Third BlackStar Film Festival looks beyond mainstream

"Little White Lie," Brooklyn filmmaker Lacey Schwartz's personal documentary about family secrets and the power of truth-telling, will be among the 40 films screened at the festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday.
"Little White Lie," Brooklyn filmmaker Lacey Schwartz's personal documentary about family secrets and the power of truth-telling, will be among the 40 films screened at the festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday.
Posted: August 01, 2014

When she brought Philadelphia's BlackStar Film Festival into being two years ago, Maori Holmes, its producing artistic director, was carrying out an imperative. She thought it necessary, she says, "to address what felt then - and feels now - like an absence of representation of people of African descent in the mainstream festivals in town."

Even black film fests have tended to cast the spotlight on "Hollywood films that feature black people," Holmes says. But she wanted to look beyond the best-knowns - the Spike Lees, the Steve McQueens - and "create a space" to explore the African diaspora and "global black identity through an independent lens."

Not that Holmes is anti-Hollywood. Far from it. "However, I do find that the films I have the most interest in personally are outside of the mainstream," she says. "They are stories that are marginalized, or 'weird,' or not fitting neatly into the marketing boxes that Hollywood makes available."

Welcome, then, to Holmes' vision of "outside": the third BlackStar Film Festival, running Thursday through Sunday at venues in West Philadelphia. Forty movies from four continents are to be screened, with most of their makers in attendance for Q&As and panel discussions. One of the most prominent guests, though, will be an on-screen presence, actor Michael K. Williams of The Purge: Anarchy and HBO's The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. They Die by Dawn, a neo-western in which he costars with Rosario Dawson and Erykah Badu, will be shown at International House Saturday evening, with Williams and director Jeymes Samuel on hand.

For those keeping score, the 2013 BlackStar featured 75 films - an impressive lot, and perhaps too much to chew, Holmes concedes. "We grew a bit too fast in the second year," she says, "and this year we cut back to 40, which is what we had the first year."

The short-screenplay competition will return, but with a significant change. Rather than just handing out a monetary award, the BlackStar will produce the winning film with director Terence Nance. "We realized that giving money away," Holmes says, "wasn't enough to make our name."

It's all part of upping your game, she adds, turning your festival into an audience and industry magnet. "I wanted to create a destination that would be the event for independent black filmmakers who are blurring boundaries, expanding notions of blackness, and experimenting, formally, with the black image."

This year's theme, "Music Is the Weapon," celebrates the relationship between film and music. And is there more of "a magic place for music," as Holmes puts it, than Philadelphia? Or could the timing be more fortuitous? The festival coincides with the release of such hip-hop docs as Til Infinity: Souls of Mischief and Time Is Illmatic, about the making of "conscious rapper" Nas' 1994 debut album.

The BlackStar's closing awards show will feature performances by renowned Philly singer/poets Bilal and Ursula Rucker, along with a still-secret music-film guest. "We don't have confirmation on our Richard Nichols Luminary Award recipient, so I'm reticent to say," Holmes says of a prize dedicated to the Roots' longtime manager, who died this month.

Holmes' criterion for festival submissions is great black films, against the grain. Certainly that describes Brooklyn filmmaker Lacey Schwartz's Little White Lie, a personal documentary about family secrets and the power of truth-telling. It focuses on her youth in a middle-class Jewish household and her strong sense of Jewish identity - until she discovered her biological father was black.

"I was motivated to make this film to explore how unspoken things were holding me back," she says, "and to then share the story in a way that will hopefully help others."

Niche festivals - black, Jewish, women - assure that films have an opportunity to reach diverse audiences, Schwartz says. "I think it would be a disservice to our film if it only showed at black film festivals," she says, "but in one week, we will be showing at a Jewish film festival, and that is ideal for us."

Nance will screen his new short, "Moonrising," about what he calls "extra-celestial beings" on an escape mission. He's been to the BlackStar before, and he intends to keep returning.

"I would come from Dallas, Bed-Stuy, Siberia, wherever, because the niche community of artists that Maori brings together is sort of the only family reunion of its kind on Earth," Nance says. "This community of artists from across the black diaspora approaches film as an art form first, as a necessary cultural expression second, and as product third. We're a close-knit family that, outside of BlackStar, has no institutional home."


BlackStar Film Festival

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Venues throughout West Philadelphia

Admission: Full festival pass, $125. For individual films and events, see website.

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