FESTIVALS: Two Black Film Festivals Seize the Spotlight in Tinsel Town
by Yor-El Francis
(indieWIRE/ 02.26.01) — At a time when most festival talk is about Sundance or Berlin, the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF, Feb. 8-19) and the Hollywood Black Film Festival (HBFF, Jan. 31-Feb. 4) seized the day with a slew of quality fare. In its 9th year, the PAFF opened with “Kingdom Come,” a rollicking comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, Vivica Fox and LL. Cool J. In a move that could be seen as trying to court Hollywood, the festival, which had the reputation of shunning studio fare, rolled out the red carpet at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum with a lavish opening reception complete with celebrity guests.
“The festival has not shunned Hollywood in the past, but rather has suffered from a misunderstanding due to the name ‘Pan African,'” clarified Ayuko Babu, the festival Executive Director, about misconceptions surrounding PAFF. “This is because people assume that the only films accepted are films from the Caribbean or Africa,” he said. “Just for the record, that is not the case. We accept films from the Black Diaspora, period, as long as it meets the quality standard we’ve worked very hard to maintain.”
And quality is what was on show. Acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck‘s “Lumumba” played to an overflowing crowd of cinephiles hungry for images of themselves. Based on the true events that led up to the assassination of Congolese independence freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba, the film is a gripping tale of the dubious plot to eliminate “Lumumba” and place Mobuto Sese Sekou in his stead. Peck could not have picked a more timely subject matter given the recent assassination of Congolese president Laurent Kabila and the current political upheaval in the Congo. Peck’s film won the Best Feature award and has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films for a late spring 2001 release.
Veteran filmmaker Ousmane Sembene also screened his latest effort “Faat Kine,” a hilarious look at life as a single woman in 21st century West Africa. New Yorker Films is scheduled to release “Faat Kine” in the spring of 2001. Festival-goers dressed in West African kente and mudcloth prints flocked to Sembene’s screening, creating a scene that was befitting of Harlem’s Mart 125, complete with vendors selling their wares. Independent filmmaker Carol Mayes (“Rituals and Commitments“) remarked, “This is one of the few times the LA black population gets to trot out their African clothing and parade it for all to see.”
In what can be claimed as a truly Pan African endeavor, Malian filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko‘s film “Battu,” starred Danny Glover and Issach de Bankole, was a joint African and American produced venture. A story about the price of selling your soul, the film is a chilling look at politics in modern day West Africa and the steps politicians take to ensure their success.
Winning the prestigious Grand Jury prize was “Yellow Card,” a film by Zimbabwean filmmaker John Riber. A humorous and engaging look at the price of becoming a local sports hero; the film is fast paced and captures a very touching story of a teenager’s love for life and his passion for soccer.
First time directors also seized the spotlight at the PAFF. Ayo Shonaiya, a Nigerian based in London had festival-goers abuzz with “SPIN,” his hysterical take on immigration in Great Britain. Also representing from the U.K. was Newton Aduaka and his film “Rage.” An intense drama about the racial complexities of modern day Britain, “Rage” led the way with it’s cutting edge direction and subsequently won the best first time director award.
Not to be outdone, American filmmakers also held it down with Carl Seaton‘s critically acclaimed “One Week.” The film which won the Acapulco Film Festival‘s and the Jamerican Film Festival‘s best picture award is a cautionary tale revolving around a man who in one week goes from having it all to nearly losing it because of a chance encounter with H.I.V. Also notable was Brian Jervey Evans‘ “Rough, Rugged and Raw,” which gets my vote for best title. A gripping, though poorly edited tale of a young man’s rise to fame and fortune as a rapper, “Rough, Rugged and Raw” pulls you into the nightmarish world of gang violence giving viewers a glimpse at life on that world’s unforgiving edge. Shot on DV for under $3,500, the film is also an example of how filmmakers are forgoing the expense of film and opting for the cost efficiency of doing it digitally.
“Maangamizi,” a Jonathan Demme produced film, which was ten years in the making, was also a festival highlight and definitely worth the wait. Like “Daughters of the Dust,” the film is about lost souls and the unborn child; the story unfolds around an African-American doctor who works in Tanzania. Helmed by Martin Mhando and Ron Mulvihill, the film is a realization of both directors’ passion for linking the past with the present.
Documentaries also ruled the day at PAFF. The response to Stanley Nelson‘s “Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind” was so intense, it left festival workers scrambling to add additional screenings. A moving look at the life of Marcus Garvey, Nelson‘s “Whirlwind” set the tone for documentaries at this year’s festival.
Martiniquen filmmaker Guy Deslauriers‘ “The Middle Passage” also had a similar response on the audience with standing room only showings and additional screenings added after the overwhelming audience response. (Where was everyone when the film had its U.S. premiere in Sundance’s Frontiers section?) The film is a docu-drama chronicling the devastating middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade. Filled with haunting images of lifeless bodies being thrown overboard the film is at once disturbing and insightful, illuminating the emotional duress of the horrifying and dehumanizing experience that remains an essential part of the cultural heritage of people of African descent. “The Middle Passage” went on to win the coveted PAFF Director’s Choice Award.
Hip-hop was also on show at the 9th PAFF in the form of “Freestyle,” a documentary by Kevin Fitzgerald. Featuring Mos Def, the Last Poets, Pharoah Monch and Medusa, the film is a look at a method of rapping called freestyle which requires the rapper to rhyme impromptu without written lyrics. Fitzgerald takes to the streets of New York and Los Angeles for a simmering look at the most influential musical form today.
The winning documentary though was a gripping look at the story of the Scottsboro Boys, “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy,” directed by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker. Nine young men ranging in ages from 13 to 19 were accused of raping two white women in a railroad car just outside of Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The story is one of the most significant yet often forgotten legal fights of the twentieth century. It became a flashpoint for the NAACP, the Communist Party, Segregationists and Americans on both sides of the racial divide. It also destroyed the lives of nine young men who were innocent to begin with.
Making a bold statement in this year’s documentary selections was “I Was Born a Black Woman.” The film is a look at the amazing life of Benedita de Silva, the first Afro-Brazilian woman to be elected to that country’s Senate. The film takes you on a remarkable journey between the Halls of the Brazilian senate to the poor slums outside of Rio de Janeiro where de Silva’s core constituents reside. Directed by Maria Luisa Mendoza and Vicente Franco, the film underscores the very distinct socio-economic problems facing Brazil today and the efforts that people like Benedita da Silva are taking to remedy this.
The most delightful documentary for me though was “Free to Dance,” an exhilarating look at the history of modern dance in America and the contributions of choreographers like Katherine Dunham, Asadata Dafore, Talley Beatty, Alvin Ailey, Eleo Pomore, Chuck Davis and Bill T. Jones. The documentary also reveals the story of Edna Bey, an unknown young dancer from the 1920’s who despite all odds lived only to dance. It went on to win the audience favorite award.
Shorts at PAFF were also in abundance. Winning the best short though was “Are You Cinderella?” a modern fairy tale about looking for love in all the wrong places. The film was helmed by Charles Hall and featured some delightfully refreshing performances. Other notable shorts included Tendaji Latham‘s humorous “The Smoker,” Mobolaji Olabinwonnu‘s “Who Killed America” a six-minute experimental short that explores police brutality and Aaron Woolfolk‘s “Eki,” an intriguing look at the image of a black man as seen from the eyes of two Japanese teenagers.
The PAFF closed with Screen Gems‘ “The Brothers,” about four smart, strong, sexy black men who are navigating the rocky road of intimate relationships. The closing night reception was another star-studded event featuring the cast of “The Brother’s” and its director Gary Hardwick, proving that the PAFF is ready to take no prisoners as far as being the premier American-based Black film festival.
A couple weeks before, the Hollywood Black Film Festival would prove that digital filmmaking is here to stay with more than half of their selections shot on digital beta. Executive Director, Tanya Kersey-Henley commented, “The HBFF is about providing access to the entertainment industry in Hollywood, we want young filmmakers to feel like this is a place they can present their work.”
To achieve this, the festival ran a series of “breaking in” panels and a lecture series titled “A conversation with…” Acclaimed screenwriter Tina Andrews (“Sally Hemings: An American Scandal“) and director of “Men of Honor,” George Tillman Jr. were guest lecturers. A pitching panel had aspiring writers “pitching” their projects to the likes of agent Charles King of the William Morris Agency and Bridget Davis, Senior Vice-President of Film at Edmonds Entertainment.
The festival ended with “Lockdown,” a joint venture between No Limit Films and Palm Pictures. The best feature award went to Adissa Clyde Jones‘s “All or Nothing,” a digital Beta shot film about a young rapper challenged by his music, family responsibilities and dream of escaping from the hood. Best short went to “Room 302,” directed by Erma Elzy-Jones. Also shot on digital beta, the film is about two women confronting their deepest fears the night of the announcement of the O.J. Simpson‘s not guilty verdict.
[Yor-El Francis is an independent filmmaker and a freelance writer working out of New York City. He is currently producing his first feature “No Doubt!” a hip-hop comedy.]