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The BlackStar Film Festival, which celebrated its 12th year earlier this month, has become a Philly summertime staple, but this was the first year it took place in Center City at venues including the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Perelman Theater, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, and the Barnes. The festival was originally anchored at University City’s International House, so this move asked how much of the identity of the festival was related to place.
One could argue the pros and cons of either locale. While in University City, BlackStar felt more intimate and integrated into the surrounding community; however, in Center City, the festival had a more cosmopolitan vibe situated near more public transportation, hotel, and restaurant options. Both iterations draw a beautiful and diverse audience with filmmakers, industry insiders, and viewers flying in from around the world.
A few standout films from this year’s festival also delved into the relationship between their subjects and connections to place, whether domestic, international, or even intergalactic.
Sun Ra famously proclaimed that “space is the place,” and Nikki Giovanni seems to concur. 2022’s Going to Mars uses the multi-hyphenated artist and writer’s own poetry and a mixture of archival, candid, and intimate footage to weave a story of her life, work, and beliefs—namely that Black women belong in space because of what they have endured and still manage to birth and create in the United States, a land that was once as far away and foreign to them as a new planet.
Giovanni has never shied away from an unpopular opinion and remains as brilliant, brash, and bold as ever, even as she has inevitably aged and fallen into sometimes precarious health. Seeing her with her wife, son, and granddaughter reinforced the fact that even those who seem larger-than-life are merely human, and their time on Earth is limited.
During a book talk at Philadelphia’s Free Library in 2017, Giovanni shared how her dream death would be joining a NASA mission, observing and documenting what she sees and experiences in outer space, and then being released into the atmosphere to never be seen or heard from again. From the directorial team of Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, who also premiered the excellent short documentary Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games at BlackStar, Going to Mars was the winner of the 2023 Best Feature Documentary Audience Award.
In Iranian American writer/director Zia Mohajerjasbi’s 2022 feature-film debut, Robel is a reserved and pensive 15-year-old Eritrean American boy who is figuring out his place in his family and out in the world. He wants to be respected and to take on more responsibility, but he doesn’t yet know how. When he is given the simple task of delivering a suitcase of supplies to be flown with family members back to his East African homeland, he enlists the support of his best friend, Fahmi. What should have been a straightforward errand becomes a dramedy of errors as they navigate a gentrifying Seattle.
Know Your Place uses a number of important landmarks and touchstones of Seattle’s Black and immigrant communities, like the city’s Central District, as supporting characters form the backdrop of the plot. These places and the changes happening to them mirror the internal angst and anxiety of the boys’ transition through adolescence and the discomfort and insecurity experienced by people of color who are physically displaced from their neighborhoods and homes. While these can be very heavy topics, the film as a whole—from the videography to the dialogue and music—maintains a restraint and subtlety that make way for levity, humor, and one of the most emotionally expressive and tender relationships between young Black men that I’ve seen on screen since Moonlight.
The inside of a psychiatric facility is one of the last places many of us would ever willingly go, but that’s exactly where Dancing the Stumble’s documentary filmmaker, Wally Fall, takes us. A hospital on the African island of Martinique (the birthplace of Fall, as well as famed psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon) hires a young female artist to teach a group of day-care patients how to perform bélé, a Creole dance originating from the island. Despite the varying diagnoses and differences among the admitted individuals, dancing becomes a common ground from which they can start to access healing, both personally and communally.
Grappling with his own relationship to mental health and that of the people he’s loved and lost, Fall attends the classes himself, dancing alongside his subjects onscreen. It is a generous gesture that subverts the stigmatic and othering gaze. The ambiguity between who the documenters and documented are, and when subjects are inside the facility versus outside in their daily lives, blurs the sometimes-arbitrary boundaries we often rely on to label and separate us from each other and our essential common humanity. Dancing the Stumble (2023) conveys that no matter where you are, there is connection to be found if you’re open to it.
What, When, Where
12th Annual BlackStar Film Festival. August 2-6, 2023. Various locations. (267) 603-2755 or blackstarfest.org
Accessibility varies by location. Visit BlackStar's accessibility page for more information.
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