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Pan African Film Festival with Abena Taylor-Smith

  • Two hair dressers stand behind two seated women in a still from the film Ladies Day

Ladies Day directed by Abena Taylor-Smith

March 2019

Director Abena Taylor-Smith travelled to LA for the Pan African Film Festival

My short film, Ladies Day, has been on a whirlwind 9-month festival tour. It has taken me to some of the best festivals in the UK, including Raindance, Encounters and Underwire; it was nominated for Best British Short at the BAFTA qualifying Iris Prize and won an audience award at NFFTY (the National Film Festival for Talented Youth) in Seattle during my first trip to America. Then it was nominated for best narrative short at the Pan African Film Festival. The website announced it as 'the biggest black film festival in America'. Taking place in the home of Hollywood. That’s pretty irresistible. I had to go.

I was lucky enough to secure a discretionary travel grant from the British Council. After an eleven-hour flight, I landed in L.A. which was experiencing a freakishly cold snap but still graced me with blue skies, bright colours and hard sunlight bouncing off every surface. PAFF takes place at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a huge multiplex cinema and mall in South L.A. Every day of the festival is packed with networking events, panels and parties so that filmmakers can meet agents, journalists, actors, programmers from other festivals and each other. It’s also a thriving arts market where black owned businesses take over the walkways of the multi-storey mall next door. There were stalls from industry caterers, fashion designers, all-natural skincare specialists, painters, sculptors and jewellers (including one of the official jewellers of Marvel’s Black Panther, selling the most spectacular gold breast plates I’ve ever seen).

The films selected covered all genres from drama to comedy, romance to horror and crime thrillers through to magical realism. I met filmmakers from the USA, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Jamaica as well as some familiar faces from the UK festival circuit, including William Boyd who directed The Trespasser, a home-invasion horror influenced by Nigerian mythology and Tomisin Adepeju, whose short film, Appreciation, is an exploration of faith and loss. The films screened were eye-openingly international. If I had to suggest an underlying ethos of the festival, it would be a commitment to showing that black people’s stories are myriad.

The atmosphere at PAFF is full of the spirit of adventure. Anything can happen. The highlights for me were everything that came from embracing spontaneity. That’s how I ended up sipping cocktails until 3am at The Chateau Marmont, getting a last-minute ticket to a sold out improv show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, crashing a Valentine’s Day house party and being interviewed for a local TV news channel.

I had several very interesting conversations with other filmmakers there. We shared our experiences of being introduced as ‘female filmmakers’ at various industry events around the world. I have mixed feelings about this. I am female. I am also a filmmaker. However, this label can often feel like a subcategory. It separates the ‘filmmakers’ from the ‘female filmmakers’ and suggests that they are two different things. I’m glad that through this festival, I was able to have these nuanced conversations with other black women in film.

There was so much quality content, and I saw so many films, it’s hard to pick a single cinematic highlight. Instead, please allow me to give several. I hope you get chance to see them at a festival somewhere soon. There was Unspoken (dir. Danae Grandison), a sharp, spiky short film, set in Jamaica, about a heavily pregnant woman who discovers that her husband is not the man that he seems. Tomato Soup, a hugely enjoyable, tongue in cheek, South African micro-short (dir. Akuol de Mabior), which explores the power dynamics between dominant wives and their submissive husbands as well as the sparks that fly when two alpha females come head to head. The Fisherman, (dir. Zoey Martinson) a Ghanaian comedy about an elderly fisherman who catches a talking fish. It won the programmer’s award for best narrative short and explores themes of time, regeneration and ageing. Bittersweet (dir. Ayan Yusuf) a touching, comedy drama about a young Australian-Somali girl who is desperate to fit in with her friends and not at all interested in her grandmother’s lessons about her culture.

In terms of features, I thought the Burial of Kojo (dir. Blitz Bazawule) was breathtaking. It’s a visually stunning tale of sibling rivalry taken to the extremes and it uses the looping storytelling structures more commonly found in African mythology and oral histories. Lastly, I finally got to see Rafiki (dir. Wanuri Kahiu), the lesbian film banned by the Kenyan government. It’s full of hot sun, sherbet colours and tiny gestures. I love that the director gave me a sneak peak into the lives of two black, lesbian hipsters in Kenya. I hope there are many more films in the future that show us the beauty, love, variety and hope in black people’s narratives. In this regard, visiting PAFF was a great place to start.

Next up for me, I’m participating on the 2019 cohort for the NFTS Diverse Directors workshop, there are more Ladies Day screenings planned for festivals across Europe and the USA, and I’m also working on my next film projects.

Ladies Day was part of #FiveFilms4Freedom 2019.