The BlackStar Film Festival builds its international reputation

A still from Julie Dash's 'Standing at the Scratch Line.' (Image courtesy of the BlackStar Film Festival.)

BlackStar Film Festival founder Maori Holmes said that this year, the event is going global more than ever.

The fifth annual BlackStar Film Festival, opening Thursday August 4th, brings together 64 shorts and feature-length documentary and fiction films, plus presentations by participating filmmakers and other leaders in the field. The festival runs through Sunday August 7, primarily at International House in West Philadelphia at 37th and Chestnut Streets, plus special programs at the Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University, the ICA, the Slought Foundation, and the Kimmel Center, with a kick-off party at Johnny Brenda’s on the 4th. 

“The theme of the festival this year is ‘migration’,” said Holmes, also BlackStar’s producing artistic director. “My goal has always been to make the festival more of an international event. This year we’re getting closer to that, showing many works from the UK, China, South Africa, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and other countries, as well as films from the U.S.”

Remembering the Great Migration

Selecting the theme was serendipitous, said Holmes, because it also relates to another aspect of the festival: a spotlight on the movement of African Americans from the South to Philadelphia beginning in 1916.

Holmes already had a plan to honor Julie Dash, whose groundbreaking 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, is set in the early 1900s in the Gullah community off the South Carolina coast. Some of the characters consider moving north as part of what came to be called the Great Migration of six million African Americans out of the South in the first half of the 20th century.  Dash, who was part of a group of African and African-American filmmakers and artists at UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s (later dubbed the LA Rebellion), will be given an award on Saturday at the Kimmel Center and will participate in the Q&A after the Sunday screening of Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA, a new documentary by Zeinabu irene Davis.

But the theme also provided an opportunity to collaborate with Scribe Video Center and the Slought Foundation in a special presentation that’s part of Scribe’s ongoing project, The Great Migration: A City Transformed (1916-1930), highlighting Philadelphia places and experiences that were markers of that relocation. At 5:30pm on Saturday, August 6, the festival will feature a panel discussion on storytelling about the migration, followed by a program of two short films by Julie Dash (Standing at the Scratch Line) and Kevin Jerome Everson (Eason); a “visual tapestry” by Tina Morton; and a presentation about an oral history photo project with youth, by Lonnie Graham. In addition, there will be an opening event for an exhibition of Lonnie Graham’s photos from the youth project, with a sound and video work by Mendi + Keith Obadike, at the Slought Foundation on Wednesday, August 3 (the exhibit there continues through the 12th.) Details about these events and others, including a youth program, can be found in the website schedule.

"More than a fest"

The festival continues to grow, attracting filmmakers and film lovers from around the country. One of the unique aspects of the event is the dialogue and a sense of community, and that piqued the interest of the Ford Foundation.

“BlackStar is more than a fest,” says Holmes. “It’s a convening that contributes to a conversation about independent film. We’ve been hearing this from filmmakers since the beginning. The Just Films program at the Ford Foundation offered to support a formal space for that, and so this year we designed a symposium for 80 invited participants that will happen the day before the festival opens. It will include advice from industry gatekeepers; a discussion of alternative screening venues and distribution strategies for independent artists; and a conversation about black aesthetics.”

The BlackStar Film Festival is coming up Thursday, August 4 through Sunday, August 7. For the full schedule, and to buy tickets, visit the Festival online, and follow along on Facebook