I collapse down into the driver’s seat, my neck heavy with a lanyard full of movie flyers and business cards.

As I start the easy two-and-a-half-hour drive back home to Atlanta, the quaint historic downtown and rolling green fields call out for me to film in Aiken, South Carolina. Southern City Film Festival knows how to play to its strengths.

Actually, the inaugural Southern City Film Festival had been slated for 2015. As they got closer to the event, though, founder Justin Wheelon and his team realized that they were not as prepared as they wanted to be, so they pushed the pause button. A more prideful festival director might have forced the event, but Justin, who is somehow connected to and revered by everyone in Aiken, had the courage to get it right the year after. So, on opening night, the packed, gorgeous room of more than 300 people in black-tie attire was no surprise to me. What a success: delicious free food and drinks, great design on festival swag (if you don’t know how to design a logo, how can I trust your taste in film?), conversations with other filmmakers, an amazing concert by recording artist Edwin McCain.

The next morning, I arrived for tech check to find Justin at my venue. It was comforting to know that he had the same worries as me: How does my film look and sound and will people show up? It looked and sounded great. People showed up. Justin introduced the film himself, and my humble feature documentary marked the first ever-film played at the Southern City Film Festival. The audience was engaged, laughing when they should have, and crying when I hoped they would.

After my credits ran, everyone stayed and asked questions for a solid 45 minutes. The real juice of a festival for me is interacting with the audience. I’m not a filmmaker because I enjoy sitting in a dark room editing; I’m a filmmaker because I believe in the power of stories to transform us. Southern City believes that too. Their slate wasn’t simply a program of what had already played at the big festivals. They sought to bring truly independent films that their community would appreciate and be challenged by, and the work of local filmmakers. The festival also had legendary film critic Jeffrey Lyons moderating and hosting many films throughout the weekend. What a great experience getting to learn from and hang out with Mr. Lyons.

Is the industry at Southern City? Not yet. (“Donald, don’t say ‘industry.’” – Adaptation.) However, since the festival, I’ve taken three meetings and have a fourth scheduled because of the relationships I made there. Could more people show up to screenings? Sure, and they will, but the crowds already in attendance were substantial, engaged and kind.

Moviemaker Jared Callahan at a Southern City Film Festival screening of his feature Janey Makes a Play

Is Southern City aware of what it is, what it isn’t, and what it could be? Yes—and that’s a wildly refreshing yes. In its first year, Southern City ran a festival superior to festivals 10 years its senior. With such an impressive rookie effort, it will be on my festival radar for years to come. MM

Jared Callahan’s feature Janey Makes a Play is available online. He is currently embarking on the festival circuit with “American Moderate,” a short documentary following a young undecided voter’s journey to the polls.

Southern City Film Festival 2016 took place in November 2016. This article originally appears in MovieMaker’s 2017 Winter issue. All images courtesy of AP Gouge Photography.