I'm challenging black film festivals in this post...
But let me start by saying that I haven't been to every single black film festival in the country; so, my thoughts and words are based on my experiences with those that I have been to. This post isn't meant to inflame, but rather generate conversation. And, ultimately, it's just one person's opinion. I do list my favorite black film festivals towards the bottom of this post, so I'm not referring to all of them.
In previous years, I was a frequent attendee and supporter of several American black film festivals. However, my enthusiasm for the collective bunch gradually waned after successive years of disappointing performances from a few of the more prominent names in the group, attributed mostly to 2 things:
1. A weak selection of films, often uninspiring, unchallenging, and lacking in much artistic will;
2. Disorganized program staff, which influences several pieces of the floundering whole, in overwhelmingly negative ways, often dissuading potential attendees like myself from patronizing the event after the first trial.
Number 1 isn't entirely the fault of each festival; although, in the past, some decisions made by certain festival programmers on films accepted and/or rejected, have left me scratching my head, perplexed. The emphasis is more often than not on commercial viability, even in cases where quality is absent (which happens quite a bit), over a celebration of artistic merit. I realize that the intent by the larger festivals especially, is to attract distributors; but, the distributors simply aren't coming; so, clearly, something isn't working! And it shouldn't come as a surprise when black filmmakers with really good films completely bypass black film festivals - sometimes not even considering them at all - in favor of their non-race specific counterparts.
Number 2 however is entirely the responsibility of each festival's organizer(s). I've had experience with a few of these festivals on 3 fronts - as a filmmaker, as a distributor, and as a critic. And several of them have failed me in all scenarios, with regards to overall managerial ability... competency... efficiency... the little things that can really make a big difference. For example, simply following through on their own rules, which some haven't yet quite learned how to do.
I recall sending my film to one of the more prominent of the group, along with my check for $40, or whatever it was, my application, press-kit, and all the other materials requested for consideration; dates were listed as to when I would receive a response from the festival as to whether my film was accepted or not accepted. That day came and went, and I heard nothing. My emails requesting information were never responded to. The festival itself passed, and I still heard nothing; I never got an email, letter, or phone call telling me what they had promised on the application, and on their website, that they would do. A simple, "thanks, but no thanks," that just about every other major festival affords its rejected submissions, would have sufficed. But I heard nothing. And, I was surprised to hear that I wasn't the only one with this experience, and that this particular festival, one that would like to consider itself a giant amongst midgets, was notorious for this kind of incompetence. So, in essence, they were more than willing and able to take my money, but couldn't meet their end of the agreement.
Another festival provided contact information on its website, but, queries sent to their listed email address were bounced back, stating that the address didn't exist; and in another situation, that the account was full.
Others have had extremely poorly designed, rather uninviting websites that will make any sane person question the validity of the festival, or just turn them away completely. You may not have Sundance's production budget, but, a simple, clean, informative website doesn't require thousands of dollars in funds, or a skilled designer's touch. Like me, most visitors to each site are looking for the basics - when and where the festival takes place; how to contact the various departments; the titles, times and screening locations of films playing at the festival; and how much tickets cost. No need for any fancy splash and dash. And especially, don't design each page to load with music playing automatically in the background, as one prominent festival currently does. That's really annoying, and has "Amature" hung around its neck like a gold chain.
I'll save you all the other gory details. But I'm sure some of you reading this have stories of your own.
Granted, I haven't been to every single black film festival in the land; so, my thoughts and words are reserved for those that I have been to.
And instead of naming those that I have grown to find unworthy of my time and money, I'll instead give praise to those that I have attended at least once, that have given me reasons to want to continue going back:
1. The Harlem Film Festival (NYC), which used to be curated by Michelle Materre; I'm not sure if she still is. But when she did, those years that I attended were memorable and worthwhile. Not one of the biggest of the bunch; but you're guaranteed a professional, intimate, thoughtful experience.
2. The African Diaspora Film Festival (it's a traveling festival). Run by husband and wife team, Diarah N’Daw-Spech and her husband Reinaldo Barroso-Spech. You're certain to find an eclectic group of films at this festival, covering the entire African Diaspora, hence it's title. They've been doing it by themselves since 1992, and it's gotten better year after year. I've run into Reinaldo several times, at several different screening venues, big and small; the man works hard to find the kinds of films he wants to showcase at his festival, as opposed to waiting for them to come to him, as most other festivals do.
3. The San Francisco Black Film Festival (San Francisco, CA). Haven't been there in awhile, since I live in New York now; but during the 4+ years I lived in San Francisco, I attended the festival at least twice, and was very pleased both times. It was there that I first saw Raoul Peck's under-rated and under-appreciated Lumumba in 2000/2001, where I believe it was making its Stateside debut. Despite a few hiccups along the way, they've shown an interest in taking on some more challenging fare.
These are the best of the bunch - the bunch that I've attended. So, again, I haven't been to every single black film festival in the country; but, of the 9 that I've been to, these 3 have provided me with the best bang for my time and money, and have been the most consistent! Usually very well organized, and thought through, as advertised on their websites and ads, with a solid group of diverse films screened each year.
Now, I'm turning it over to you all. Some of you are filmmakers, press, film enthusiasts, and maybe even involved in the organization of a black film festival or two. I'd like to rate and rank the nation's black film festivals. Which have you had any dealings with? What have your experiences been like? If you had to list 3 of the best, what 3 would those be? And if you're in anyway involved with a festival, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the overall family of festivals, and why anyone should be paying attention to yours, if you aren't already attracting attention? Or if you could care less about black film festivals, and find them mostly unworthy of your time, money, or film (if you're a filmmaker), and just completely irrelevant, I'd love to hear your thoughts as well. Etc, etc, etc...
So, please, chime away... and at the end of it all, maybe we'll find some common ground, and possibly get the attention of those lagging festivals, giving them the swift kick in the arse that they so desperately need.
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