On the ground: Jemma Desai at the BlackStar Film Festival

The American festival of films by people of colour energised and inspired our Film Programme Manager Jemma Desai.

Filmmakers dancing at the BlackStar Film Festival in 2018.

BlackStar Film Festival 2018.

Supporting a growing community of filmmakers

Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival, which is on our Key Festivals List for travel grants, has been running for seven years. In its inaugural year, a profile in Ebony magazine posited it as the 'black Sundance':

'Imagine the city of brotherly love as the hotbed for an independent black film festival started by a woman. Its success could locate Philadelphia as "that space" just as Park City is known for Sundance. Imagine people from all over the globe traveling to Philly to see films that tell stories which inform, excite, and transform culture; films made by people within the diverse spectrum of African descent.'

The intersections of community, industry and a deep love of the art of filmmaking have been, from the beginning, the very heart of the festival. Today the festival is an important meet-up for a growing community of filmmakers, curators, writers and other professionals of colour working in the indie film scene.

Bypassing Hollywood's gatekeepers

For BlackStar founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes, the festival was a necessary corrective, an immersive experience which augmented an accepted reality, '[Film] transforms our vision of the world in a very deep way,' Holmes says. 'It impacts the way we think and create our own worlds. The gatekeepers of Hollywood are not intimately familiar with our stories. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy [but] because they are not us, it's challenging for them to get it. So we continue to be in these boxes – you have to be black in a certain way; you have to be urban and ghetto – yet our experiences are so diverse and broad.'

The US has made visible strides in representation in Hollywood - Ava Duvernay, #OscarsSoWhite, Moonlight (2016), Get Out (2017) and Black Panther (2018), with many films featuring British talent. As BlackStar 2018 opens, Boots Riley’s Sundance hit Sorry to Bother You (2018) is playing across the country and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) is about to open in theatres. With the backdrop of this mainstream visibility, this year’s festival includes special screenings of Black Mother (2018), a festival favourite by self-taught documentary filmmaker Khalik Allah, and a preview of the first two episodes of Terence Nance’s collaborative sketch show Random Acts of Flyness (2018), which was commissioned by HBO (and is, in part, the result of conversations between filmmakers that started at previous editions of BlackStar).

BlackStar founder Maori Karmael Holmes speaking into a microphone.

BlackStar founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes.

Linking diverse communities

BlackStar has purposefully widened its film selection to include not only black voices but the voices of other people of colour, to show a 'strong link between the marginalised communities across the globe and their need for diverse and authentic representation', says Holmes. And this year the festival’s audience award for best documentary was given to The Feeling of Being Watched (2018) by Algerian-American director Assia Boundaoui, which unearths the effects of surveillance on Muslim communities in the US post 9/11.

Despite these visible strides in representation, BlackStar’s singular vision – to bring an alternative, a richness, a nuance to the dominant narrative of diversity – seems more important than ever. In an increasingly divided cultural and political landscape, BlackStar’s moves to mobilise across communities seem truly radical.

Combating a lack of representation

Moreover, Holmes’ initially identified problem of unbalanced representations in rooms where decisions are made has certainly not changed much. Which is why being at BlackStar is such a powerful thing. For many filmmakers and industry professionals attending the festival, working in an environment that lacks representative balance can be challenging. Screening work to an almost entirely black and brown audience, programmed by black and brown people, discussed by black and brown people is an incredibly potent experience. For many, it's a necessary corrective to always being 'the only one'.

One of the first recipients of a British Council travel grant to attend the festival, Jessica Ashman, echoed these sentiments: 'I felt like I’d opened the door to a magical room where I could talk freely about my ideas as an artist and the creative work coming from the diaspora in general, without any marginalisation or the well-meaning hand-wringing of the diversity events seen in other festivals. In fact, I remember attending one panel where the moderator stated how the discussion she was chairing would not be framed around white supremacy. That was wonderfully refreshing to hear. Being a black woman and creating can be isolating in the UK. Even just being in the presence of talented filmmakers and artists of the black and brown diaspora and seeing their work was helpful to my spirit. After spending five days being “seen”, I really do feel recharged and ready to create.'

Distilling the BlackStar experience

There is real power in the narrative of plenty versus lack. And as we are bombarded with statistics about the whiteness of our industries, it was incredible to be confronted with a plethora of talent and like-minded creatives. One night after a screening, I found myself in an unofficial mixer set up by producer Iyabo Boyd, who is the founder of Brown Girls Doc Mafia. She told me about a Google doc that is a list of international curators of colour. I opened the list and found myself and some familiar names, along with a host of other less familiar ones. I was part of a community that I didn’t even know about. This small piece of knowledge immediately bolstered me.

If our film industries haven’t caught up to celebrating visibly the women who are often driving forward change, here at BlackStar there is no doubt who the real stars are. In all my years of attending international film festivals, I have never once seen an artistic director get as extended and heartfelt a standing ovation as Holmes did that night.

The trailer’s soundtrack (crafted by Ethel Cee) delivered the unofficial tagline of the festival: “Go hard or go home.” The bolshy lyric is delivered on an uptempo jam and is the perfect distillation of the BlackStar experience. This is a festival that does not shy away from the work of activism, the burden of representation. But in keeping with the focus on the creatives that the work represents, it has created a restorative space that regenerates as much as it provokes, bolsters as much as it highlights the challenges ahead.

At a time when our film industries are being held accountable for their exclusivity, BlackStar is a haven – a place that feels like home.

Find out more about the BlackStar Film Festival.

This article was first published in August 2018.