A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands across from the Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a city with a complicated history and a love for film. In almost two decades, Sidewalk Film Festival has reshaped the cultural landscape of this community by acting as a stronghold of inclusion in the American South, bridging the region’s famous hospitality with sincere openness to difference.

“Sidewalk is about more than film—it is about community, diversity, and pride of place,” says Executive Director Chloe Cook. “The films that we screen expose our community to different parts of the world and people with experiences, perspectives, and problems different from our own. These films connect Birmingham with the world at large. It is my belief that no other art form can stimulate meaningful dialogue or change hearts and minds quite like a well-made film can.”

Films also help Alabamians reflect on more local crusades, like in the case of documentary feature Alabama Bound, directed by Lara Embry and Carolyn Sherer, centered on two lesbian couples battling the state over basic civil protections. The radiantly supportive reaction of Birmingham audiences at the screening overwhelmed the film’s subjects, who were in attendance. The festival made for a fitting setting for that title, as Sidewalk is put on by the Alabama Moving Image Association, which also organizes SHOUT—an LGBT festival that takes place simultaneously in the city.

Of Sidewalk ’17’s significant collection of films with Alabama ties, The Nobodies, a mockumentary about the making of an infamous horror film, and Tinker, a Kickstarter-financed, heartfelt family drama, were two of the most accomplished. Storytelling was also celebrated off-screen at Sidewalk with Projections: A Live Storytelling Event for Adults, which invited a group of seasoned orators and industry guests to get on stage to unravel moving and comedic tales from their own lives.

Birmingham is blessed with multiple screening venues, but two deserve special recognition: The recently renovated Lyric Fine Arts Theatre, whose origins date back to early 20th-century Vaudeville performances, and The Alabama Theatre, a gorgeous movie palace built in the 1920s. A Sidewalk program entitled Nathan Avakian and the International Youth Silent Film Festival, which screened contemporary silent films by young artists to Avakian’s organ soundtrack, was made possible thanks to the exquisite theater organ at the Alabama.

Selling points for Sidewalk are plenty, but its epic themed parties might just seal the deal, with inflatable obstacle courses, slides, funnel cake… How will they top this year’s Bounce Carnival Bash? Find out next year, as the fest gears up for its 20th edition. MM

Sidewalk Film Festival 2017 ran from August 25-27, 2017. For more information, visit their website here.