Cinema Paradiso: Donna Lefont is on a mission to keep film history alive in Atlanta

When Donna Lefont was 8-years-old, her father worked at a local movie theater. As a single dad, he often took his children to work with him, where they would run freely around the theater. Lefont’s favorite place to explore were the projection rooms. She recalls peeking out from behind the machinery and seeing a dark room full of people, their faces lit up by the screen. “It was kind of like a Cinema Paradiso,” she says, name-checking the classic Italian film about a young boy who escapes life in his war-torn village at the local movie house. “The theater was my home away from home and I got used to it.”

The Lefont name is legendary in Atlanta because Donna’s ex-husband, George Lefont, owned a chain of independent cinemas in the city for 40 years that still loom large in movie-lovers’ minds, including The Silver Screen, The Screening Room, Garden Hills Cinema, Lefont Sandy Springs and Plaza Theatre. Lefont Theaters were the place to see foreign, independent and documentary films. George opened his first theater, The Silver Screen, in Buckhead circa 1976. Lefont Sandy Springs was the last theater he owned before retiring in 2017.

Donna has made it her mission to not only continue George’s legacy, but continue her passion for curating films, connecting the community, and teaching the relevance of cinema she first experienced as a child.

The Lefont Film Society was created in 2012 to “bring back a version of the Lefont programming and nostalgia without having a physical location again,” and has since become integrated into Food Film Music (foodfilmmusic.com), a series of pop-up style screenings. “The pop-up idea came to me because it kind of allows for curated programming, specific to the neighborhood audiences.”

George Lefont and Donna Lefont at the Oscars.

Lefont says the pop-up cinemas – which will take place in various locations including yoga studios, local theaters, restaurants, boutiques, and more – will provide the opportunity to hold tight to the city’s film history, provide education opportunities, and fulfill her passion for film. It also provides a chance for movie-goers to collectively share emotion and exchange dialogue about the films.

“If you’re watching something and you’re crying together, with your pupils sniffling next to you, and you’re trying to hold it back, or people are busting a gut laughing,” Lefont says. “You’re sharing emotion with people, and I think in this day and age with all the technology available, we need to stay connected.”

The movies Food Film Music screens are hand-picked and curated by Lefont. She says researching the films is her favorite part, because she’ll often go down a rabbit hole of discovering movies she’s never seen prior. After picking the film, Lefont researches the distribution rights and/or contacts distributors to request screening rights.

“Hidden history is what I’m trying to discover and find new ways to connect — food, film, and music pretty much connect all of us in some way,” she says.

Next on the Food Film Music docket is a double feature of The Mindfulness Movement and Tashi and the Monk on Saturday, April 4, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Cinevision Screening Room in Chamblee.

Lefont is also collaborating with Emory University’s Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, which focuses on practicing attentional stability, analytical reflection, and increased emotional awareness, at future movie and meditation events. She also plans to host a film screenwriting camp in June for 5th to 9th graders to teach screenwriting and storytelling. To Lefont, a great story will remain timeless.

“There’s so many production camps and workshops available, but let’s back it up to storytelling,” she says. “We have to retrain our minds to not consume so much all the time, and to actually be mindful and slow down and really appreciate this visual motion picture art form for what it is. Without that, you’re going to lose film history.”

As with many aspects of media in this digital age, there is a looming shadow over the fate of the traditional movie theater due to distribution rights, the convenience of streaming entertainment, and the influx of film that is changing Atlanta.

Donna with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now).

“I think it’s going to take reaching a plateau that people are going to want to connect back in the dark auditorium with strangers,” Lefont says. “Sure, you can have comfortable seats in your home, but that’s not the same as having this huge screen take over your whole life. You have to make the effort to appreciate the art form, no different than going to see a live band versus listening to it online.”

While Atlanta has become Hollywood adjacent with Tyler Perry Studios, Pinewood Studios, and EUE/Screen Gems and dozens of big budget film and television shows constantly in production (from the Marvel universe films to Stranger Things), the city’s growing film economy hasn’t phased Lefont. She’s focused on conserving the vast film history the city holds.

“There’s so much growth going on in this city and I think it’s important to hang on to the history and to keep sharing it even as people are moving here,” she says. “Everybody’s trying to get into the [film] business and I don’t even know if they understand the history of it.”

Part of understanding that history is keeping George Lefont’s passion for cinema alive in the city.

“The Lefont Film Society built such a great following all those years and I can’t let it disappear, because all the hard work would have been in vain,” she says. “It’s getting back out into the community and talking about the Lefont Theaters film legacy, the Atlanta film legacy.”

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