For the past several years, some of my closest East Coast friends and I have made an annual trek. For me, it’s only required me hopping in the car and driving down Kelly Drive headed towards West Philly. For others, they’ve made their way up or down 95 to experience what has become known as “The Black Sundance.” BlackStar Film Festival (BSFF) is indeed a fantastical experience. It’s kind of like Howard Homecoming for a niche group of very smart, very artistic and very BLACK group of people. Each year, filmmakers from around the Diaspora shoot their best shot and send their films in because at BSFF, it’s not about celebrity or caché, it’s simply about really nuanced storytelling.
Unlike other spaces where our stories are reduced to one dimensional caricature-ridden tales that don’t represent the breath, depth or dynamism of who we are as a people, globally, BlackStar achieves something altogether different. Inside of the films and conversations at the West Philly-based festival, brilliant and quirky Black people get to be. And by being, we are seen, on a wide screen and mostly importantly, we are able to see ourselves within the fabric of the complexity of the Black human experience.
For its 7th iteration, I sat down with my dear friend, BlackStar Founder, Maori Holmes, to talk about why BlackStar is so amazing and why so many film lovers keep coming back for more.
SB: You’ve been overseeing the production of the festival since you founded it in 2012. With the enormous task of fundraising and organizing, I know at times it feels like a huge labor of love. Why do you keep coming back?
MH: I am not quite sure. LOL. The first year I was so shocked by the public response that I felt compelled to do it again and when you hear folks’ stories of how they were transformed by seeing someone’s work or meeting a new collaborator, it is enough to continue doing this. It is also been a really generative opportunity for me–stretching as a leader, sharpening my fundraising and marketing skills, learning some harder lessons along the way, and also having an opportunity to curate just as I see fit to… That’s priceless.
SB: When did you first fall in love with film?
I am not sure about this either. But likely in high school. It occurred to me that my interests in theater, visual arts, fashion, journalism, and history could all be utilized within this one form.
I realized the other day when having a conversation with one of my best friends (Rashid) that most of my “favorite” films that had a deep emotional impact on me were made in the early 90s when I was in high school and my mom was dating an independent filmmaker and we spent every weekend at the cinema. Much of our family time at home was spent watching films. I was seeing 3-4 films a week at that time and it was glorious.
SB: Illustrator Andrea Pippins has created the principal branding for the festival for the past few years. Additionally, you’ve had collaborations with The Barnes Foundation and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Why has it been so critical for you to infuse visual art in a cinematic festival?
MH: I don’t really see any boundaries between visual art and cinema. They speak the same language for the most part. So many of our filmmakers are themselves finding success bridging spaces, so it’s an organic happening, really.
I didn’t seek it out on purpose. Andrea was my neighborhood and I always wanted to work with her, I was doing some freelance curating at The Barnes (in performance, which is another love) and an opportunity to collaborate on BlackStar emerged, and ICA initially approached me before we collaborated since we were working with many of the same artists.
SB: This year’s short program is robust. Are filmmakers leaning more towards shorts as an artistic decision or do you think it’s due to road blocks that Black filmmakers face when trying to make feature length projects?
MH: I think that short films are easier to get made because they cost less money and people are more forgiving of spending 8 or 14 minutes with a work and it not being ‘perfect’ versus 90-120 minutes. Some writers are gifted at short storytelling and it is definitely a different form than features, but I don’t think all shorts are made because there are roadblocks to making features… some people prefer the short form.
SB: Storytellers from around the Diaspora submit their projects to the festival. Given the idea that Blackness is not a monolith, do you ever find continuity in the the stories being told?
MH: There are definitely threads between the stories and it is often how we present the work, exposing or illuminating those threads and connective tissues.
SB: There are several Black focused film festivals. What sets BlackStar apart from the platforms that existed prior to you founded it?
MH: BlackStar is chiefly focused on independent filmmakers and additionally it has politics at its center rather than on the margins or an afterthought.
SB: What are you most excited about for the 7th iteration of the festival?
MH: Terence’s debut of his show RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS.
I was absolutely thrilled to hear that Terence’s sneak preview of Random Acts of Flyness would happen at BlackStar the night before it premiers on HBO. The NYTimes asked whether or not America is ready for Terence’s mind. Is America ready? Better yet, is Black America ready?
MH: I think that Black America is ready…
SB: What makes Philadelphia the perfect landscape for BlackStar? Have you ever considered taking it to another city?
MH: Philadelphia has an incredible tradition of film scholarship and taking cinema seriously. Our current location in University City is also a great campus vibe with our other venues in walking distance.
SB: What’s next for you as a filmmaker and curator?
MH: I am currently co-curating a series with Kahlil Joseph at the Underground Museum which takes place every Friday. That will run through October. After which I hope to regroup and get focused on what will happen next.
SB: Who are some of the Black vendors/businesses that you support to produce the festival?
MH: We use Replica for some of our printing. We work with the Artisan Cafe of course. This year we partnered with Akwaaba Inn for our pre-festival reception. We are working with a black yoga instructor (Jean-Jacques Gabriel).
SB: Out of all of the films you’ve seen, what Black stories have yet to be told?
MH: I am still waiting on a story about growing up Pan-African
BlackStar is happening everyday this weekend. In addition to films, there are panels and other programming at Lightbox Film Center, ICA and Pearlstein Gallery. Tickets to individual films are $12 for the general public and $8 for seniors and students. All of the panels are free and open to the public.