to the City of Austin Economic Development Department/Cultural Arts Division and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Recipients of the 2023 AFS Grant for Feature Films

Director: Amy Bench (Austin, TX)
Documentary in production — MPS Camera and Lighting Austin Grant

Description: Walker is a verité portrait of Walker Estes — a deaf advocate and father from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — who is driven by his family’s experiences of incarceration and deafness to help others in his community affected by the prison system. Walker is an intimate exploration into parenthood, activism, and personal healing.

Director: Benjamin Flaherty (Austin, TX)
Documentary in post-production — Stuck On On DCP Award

Description: Through the lens of his own recovery, a filmmaker offers an intimate look inside the billion-dollar addiction treatment industry where young people are bought and sold for their insurance policies and ushered into a system designed to keep them sick. What begins as an investigation of a street-level scam explodes to uncover systemic collusion at the highest levels of government.

Sleeping With Your Eyes Wide Open 
Director: Cesar Aranda (Denton, TX)
Narrative feature in production — North Texas Pioneer Film Grant

Description: A tired painter is given no choice but to dive head first into the grime of the city and embark on a nightlong, grueling, surrealist journey full of peculiar characters in search of the damned mysterious man that stole not only his locket but also his dignity.

Our Body Electric
Director: Dana Reilly (San Antonio, TX)
Documentary in production — Stuck On On DCP Award

Description: The quest to win the Super Bowl® of muscle contests is the backdrop for stories of three American female bodybuilders seeking to be loved and accepted for who they are while contending with the impossible standards set for women within the sport and by society at large.

3rd Place
Director: Edwin Oliva (Austin, TX)
Narrative feature in post-production

Description: After failing to win an art competition, a disillusioned Latino teams up with an aspiring writer country-boy to create a comic book.

Rooftop Lempicka
Director: Hang Luong Nguyen (Austin, TX)
Narrative feature in development

Description: 2002 Saigon summer, ten-year-old Thi begins to discover her own womanhood after a club waitress rents out her recently deceased Grandmother’s bedroom.

Rusty Lightnin’
Director: Jack Kyser (Austin, TX)
Narrative feature in production

Description: Leonard, a struggling actor, becomes the unofficial spokesman of a local car dealership, which brings him newfound attention and fame – until local ATF agents inform him that the dealership is a front for firearms trafficking and Leonard is forced to become their informant.

Why Am I Like This? Adoption And The Search For The Self
Director: Lauren Paige Sanders (Austin, TX)
Documentary in post-production

Description: Following the death of her brother and mom, a transracial adoptee attempts to regain her sense of identity by exploring her origins and connecting with others like her.

I Need Space
Directors: Lauren Yap, Hannah Varnell and Ivy Chiu (Austin, TX) 
Documentary in production

Description: Amidst a record surge of Texas anti-LGBTQ legislation and the demolition of nightlife venues, I Need Space chronicles three queer performance artists in Austin as they create, protect, and reimagine queer futures alongside their chosen families. Glitter and despair collide in this candid love letter to queer resistance everywhere.

Untitled Philippines Project
Director: PJ Raval (Austin, TX)
Documentary in post-production

Description: A new feature documentary by PJ Raval (Call Her Ganda).

The Tushurai
Directors: Robert Hope and Anna Japaridze (Austin, TX)
Documentary in production

Description: As the only road leading to the Caucasus mountain region of Tusheti, Georgia, closes for winter, a few determined, predominantly elderly holdouts and misfits remain. Experiencing time outside the flow of state regulation and consumer exchange, this smattering of people form a tight, interdependent group navigates economic hardship, intergenerational friction, and uncertainty over their community’s future.

A Silent Wave
Director: Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda (Conroe, TX)
Narrative feature in production — New Texas Voices Grant

Description: Lonely housewife Charulata is a fish out of water in post-Roe Texas until she befriends outspoken Amal, a Muslim-American woman torn between career aspirations and family obligations. Together, the two women form an unlikely but indelible bond that will force them to risk the lives they’ve built for a chance to create a future all their own.

Director: Seckeita Lewis (Fort Worth, TX)
Narrative feature in post-production — North Texas Pioneer Film Grant

Description: When a man with big dreams is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he forms an unbreakable bond with a widowed fast-food worker to do the impossible: transform his life and pursue his passion for becoming a police officer.

Age Of Audio
Director: Shaun Michael Colón (Dallas, TX)
Documentary in post-production — North Texas Pioneer Film Grant

Description: A tale of modern audio storytelling.

Director: Vanessa Uhlig (Austin, TX)
Documentary in development

Description: Twenty years after the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, an Indigenous woman now serves in the presidential administration in charge of an initiative to protect and empower women like her across the country. But being an operator of the state that has historically subjugated the Mayan population poses risky challenges, and the way she deals with those tradeoffs will affect the resources available to women in Guatemala and whether they can provide for their families at home or will have to face the prospect of migration to the U.S.

About Austin Film Society
Founded in 1985 by filmmaker Richard Linklater, AFS creates life-changing opportunities for filmmakers, catalyzes Austin and Texas as a creative hub, and brings the community together around great film. AFS is committed to racial equity and inclusion, with an objective to deliver programs that actively dismantle the structural racism, sexism and other bias in the screen industries. AFS supports filmmakers from all backgrounds towards career leaps, encouraging exceptional artistic projects with grants and support services. AFS operates Austin Studios, a 20-acre production facility, to attract and grow the creative media ecosystem. Austin Public, a space for our city’s diverse mediamakers to train and collaborate, provides many points of access to filmmaking and film careers. The AFS Cinema is an ambitiously programmed repertory and first run arthouse with broad community engagement. By hosting premieres, local and international industry events, and the Texas Film Awards, AFS shines the national spotlight on Texas filmmakers while connecting Austin and Texas to the wider film community. AFS is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.                                                  

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