Celebration of storytelling traditions

Maori Karmael Holmes talks the 11th annual BlackStar Film Festival

3 minute read
Four people in various styled outfits mixed with lace, corsets, leather, etc. stand together close, some hand in hand
Still from 'One Magenta Afternoon,' directed by Vernon Jordan, III. (Image courtesy of BlackStar Projects.)

When the 2019 BlackStar Film Festival took place, it was known that its venue, the original Lightbox Film Center at International House, would be closing at the end of that year. Not long after, BlackStar reached an agreement, starting in 2020, to move just two blocks south to Penn's Annenberg Center. The pandemic, of course, kept BlackStar from taking place at Penn for the last two years. The 2020 festival was mostly virtual with some drive-in screenings, while the 2021 edition held screenings outdoors at Eakins Oval and the Mann Center, in addition to the virtual program.

But when BlackStar returns the first weekend in August for its 11th annual festival, Penn Live Arts will host feature and short film screenings as well as some panels. Much of the festival, however, will remain available virtually, and the opening and closing parties will take place outdoors at Bartram's Garden and Annenberg Plaza, respectively.

BSR spoke with Maori Karmael Holmes, BlackStar's founder, artistic director, and CEO, about what to expect at this year's festival.

The film process

BlackStar's website describes the festival as "an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global Indigenous communities, showcasing films by Black, Brown and Indigenous artists from around the world." The 2022 BlackStar lineup features 76 films from 27 different countries; 16 of the films are world premieres. There are features and shorts of the narrative and documentary varieties, as well as a slate of experimental films.

Feature films include Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Lingui: The Sacred Bonds and Hazel Gurland-Pooler's Storming Caesars Palace on August 3, Jo Rochelle's Jasmine Star on August 4, and Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Powell's Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power and Byron Hurt's Hazing on August 6.

The selection process, Holmes said, entailed separate committees for the different film categories. "The committees are comprised of 3 to 5 people, who watch the films and make their recommendations for a final slate," she said.

In addition, the festival will present filmmaker Mira Nair, best known for Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala. Holmes will hold a virtual discussion with Nair, as part of BlackStar's Many Lumens podcast, on August 6.

Pulling from the roots

This year's BlackStar will also feature films that emerged from the inaugural edition of the Philadelphia Filmmaker Lab, an initiative meant to support local filmmakers with a yearlong fellowship. "The Filmmaker Lab is made for Philadelphia-area filmmakers," Holmes said. "There are four short films that BlackStar has executive-produced, in partnership with Xfinity, and with All Ages Productions. We've selected finalists who went through a review process, and we worked with those directors to get their films made, from page to screen."

Those films are Bettina Escauriza’s Tonight, We Eat Flowers, Jasmine Lynea's The Love Machine, Julian Turner's The Big Three, and Xenia Matthews’s Ourika!

BlackStar last year became an Oscar-qualifying festival for short films. That means that shorts that are nominated or win at BlackStar qualify for the narrative short and documentary competitions, both at the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs. "That came about because members of the Academy were interested in BlackStar being a qualifier," Holmes said.

Speaking of Oscars, Philly's own Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has appeared at the BlackStar festival multiple times in the past, and he went on to win an Academy Award earlier this year for his 2021 directorial debut Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Holmes, who has known Thompson since prior to the festival's creation, expressed her pride.

"I'm proud of him, and remain proud of him,” she said. “It's very exciting for people our age … to find such success, and it's also really exciting for folks in hip-hop, and fans of the Roots, and all of that."

Holmes said that she's especially excited to host live editions of her talk show, The Daily Jawn. She will host the show daily during the festival, along with Rashid Zakat, at 7pm each night at the Annenberg Center's Prince Theater.

What, When, Where

The 2022 BlackStar Film Festival. Prices vary. August 3-7, in-person at various locations and streaming virtually. (267) 603-2755 or blackstarfest.org.

Proof of vaccination is required; masks are encouraged.

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