An Urban World
by Andrea Meyer
The Urbanworld Film Festival bounced through New York City on August
20-24. "The first American international competition for black artists
in cinema" sure was urban -- a diverse spattering of spectacles that
seemed to spring up out of nowhere into theaters all over town. As far
as I am aware, there was little advance press, though Kim's Video did
hand out stickers and a cryptic print ad appeared in Premiere magazine.
Then all of the sudden, on Day 1, there was the mad rush to register at
the Waldorf Astoria. Though I'd left messages for fest reps, I didn't
really know what was going on until Day 2, unfortunately missing "Hoodlum"
and the opening night bash. Back to mad chaos at the Waldorf Astoria
where there were no signs telling me where to register and the concierge
had no clue. Eventually I managed to follow the path of hip-looking
guests in nametags up to registration where I was well taken care of by
press relations. Phew.
The festival staff was nowhere to be found for most of the festival.
They weren't present to usher crowds out of the Guild Theater at movie's
end nor break up the unconstrained chit-chat of the stragglers while I
tried to concentrate on Francois L. Woukoache's "Asientos", a painfully
slow, albeit powerful visual poem from Senegal about the memory of
slavery. Bursts of laughter and conversation kept wafting through from
the lobby area along with doors opening and closing "What? This is an
exit. What? How do I get in here? What? There's a movie showing?"
Festival organizers occasionally showed their faces to introduce a film,
but did not manage an appearance in the projection booth when the entire
Shorts series at the New York Film Academy came out with blurry images
and muffled sound. First year film festival glitches are to be expected
and forgiven, provided that apologies or at least recognition follow.
Here there were none.
Urbanworld didn't feel like a film festival. Instead of a festival-goer,
I felt like a lone cinephile creeping in and out of New York City movie
theaters by myself. There was no feeling of unity, no forum for
discussion beyond the four organized afternoon panel discussions, no
networking arena for the talented young artists whose work was presented,
beyond the late-night club parties.
However, the program of films was truly astounding. The festival
directors (with the help of a knock-out list of sponsors including Vibe,
Premiere, The New York Times, MovieFone, Absolut and Eastman Kodak),
combed the globe to pull together an outstanding program that provided a
kaleidoscopic view of black issues, perspectives and voices.
Asian-American filmmaker Timothy A. Chey's first feature "Fakin' Da Funk"
offered the unique perspective of an outsider in the hood, in this
hilarious feel-good flick about a Chinese baby who's adopted by a black
family. "Jump The Gun" by Les Blair shows us life in post-Apartheid South
Africa, where blacks and whites might co-mingle freely but still have a
ways to go before true tolerance and understanding can be reached.
Despite its unfulfilled narrative potential, this film about a quirky
group of characters trying to make it in Johannesburg, offers a spicy
slice of life in the South African new order.
The amazing documentaries included "Blue Eyed" by German filmmaker Bertram
Verhaag, a portrait of Jane Elliot, a former small-town teacher who
leads workshops that simulate racist situations with shocking results.
This fireball of a woman takes a dominant and condescending stance and
never backs down, even as grown men and women burst into tears at the
humiliation and degradation that she likens to what minorities live with
everyday in this country.
The only film that made me cry more was "Family Name", Macky Alston's
meandering investigation of his family's slaveholding history, winner of
the Freedom of Expression award at Sundance and the Open Palm Award at
the IFP Gotham Awards. Just as honest and thought-provoking was the
short documentary "The Mirror Lied" about the beauty myths that black
women are fed and then forced to digest. The film by Jennifer
Hakin-O'Reggio offers one of the most charming characters to grace the
screen, the filmmaker's 15-year old sister Jantre, who sheds refreshing,
disturbing, and very funny new light on such issues as having a
beautiful sister, beauty obsession and black hair. The audience was
cheering "go, girl!" when she leaves the house with her hair running
wild for the first time, rather than painstakingly brushing and pulling
till it hugs her skull.
Other strong short films included Ngozi Onwurah's "I Bring You
Frankincense" about a British mulatto boy who doesn't understand why he
doesn't fit it, Desmond Hall's intriguing discussion of the two sides to
every discussion about race in the USA, "In Black and White", and Phil
Bertelson's moving tale of an interracial romance "Around the Time".
And just in case we'd had enough education, stimulation, mind-expansion,
and fun, festival programmers decided to top the event off with
sentimental Hollywood schlock-fest "Soul Food" which will be released
shortly by 20th Century Fox. The film will probably be a big,
nauseating success. And I guess a comprehensive black film festival
which aims to "become the world's preeminent showcase for black artistic
expression in cinema" should include the big, nauseating successes too.
There seems to be no "quality film only" rule as long as the entire
spectrum is represented.
A mysteriously undisclosed jury voted on the films and
Best Dramatic Feature was awarded to "A Woman Like That" by David E.
Talbert, which, true to the unfortunate character of this year's
Urbanworld, festival-goers were never able to see due to technical
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance writer and producer based in New York.]