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How The Black Film Festival saved the Black Film-maker


By. Marian Yesufu


How The Black Film Festival Saved the Black Filmmaker

Introduction 

A single story narrative “is a threat both to Africans who are reduced to tired stereotypes, and filmmakers, who become so distracted by fantasies that they lose the capacity to skilfully portray countries and human beings who happen to be African in nuanced and complex ways.” Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story. That the single story time and time again when concerning the subject of the continent of Africa is portrayed as a place of misery. It’s like eating a hotdog and not boiling it because it’s pre-cooked meat and not putting mustard, relish, or ketchup because that is how one should “eat” the hotdog. Sounds crazy right?  “The objective of many local film festivals is to facilitate an interconnected triadic relationship between the film, filmmaker, and audience—especially with the organization of press conferences and panel discussions.”


 I am not going to lie. I wrote this paper  because I am a black filmmaker and plan to do the business of filmmaking for the rest of my life. For my survival, I needed to know how else to sustain a livelihood and create an equitable sphere in the business of filmmaking without being used and abused and becoming jaded. 


On Internships and being older and a Black mother


 In terms of doing the internship I do believe that it is open season on predators. And for my own mental health I choose to not do the internship. I think hurt people hurt people. And however way a person was treated coming up in the industry, be it negative or positive is how they will treat their predecessors. I’ve had my share of being tossed about figuratively and literally. The amount of Me 2 energy that still seeps through is unnerving. At this stage in my life I have to attack this beast differently. I bet on myself. I believe wholeheartedly in networking side by side. These are the ways I have consistently worked. It’s how I got an agent, general meetings, gigs. No boss has ever been like let me make her life better. Networking side by side , one sees the growth and we just keep pushing each other be it in a competitive or nurturing way.


Back to Festivals 

 The research found was incredible regarding film festivals and how they have been gateways to opening doors for filmmakers of color for quite some time.  


AFRICAN GODFATHER OF FILMMAKING

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene won the Tanit d'Or in 1966 at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia for his film Black Girl. A story about a Senegalese woman who works as a nanny and decides to go with her employers back to France. She faces isolation and cruelty at the hands of her employers. Sembene’s film would be the first crossover African Film in 1966.  And since the statistics seem abysmal when it comes to black filmmakers having staying power in Hollywood, I needed to find a throughline, a saving grace, a light at the end of the tunnel. Because quite frankly, Hollywood is not where it’s at for someone that looks like me. I found the saving grace to be via film festivals. And that should give one hope.


Black American Filmmakers

Outside of a handful of people like Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Will Packer, and OPRAH, there has been no one else doing it past 20 years. Out of the Black FIlmmakers I have named, 1 nurtured his talent nowhere near Hollywood. Tyler Perry built himself and amassed an audience through the chitlin circuit and toured via stage for over 20 years. When he finally made a film, his audience followed him to the theaters. Will Packer also built his audience in Atlanta. Oprah came out of Chicago as a television host. Her audience follows her wherever she goes. Be it book club, favorite things, or films she helped produce or fully fund. Without Oprah, there would be no Malcolm X FIlm, Beloved, or Women of Brewster Place. Spike Lee is the most Hollywood black filmmaker we have. And even with that, 40 acres and a mule is an independent production company. He raises money anytime he is about to make his very black films. He has directed mainstream films like Inside Man and others. But it took over 20 years of doing his own independent stuff like Crooklyn and Mo’better Blues and School Daze and so much more to be given an opportunity. 


I didn’t include Ava DuVerney because I am waiting for her to hit 20 years. I think of the latest Marvel film directed by Nia Decosta. She became the first black woman to make the most money at the box office with Marvel. The last film she directed was the reboot of Candy Man. The funny thing is that, for a Marvel movie, time and time again the reports display it as a financial failure. Yet this is the highest-grossing film a black female director has had the opportunity to make. The person she surpassed was Ava Duverney with A Wrinkle in Time.  I suppose the bigger question in further research will be, what filmmakers have been able to sustain a career over a 40-year life span? GOTCHA! The research is clear. Martin Scorsese and every other straight white male in Hollywood have been nurtured and allowed to fail and get back up time and time again. 


African Women Filmmakers 

The Kenyan Women directors coming out of Kenya are leaders in the documentary film festival market. Built on the backs of women who came behind them who set the pace. Now Kenyan women  filmmakers are not slowing down. Building on their  predecessor's work. If one looks deeper into how the machine keeps running and keeps factoring out female directors, the answer is community. Each Kenyan female filmmaker makes it and pulls another person up. And so in 20 years because of that model, they are in a renaissance of a strong cohort of African Women Filmmakers making moves. It’s a beautiful thing.


Black American Women Disruptors 

Black women were among the entertainers who became prominent in these overlapping worlds of civil rights politics and entertainment in the 1950s. In the words of actress Ruby Dee…”this was a time of giving birth to and getting born into a wider concept of ourselves as actors…” Women like Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Miriam Makeba..to note some of these women are black and not American. These women were artist-activists and laid it all out on the line. Cicely kept it intentional in the roles she chose in film. Maya Angelou would parle it into her books, poetry, and her multi-faceted lens of telling stories. Miriam through song fought for the end of Apartheid. And Nina Simone through her fingers on the piano.  They were protesting loud and through their art. Civil Right never stops. In each generation, there is a group that needs help. A marginalized voice is being  silenced. It is through art and probably the greatest visual medium, film, that massive change can be made. People before us fought for women’s rights and marginalized people’s right to exist when there was even more flame to the fire. 



Festival’s

“Without festivals, African cinema wouldn’t exist.” This is a statement by Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Sene.” Now the writer of this article sees this statement as a bit naive. I seem to be in the camp of siding with festivals. However, what this article by Lindiwa Dovey suggests is to dig deeper. That one can’t just wholeheartedly fill in the blank and say, yes they did a good job because African films are represented. But Dovey suggests digging deeper. If Sembemene is the beginning and end of all things great in African cinema then what becomes of  the films before 1966 and after his final films. Who is the picker of films? And who is the spectator? This article was quite challenging for me because it meant that my suggestion of film festivals being the savior of the POC filmmaker, my argument…it made it a little hollow. But it needed to be said because as more peer-reviewed articles are written challenging the status quo, challenging the very notion of even hierarchy in the film festival system, I suppose the better we will all be in the long run.  “Sayida Bourgidia notes that "festivals are the showcase for the exhibition and visibilization of all filmmakers and especially women, it is a way to show their creation and convey their point of view” Festivals have nurtured talents. They have helped build communities. They are instrumental in teaching or recognizing new trends. They are the bloodline to new and immersing talent.


Jeff Friday of Jeff Friday Media is a co-founder of the American Black Film Festival. It’s also known as ABFF. In its 25th year, it started in Acapulco as the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1997. The seed that pushed him to start this was being at Sundance. They were showcasing Love Jones. A black romcom starring Nia Long and Lorenz Tate. It was a universal hit. Friday looked around and saw “that it was primarily white and male, like the rest of the business at that time. I saw very few people of color. I saw very few women. I thought, this is great, but where are all the Black people? Where is all the diversity?” Friday utilized his advertising background and leveraged the spear of connecting well-to-do black folks with one of his biggest clients; The Mexican Minister of Tourism. “We were developing ad campaigns to bring upscale Black travelers back to Mexico.” Friday’s ability to connect the dots is what makes ABFF still one of the most coveted Black Festivals to be accepted in. Just recently Issa Rae was named creative director for the 2024 American Black Film Festival. The takeaway from Friday’s trajectory is to use and parlé what you know well into the new journey and magic just might happen. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. Starting a new journey gets to involve all the tools one has garnered on their toolbelts. 


August 27, 1980, The Pan African Film Festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, created a festival with a written decree “to promote the dissemination of all works of African Cinema and hence to encourage all African filmmakers through contacts and confrontations of works and ideas; to make known the various cultures and currents of African civilization through their expression through animated images; to contribute to the development of African Cinema as a means of expression and a phenomenon of culture and education.” The vast sea which folks have created outside of the box for such a long time is both humbling and inspiring. 


FESPACO was founded in 1969. African Films made by Africans on the continent about Africans hit differently. All of a sudden the fetishized and exotized gaze is replaced by a real voice. In its current state. African Women filmmakers are transcending the storylines and pushing the narrative scripted and unscripted dealing with identity, family, patriarchy, and religious extremism. All the things that can have real consequences on the lives of humans that bring life into this world. 


Festivals are moving museums. Collectors of art. The strong ones have a 100-year plan. They are altruistic. Bobby Oliver who runs the Laugh Riot Girl Festival gave me the first space to run the Black Women in Comedy Festival in 2019. She gave me one tip. “After each year of the festival, send yourself an email of a list of things that worked and the things that didn’t work. Every year when you start the process of organizing, make sure you read the list from the prior year.” No one goes into the business of festivals thinking I’m going to be rich today. It starts with service.  As a festival organizer 6 years in, I am still in my infancy. There are so many things that I learn and fail at every year. 


Black Films Matter

Melissa Lyde states in her article that “Black film classics, decades after the often tragic first-run releases, still have to prove themselves as both artistic and financially viable cinematic portraits, while educating and entertaining viewers. It’s the film industry’s version of the Black tax. Being exceptional over white-centered films is an unforgiving expectation on film expressionism.” The film version of the Black Tax. That line hit me like a ton of bricks. It made me think of a Bell Hooks interview where she talked about the necessity of legacy and creating a center for all of her works. So it is saved and archived. She said that if she left it to her family after she passed, it would just be thrown away. The most shocking response Hooks makes is from her peers. They asked an entire Bell Hooks, a feminist goddess. A person who has given us a volume of books on how to break free of the patriarchal gaze. They asked why she was deserving of a center. Shocking. 


Be it the civil rights, or African liberation movements seeking to take their power back through art and protest, one thing is clear, Intentional Black programming is necessary. It will forever be the heartbeat of one who can gage the civility of its nation. A marginalized group forever relegated to 2nd class citizens even on the continent where they are majority makes them a great gage of civility. One gets to be intentional about restorative practices of old black films. Where does A Daughter of the dust,  A Little Girl Who Sold the sun, Remembrance: A Portrait Study live? They cannot just come and go. And be locked in poorly pixelated images on YouTube. They should be properly housed in their own art houses. An endowment should help sustain them for years to come. When the past is not taught, we are certain to repeat its mistakes. When truth is not spoken, then one's ability to critically think also falters. 

                             


Financials 

“Films from Africa constitute around 1% of public exhibitions worldwide.” The humorist in me just thinks, can one just imagine what the ancestors are thinking? We’ve all been traced back to a single DNA and surprise it’s that of an African Woman and you have only showcased her experience at a percentage of 1%. The disrespect. If I were an ancestor I’d probably come back and haunt every theater. Yet I have hope for this form of access over Hollywood. The financial gains of placing, and winning are endless. From securing representation to Selling scripts, to selling films, the festival circuit can be a gift horse that keeps giving. It’s not a ton of money. But the one thing Crickett Rumley, Festival Director at NYFA says in her orientation is, “You have to be strategic in your festival run.” In her 4-hour orientation, one learns how to spot scams, how to recognize the film you have, and how to apply to festivals that are aligned with your film’s messaging. She talks about never going in blind and dropping money everywhere. Have a film festival budget and plan. Have a film festival run strategy from top to bottom. Treat it like an important project or like a good book read cover to cover. Make it to the end strong then close that chapter. It was a mind-blowing experience to realize the first step is having a great film. There are so many steps before. Sitting down and speaking with her, as students  is beyond beneficial.


OSCAR Qualifying Black Film Festivals

What are some Oscar-qualifying Black film festivals? The Pan African Film Festival is in its 30th year. This festival was where I  had my first opportunity to volunteer. And then eventually work at the festival helping review films and work the festival. The festival organizers are as eclectic as their fabulous names. Both Entertainment lawyers, Babu and Asantewa, segwayed their love of films into a Bi-Annual Festival. It would run in Los Angeles in February for a two-week intensive schedule and then move to Atlanta in June. It culminated around two major black celebrations. February for Black History Month and Juneteenth in June. The Big name in the African-American actor circle that helped propel their brand was Danny Glover. And Ja'net Dubois. The two, Asentawa Olatunji and Ayuko Babu are my festival mentors. The ferocity with which they championed Black films will forever make a dent in Black Film Festival history. And Asentawa, who now sits as the head of the  Cultural Grant Commission, is doing what she has always done, giving access and knowledge and funding to  folks willing to pull up their sleeves and work hard right beside her. She would never ask someone to do something she has not done. It’s why I respect her so much. PAFF also has a student Oscar qualifying section as well.


Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival was founded in 2002. It’s a 15-day film festival. Over 10 years old. The program schedules about 150 films per festival run and has 3-day academic film symposiums. TTFF serves as the largest Caribbean film festival and has placed itself in the center as a “historian, educator, entertainer, and entrepreneur.” It is a huge feat for this now over 20-year-old festival. They managed to secure multi-year sponsorships with local businesses in the Caribbean. And finally strategically placing their 3-day educational symposium in cooperation with the University of West Indies is genius. And so they can invite scholars to speak on the ramifications of film and its effect on our daily experiences. They also launched “Filmart. A distribution and production tool that looks to aid filmmakers in the region.”  Ten years from now when we see a young female Trinidadian director win a BAFTA or OSCAR, there will not be no accidents to why. The roots stem from the works of this festival and others alike hungry to keep a Caribbean film festival experience alive, authentic, and well-made. 


“The founder of the New York African Film Festival (NYAFF), Sierra Leonean Mahen Bonetti, echoes these intentions behind its formation as she describes her disillusionment with the dichotomy between the Africa that she experienced during her youth and the Africa that she saw in the American media (189).” I echo this experience in the most haunting of ways. There is a scene in Aladdin that I would call bird abuse. Because the way that Sultan would stuff that cracker down Iyago’s throat was damn near offensive. The Westernized world is the Sultan and we as Africans are Iyago singing “Polly want a cracker.” Because we are between a rock and a hard place.


Here are Black festivals in which one can enter their shorts category and become an Oscar-qualifying film. These festivals have been around for at least 20 years and have garnered the respect of film lovers and film educators alike.  ABFF (American Black Film Festival). Martha Vineyard African American film festival is in it’s 22nd

​​FESPACO - PAN AFRICAN FILM AND TELEVISION FESTIVAL OF OUAGADOUGOU (Burkina Faso) Golden Stallion – Documentary Feature Category, Golden Foal – Documentary Short Category

DURBAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (South Africa) Best International Documentary Film (Documentary Feature) Best South African Documentary Film (Documentary Feature)

NEW ORLEANS FILM FESTIVAL (Louisiana, USA) Best Animated Short

Best Documentary ShortBest Narrative Short

In 1931, The Oscars started their short film section. In 1957,  they split the category between Live Action and Animation.


Shorts & Student Categories 

If one was thinking strategically, shorts and student categories would be the best entry way. The path of least resistance. Think Matthew A Cherry Oscar winning animation short, Hair Love. According to Wikipedia, he raised 300,000 dollars for what would eventually be this Oscar-winning short. Kickstarter states it was the highest-grossing fundraiser for a short film. This former football player has not slowed down with this IP. He has parlayed this Hair Love IP into a children's book which runs at a retail price of about $11. 


The Critic: So one thing is clear, having already one access helps. Matthew A Cherry was a former football player. He can use his status and success in one medium to bring his audience to a new journey in his life. He leveraged his success in one field and I think that helped in raising that amount of capital. Kobe Bryant is another athlete who also won an Oscar for best animated short called dear basketball. Cherry won in 2019 and Bryant won in 2018. There is something to be said for making a high-quality product. But recognizing that access matters.


What can the regular person do? 

This is where collaboration matters. Spending time speaking with the Screenwriting Chair of the department Nunzio, I asked him how best to leverage an upcoming Comic con con experience. His response echoed that of artist Rick Ross who guest spoke in our comic class. Nunzio said, “Find artist row…find new artists hungry and good and that can tell a sequential story and connect with them.” The universal response of networking sideways, collaboration, and growing with a community of artists seems to be the most doable way.  


Now one can talk about the  world of films and persons of color without celebrating two woods outside of hollywood. Bollywood and Nollywood. Bollywood is an Indian by-product by the way of the beautiful and diverse country India. Nollywood is the by-product of the film industry straight out of Nigeria. These two industries have been able to make and sustain an industry outside of the key grip and hold of the Hollywood machine. To dig deep into it is to write another 15 pages. But I had to touch on it because it is an example of what is working. One can chastise, judge, or break the quality (At least for me I know as a Nigerian in certain circles we just are looking forward to a day when a filmmaker of Nigerian descent makes an Ousmane Sembene type of film like 1966 Black Girl. or 1975 Xala. He made 12 films in his lifetime of absolute substance and culture and will forever live as a testament to fearless filmmaking. Or Touki Bouki made by the late Djibril Diop Mambety.  Mambety is also a Senegalese film director who is also known for his work Hyenas. He made only two feature films and five short films. But like the American Filmmaker  (Daughters of the Dust) Julie Dash. They scoffed at the conventional way of making film. And now her work sits as a masterpiece in the Library of congress. She has gone the short film route. I remember watching Daughters of the Dust and feeling uncomfortable by the story structure. Even though as Africans, we tell stories this way. It’s not the beginning, middle, and end. It’s circular. So the story goes forward and backward and inside and out. And I just knew that my film taste had been colonized. Why did I have such an adverse reaction to this film? It moved me. I felt the scene watching it but there was an initial visceral reaction to it. Wikipedia says that Dash was a part of the L.A Rebellion. Having gone to UCLA for her MFA in filmmaking fellow graduates came together and sought to put an end to the prejudices of Hollywood by creating experimental and unconventional films. So that is my answer. You create something out of the drive and the need to stick it to the man or to in Dashe’s case create something of meaning and protest. So back quickly to the critique of Nollywood. We make popular films for the mass. But we also long for cinematic slow burning films. They are more expensive to make, but they will become instant classics. Perhaps I will fill that void. 


Working for Free/Apprenticeship

Let’s face it. There is a privilege one has to have to be able to work for free. It’s expensive to work for free. The opportunity cost particularly for black artists is multiple folds. Justifying Financing free labor to loved ones who are not artistic. I’ve had family members describe the work I do as fun. That one should get a real job and really work for a living. The idea of work being laborious and not fun stems from American Chattel slavery. Or in my case the colonial underpinnings of an occupying force and its trauma. We carry it so heavily that the next generation has guilt that one can’t possibly enjoy the work they do. That will be unpacked in another paper. But one has to recognize the playing field to navigate the different land mines that emotionally, financially, and literally keep the average Black filmmaker from making it in this industry.


Conclusion

“Being able to identify with human beings regardless of gender and color is a good thing…getting used to seeing people who look like me playing extras or appearing as distorted caricatures or not seeing black people at all remains the problem” in most of these much-needed conversations. There is room for everyone. Why? Because the universe speaks to every individual. Recognizing that one does not need to sit at a table but that one can build a house is a healthy way to look at bleak experiences. Which is the current nature of access in the world of film. This research paper was an inquiry into a different way of sustaining a film career. Through several of these articles, I found that one could create a lifelong career out of film outside of the Hollywood system.  Especially coming from the university and or if one was parlying an adjacent career like marketing into film festival programming or marketing into film directing. There seem to be many ways to access help, funding, and a community. Through this research, I grew spine in understanding that the African filmmaking industry and festival experience have been parallel since the beginning. And it reaffirms the notion that one does belong. It quiets for a moment in time that imposter syndrome monster that sits on one’s shoulder judging and singing creepy songs into the airs of a jaded artist of color. Sometimes through research, one might find a little light at the end of the tunnel.


Out-of-the-box thinking, and alternative ways to storm through the gatekeepers is what the research shows overwhelmingly. A lot of artists of color are disrupters. They forge their own path unapologetically. They don’t wait for a handout. This is what kind of access film festivals have created for marginalized folks without access. This gives me hope.

Work Cited Page

Bisschoff, Lizelle. “Representing Africa in the UK: Programming the Africa in Motion Film Festival.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 44, no. 2, 2013, pp. 142–62. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2979/reseafrilite.44.2.142. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.


Dovey, Lindiwe. “Through the Eye of a Film Festival: Toward a Curatorial and Spectator-Centered Approach to the Study of African Screen Media.” Cinema Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, 2015, pp. 126–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43653096. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.


Ellerson, Beti. “African Women on the Film Festival Landscape.” Black Camera: The New Series, vol. 12, no. 1, Fall 2020, pp. 60–89. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.2979/blackcamera.12.1.05.


Feldstein, Ruth. “‘The World Was On Fire’: Black Women Entertainers and Transnational Activism in the 1950s.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 26, no. 4, 2012, pp. 25–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23488978. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.


GIVANNI, JUNE, et al. “Blood, Sweat and Years.” Sight & Sound, vol. 33, no. 4, May 2023, pp. 29–36. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=163182308&site=ehost-live.


Griffith, Karina. “Black Reels Film Festival.” German Quarterly, vol. 95, no. 4, Oct. 2022, pp. 440–42. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1111/gequ.12309.


HEDRÉN, KATARINA, et al. “‘WOMEN, USE THE GAZE TO CHANGE REALITY.’” Gaze Regimes: Film and Feminisms in Africa, edited by JYOTI MISTRY and ANTJE SCHUHMANN, Wits University Press, 2015, pp. 182–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.18772/22015068561.20. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.


Hill, Selena. “We Are Abff.” Black Enterprise, vol. 48, no. 2, Sept. 2017, pp. 68–71. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=126527906&site=ehost-live.


Louis Black, and Collins Swords. CinemaTexas Notes : The Early Days of Austin Film Culture. University of Texas Press, 2018. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=1706836&site=ehost-live.


Lyde, Melissa. “The Renegades Who Rescue Black Cinema Classics and the Post-COVID Future for These Reflections of the Black Imagination.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema & Media, vol. 61, no. 2, Fall 2020, pp. 180–83. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.13110/framework.61.2.0180.


“Regulations of the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO): Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, August 27, 1980.” Black Camera: The New Series, vol. 13, no. 1, Fall 2021, pp. 76–80. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.2979/blackcamera.13.1.0076.


Saval, Malina. “American Black Film Festival Celebrates 25 Years.” Variety, vol. 353, no. 16, Oct. 2021, pp. 66–67. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f3h&AN=153236276&site=ehost-live.






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