News Column

Festival celebrates the black experience

August 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 01--Thursday's opening reception isn't likely to be heralded by a red-carpet procession of A-listers such as Jamie Foxx or Scarlett Johansson, but the second annual Blackstar Film Festival promises to be one of the freshest, most vibrant local film festivals of the year.

Continuing through Sunday, Blackstar features screenings of 75 films from around the world that promote the "vision and understanding of the global black experience," as Blackstar founder Maori Karmael Holmes puts it in the festival's mission statement.

The event also offers workshops, roundtable discussions, and filmmaker conversations. More than half the screenings will include Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and stars.

Oh, and there will in fact be one notable A-lister -- Spike Lee.

The She's Gotta Have It and Inside Man auteur will take part in a panel discussion, "By Any Means Necessary: Producing Independent Film," on Friday morning with notable directors and producers Dennis Dortch, Numa Perrier, and Nefertite Nguvu.

Blackstar, which had a program of only 40 films last year, "came about by accident," Holmes said in a phone interview. "I wasn't planning to start a festival last year. I just wanted to do some screenings.

"Then I realized how many independent films never make it to Philly each year."

Holmes, 35, has an MFA in film from Temple University and is associate director at the private Leeway Foundation, which helps finance arts projects by women and transgender artists. She tapped friends and acquaintances and called in favors to pull off the inaugural Blackstar festival.

She said there's a great need -- and a hungry audience -- for work by independent filmmakers of color. The success of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and the Filadelfia Latin American Film Festival convinced her this one would work.

"There are black filmmakers telling stories that I don't think are getting the kind of attention they deserve," Holmes said.

Her focus is international -- to find the best work by artists from the African diaspora. This year's films -- 15 features, nine music videos, and 51 shorts -- come from four continents, with entries from Spain, Guadalupe, Nigeria, Kenya and France.

Blackstar also spotlights works by local filmmakers, including Jon Kaufman and El Sawyer, codirectors of the celebrated feature documentary Pull of Gravity, which follows the fortunes of three ex-convicts from North Philadelphia -- including Sawyer -- as they try to transition back to life in society.

"Coming home, I never knew of anyone who really made a successful transition," said Sawyer, who spent eight years at Graterford state prison in Montgomery County. "It's a bleak situation. A daunting task."

He made it, and was teaching video courses when he met Kaufman, who studied media as a Temple undergraduate.

The pair hatched a plan to make a film that might inspire other former convicts to aspire to a better life, and pitched it to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which agreed to help them produce the film.

Other documentaries include Merkato, a short piece by Temple alumna Sosena Solomon. Born in Kenya to Ethiopian parents, Solomon, 28, said she has always loved visiting her parents' home country, especially the massive open-air market in the center of the capital, Addis Ababa. Home to more than 14,000 merchants, it bills itself as the largest of its kind in Africa.

Yet it may not survive the rapid commercial development that's taken the city by storm. "It's a big trend in Africa to rebuild the city by bringing in these shiny buildings and gentrifying the landscape," said Solomon, who lives in Fairmount. "The culture is really dying out."

Merkato seeks to capture the market's culture with intimate portraits of four merchants.

Other local filmmakers include South Philadelphia's Tiona McClodden, 32, director of the experimental short "Be Alarmed: The Americana Epic Movement I -- The Visions." The first of a 12-part cycle of shorts, it is "a meditation on the African American experience using Philadelphia as a background," said McClodden. "I look at the colors of red, white and blue, which are used to celebrate freedom and also as . . . the colors of police sirens."

Blackstar treats the music video as a serious film genre. Works include Glory by West Philly musician-filmmaker Zakee Kuduro, 29, who was inspired to make the video while on tour with Erykah Badu in Rio de Janeiro.

The film festival also features a unique program you're not likely to see at other film fests -- an evening of 12 short films made by kids ages 11 to 18.

The young filmmakers will all be in attendance.

Programmer Nuala Cabral, 32, an educator at Temple's University Community Collaborative, said she hoped the films would inspire children to trust their vision and explore their world through art.

"It's a great opportunity for African American students to see that there are so many films made by African Americans -- at a film festival dedicated to artists from the African diaspora."

Added Cabral, "This could be a transformative experience for them. It's a great opportunity for them to see that what they think about and what they create matters."

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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