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Activism with soul at the BlackStar Film Festival

  • On the dancefloor at BlackStar Film Festival

On the dancefloor at BlackStar

29th August 2018

The American festival of films by people of colour, which we have just added to our Key Festivals List for travel grants, energised and inspired our Film Programme Manager Jemma Desai.

Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival has been running for seven years. In its inaugural year, a profile in Ebony magazine posited it as the “black Sundance”:

“Imagine the city of brotherly love as the hotbed for an independent black film festival started by a woman. It's success could locate Philadelphia as 'that space' just as Park City is known for Sundance. Imagine people from all over the globe traveling to Philly to see films that tell stories which inform, excite, and transform culture; films made by people within the diverse spectrum of African descent.”

The intersections of community, industry and a deep love of the art of filmmaking have been, from the beginning, the very heart of the festival. The first edition saw filmmakers attend from all over the States, finally putting IRL faces to avatars they had only met online, and the festival soon became an important meet-up for a growing community of filmmakers, curators, writers and other professionals of colour working in the indie film scene.

For BlackStar founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes, the festival was a necessary corrective, an immersive experience which augmented an accepted reality, “[Film] transforms our vision of the world in a very deep way,” Holmes says. “It impacts the way we think and create our own worlds. The gatekeepers of Hollywood are not intimately familiar with our stories. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy [but] because they are not us, it's challenging for them to get it. So we continue to be in these boxes – you have to be black in a certain way; you have to be urban and ghetto – yet our experiences are so diverse and broad.”

Seven years on and the US has seen visible strides in representation in Hollywood: Ava Duvernay,  #OscarsSoWhite, Moonlight, Get Out and Black Panther. Many of those films feature heavyweight British talent. As BlackStar 2018 opens, Boots Riley’s Sundance hit Sorry to Bother You is playing across the country and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is about to open in theatres. With the backdrop of this mainstream visibility, this year’s festival includes special screenings of Black Mother, a festival favourite by self-taught documentary filmmaker Khalik Allah, and a preview of the first two episodes of Terence Nance’s collaborative sketch show Random Acts of Flyness, which was commissioned by HBO (and is, in part, the result of conversations between filmmakers that started at previous editions of BlackStar).

BlackStar founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes

Over the past three years, BlackStar has purposefully widened its film selection to include not only black voices but the voices of other people of colour, to show a “strong link between the marginalised communities across the globe and their need for diverse and authentic representation”, says Holmes. And this year the festival’s audience award for best documentary was given to The Feeling of Being Watched by Algerian-American director Assia Boundaoui, which unearths the effects of surveillance on Muslim communities in the US post 9/11.

What strikes me on attending the seventh edition is that, despite these visible strides in representation, BlackStar’s singular vision – to bring an alternative, a richness, a nuance to the dominant narrative of diversity – seems more important than ever. In an increasingly divided cultural and political landscape, BlackStar’s moves to mobilise across communities seem truly radical. Moreover, Holmes’ initially identified problem of unbalanced representations in rooms where decisions are made has certainly not changed much. Which is why being at BlackStar is such a powerful thing. For many filmmakers and industry professionals attending the festival, working in an environment that lacks representative balance can be challenging. Screening work to an almost entirely black and brown audience, programmed by black and brown people, discussed by black and brown people is an incredibly potent experience. For many, its a necessary corrective to always being “the only one”.

Sister Sonia Sanchez

At a Q&A for opening night film Mr Soul! – a tribute Ellis Haizlip, the host and creator of PBS series Soul, American television’s first all-black variety show – internationally renowned poet, activist and scholar Sonia Sanchez (who was a regular on the show) described being part of the programme as taking part in a “cultural spa”: a space where one could immerse themself in culture that might restore, inspire, energise. By the end of the festival, I returned to Sister Sonia’s words regularly when phoning home – normally straight after the festival’s morning rooftop yoga class. They seemed just as applicable to my first experience at BlackStar.

One of the first recipients of a British Council travel grant to attend the festival, Jessica Ashman, echoed these sentiments: “I felt like I’d opened the door to a magical room where I could talk freely about my ideas as an artist and the creative work coming from the diaspora in general, without any marginalisation or the well-meaning hand-wringing of the diversity events seen in other festivals. In fact, I remember attending one panel where the moderator stated how the discussion she was chairing would not be framed around white supremacy. That was wonderfully refreshing to hear. Being a black woman and creating can be isolating in the UK. Even just being in the presence of talented filmmakers and artists of the black and brown diaspora and seeing their work was helpful to my spirit. After spending five days being “seen”, I really do feel recharged and ready to create.”

Ephraim Asili (filmmaker) and friend, Nehad Khader (programme manager) and Jenn Nkiru (filmmaker)

There is real power in the narrative of plenty versus lack. And as we are bombarded with statistics about the whiteness of our industries, it was incredible to be confronted with a plethora of talent, a plethora of like-minded creatives. One night after a screening, I found myself in an unofficial mixer set up by producer Iyabo Boyd, who is the founder of Brown Girls Doc Mafia. She told me about a Google doc that is a list of international curators of colour. I opened the list and found myself and some familiar names, along with a host of other less familiar ones. I was part of a community that I didn’t even know about. This small piece of knowledge immediately bolstered me.

The festival in all its atmosphere of generosity, positivity and celebration, was also probing. Three key festival moments – the opening film Mr Soul!, the preview screening of Random Acts of Flyness and an in conversation between cinematographer Bradford Young and his friend Rashid Shabazz – might at first glance seem male-skewed, but in each case the contributions of women to the work being celebrated was consistently evident. Sister Sonia held court at the Q&A for Mr Soul!, which is directed by Melissa Hazlip; Bradford Young discussed the importance of his partner in making sure that he continued to be accountable to his peers; and Terence Nance’s show features collaborations with many female filmmakers including Nuotoma Bodomo and Naima Ramos-Chapman.

The festival's morning yoga class

If our film industries haven’t caught up to celebrating visibly the women who are often driving forward change, here at BlackStar there is no doubt who the real stars are. In all my years of attending international film festivals, I have never once seen an artistic director get as extended and heartfelt a standing ovation as Holmes did one night. “I love that you focus on our women”, senior programme manager Nehad Khader tells me, “Because women really are the heartbeat. I'm very proud of our BlackStar jury, majority women and a great mix of people.” But unlike at other high-profile events, none of this is heavily signalled, it’s just happening. The festival is led by women: Tarana Burke (founder of #MeToo) is just over there on the dancefloor; so many of the indie filmmakers and curators we meet are women; so many stories on screen depict the lives of women, or are crafted by them. The best narrative feature (which won both the jury and audience prizes) is Jinn directed by Nijila Mu’min. The festival trailer (played before every film) is filled with women of colour.

The trailer’s soundtrack (also crafted by a woman, Ethel Cee) delivered the unofficial tagline of the festival: “Go hard or go home.” The bolshy lyric is delivered on an uptempo jam and is the perfect distillation of the BlackStar experience. This is a festival that does not shy away from the work of activism, the burden of representation. But in keeping with the focus on the creatives that the work represents, it has created a restorative space that regenerates as much as it provokes, bolsters as much as it highlights the challenges ahead.

At a time when our film industries are being held accountable for their exclusivity, BlackStar is a haven – a place that feels like home.

Find out more about BlackStar Film Festival at

All photography by Daniel Jackson.