FESTIVALS: A Legend in the Making: Urbanworld Returns
by Rita Michel
As a national festival with a regional appeal, the 3rd Urbanworld Film Festival (August 4-8, 1999), which has earned the title of "The Nation's Largest Festival for Minority Films," boasts an eclectic program, from arthouse fare to Hollywood premieres to "niche" docs. Arthouse favorites of the festival circuit included "Drylongso" directed by Cauleen Smith which won the Best Feature Award, Eric Bross' "Restaurant," Matt Mailer's "The Money Shot," Garrett Williams's "Spark," Alfredo de Villa's "Neto's Run" (which garnered a DGA award for Best Latin Short) and "On the Ropes" directed by Brett Morgan and Nanette Burstein which won Best Documentary. Many attending filmmakers claimed to have found networking connections for future projects and felt an added bonus was to have their films screened for the highly engaged, young and multi-cultural Manhattan audience, one that never missed a punch line or a nuance.
The commercial films included the HBO/NYC opening night film, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," and "In Too Deep" from Dimension Films. Universal Pictures presented a special work-in-progress screening of "The Best Man" directed by Spike Lee's cousin Malcolm, which showed well-placed faith in their project. Columbia Pictures, however, pulled an opposite move by pulling the Martin Lawrence comedy "Blue Streak" on the day of the screening to avoid premature reviews. The decision had many filmgoers believing that the studio did not have confidence in their film.
By far the more interesting films were the festival virgins, Kwyn Bader's "Loving Jezebel," Christene Browne's "Another Planet" (the first Black woman in Canada to produce, direct, and write a dramatic feature film), Adam Watstein's "Bounce," and "Colorz of Rage" by Director/Writer/Producer Dale Anthony Resteghini. Other highlights included Mauro & Marcho Lavilla's documentary "Hang The DJ," Andrew Dosummu's "Hot Irons" and Audience Award winner, "An Invited Guest" from writer/director Timothy Wayne Folsome. These urban dramas and documentaries with their ethnically diverse casts and human-interest stories reflected a refreshing sense of realism -- repeatedly audience members related similarities between the films and their own lives.
In the case of "Loving Jezebel," "Spark," and "An Invited Guest," the reoccurring faces of emerging indie actors Hill Harper, Mekhi Phifer, and Nicole Ari Parker show that urban films are developing their own stars. Also already recognizable faces from both film and television popped up in many festival favorites, from Malcolm Jamal Warner (former Cosby kid) in "Restaurant," Isaac Hayes in "Ninth Street," Malik Yoba ("NY Undercover") in "Personals," and Clarence Williams, III ("Mod Squad") in "Ritual." Even "Downtown" Julie Brown (formerly of MTV) took a chance in "When," a world premiere directed by Ricardo Scipio.
Proof of the festival's worth in the filmmakers' eyes lay in the presence of a very tired Chris Cherot, director of "Hav Plenty." As he was being driven home after the fifth day of principal photography on his sophomore project (with a reported 6 million dollar budget, up from the sixty thousand for "Hav Plenty," and featuring Hill Harper), he asked his driver to make a U-turn because he knew that a good film was playing at the festival, "The Best Man." In it's second year, Chris participated in a director's panel at Urbanworld, where he commented on the difficulties he encountered in completing "Hav Plenty" which had its festival debut at Sundance where it was acquired by Miramax.
Cherot was not the only established film or television personality. The list included Spike Lee (attending his cousin's screening), Karen Bell from Lauren Hill's Black Market Films; Eugene Haynes of USA Films; Samuel L. and LaTanya Jackson of Bushwazee Films; John Singleton; Lynn Whitfield; Andre Hereford of Forty Acres & A Mule Filmworks; Tajamika Paxton from Forrest Whitaker's Spirit Dance; Steve Lapuk of Whitney Houston's Brownhouse Productions; Sharifa Johka from Fine Line; The Samuel Goldwyn Company's Jeff Lipsky; Kay Shaw & Joe Brewster of Delta Entertainment Video Distribution; "OZ" casting agent Alexa Fogel from Beechill Films, and Marie Perez Brown, producer/developer of Nickelodeon's Gulla Gulla Island.
Asked how she became aware of Urbanworld, Brown, who participated in the "Latin Boom" panel, focused on the importance of relationships in the entertainment industry. "I thought yeah, you meet people in the audience that you learn from and it's just exposure, any amount of exposure as a filmmaker and as a person working in this business is good -- you need that exposure and that publicity to keep your projects in the light. You never know where your opportunities will come from."
Also in support of Urbanworld, the founder of the New York International Latino Film Festival (slated to premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in June 2000), Calixto Chinchilla commented that "the festival is more filmmaker friendly this year," both for the Latin film makers whose films he helped program, and from filmmakers at large. So far the success stories coming out of this friendly festival have included, the video and cable distribution of last year's "The Planet of Junior Brown," "Down In the Delta" and "Another Brother" (formerly "Tears Of A Clown" starring Mekhi Phifer). Word around the fest was that "Loving Jezebel" will capture the honor of being the first theatrical sale initiated at Urbanworld.
Another draw for filmmakers and cineastes alike are the parties. This year's Urbanworld opened with a party at the Copacabana, co-sponsored with the IFP. As a testament to the approachability of the industry, young writer/director Pierre-Richard Olivier actually handed Samuel L. Jackson a copy of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" a feature that he hopes will pique Jackson's interest, a la "Eve's Bayou." Other parties included a post screening fete for "Bounce" an up from the ghetto music saga.
Another less publicized bash was for the feature film "Colorz of Rage," which was attended by Rough Rider Records' Chivon Dean who is slated to help director Dale Rehsteghini co-produce his next project "Fiendz, A Hip-Hop Horror Movie." The party took place after a successful screening of a surprisingly pristine kinescope projection of "Colorz" which Dale states was put in the can for twenty-five thousand dollars. An even less publicized event was the after party for "The Best Man," Malcolm Lee's crowd pleaser, but the presence of numerous pink and white party invitations indicated that Spike Lee would not be congratulating his cousin alone.