The 3rd annual BlackStar Film Festival boasts local and national artists

BlackStar founder Maori Karmael Holmes and filmmaker Spike Lee pose at the 2013 festival. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The third annual BlackStar Film Festival opens this month with a packed first day on Thursday, July 31. It kicks off with a noontime presentation by acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Jafa at Scribe Video Center, followed by a program of five narrative films collected as “Closer: Relationship Shorts,” and a documentary film, Black and Cuba, at International House Philadelphia. The day winds up with Jafa’s documentary, Dreams Are Colder Than Death, and a reception at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The four-day festival runs through Sunday, August 3.

Meeting Arthur Jafa

Arthur Jafa was the cinematographer on Julie Dash’s groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust, as well as Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and many other feature films; he also filmed the stories of George Washington’s enslaved servants and Philadelphia’s free black abolitionists in Louis Massiah’s President’s House installation on Independence Mall.

Jafa has another current connection to Philadelphia: He was involved in the Institute of Contemporary Art’s current exhibition, Ruffneck Constructivists, curated by Kara Walker (up through August 17). According to the ICA, Walker and Jafa explore “the complexities and innovations of black cinema and other black art forms; and what we see when we look at culture through the lens of art and film today.”

Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death examines what it means to be black in America, 50 years after the March on Washington. Told through lyrical images and narration by Kara Walker, Charles Burnett, and Kathleen Cleaver, among others, the film was edited by Kahlil Joseph, who pops up later in the festival’s program, on Friday, August 1, with his own music videos.

The BlackStar difference

Overlapping themes and cross collaborations weave through the festival.

BSR caught up with Maori Karmael Holmes, the founder and producing artistic director of the festival, as she nailed down the final details for the upcoming program. She described BlackStar as a boutique fest, with an emphasis on bringing people together and getting the audience to think about how the art gets made.  

“We don’t want to separate the making from the films themselves,” she said. “It’s what makes us different from other festivals; so in addition to screenings, we have filmmakers in conversation with each other, along with presentations of their work and panel discussions. Some of the artists we have this year, like Kahlil Joseph and Terence Nance, are regarded as the heir apparents to the great black filmmakers of the past several decades. They’re directors with a lot of buzz around their work.”

Holmes met Jafa at his talk at the ICA earlier this year, which BlackStar cosponsored. After the presentation, he asked her about bringing the Philadelphia premiere of Dreams Are Colder Than Death to the festival (it was first screened at the L.A. Film Festival last month). She was thrilled.

“I’ve been familiar with his work since Daughters of the Dust,” she said. “He’s been a huge inspiration for me and other filmmakers of my generation. As an undergraduate at Howard University, I learned about the UCLA-based artists and filmmakers who became known as the L.A. Rebellion, and Jafa was very much influenced by that community.”

Other highlights

This year, the BlackStar Film Festival emphasizes films and videos about music, but the fest presents a variety of topics.

Little White Lie, a documentary by Lacey Schwartz, is part of a program about identity, screening on Saturday, August 2 at 3:10pm. Schwartz, who grew up in a Jewish family, discovered as a teenager that her biological father was African American, challenging her to reframe her sense of self and explore how we define ourselves. The film is paired with Window Dressing Fail, by Stacey Larkins, a short narrative about a woman who hides her African name while searching for a job.

Half of a Yellow Sun, a narrative by Biyi Bandele, will screen on Saturday evening. It tells the story of twin girls in Nigeria who live out different responses to the independence movement of the 1960s, and the movement to create Biafra as a separate state. The film is based on the novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the cast includes Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Except for a few special events, most screenings and presentations, including a staged reading of the winners of a screenplay competition, will take place at International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. For more information about the 25 events in the BlackStar Film Festival and how to purchase tickets, click here for the full lineup. To watch the Philly-made festival trailer, an homage to the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, click here.