Six years after filmmaker and curator Maori Holmes started the BlackStar Film Festival as an ad hoc film club for a few friends, the annual event has grown into one of Philly’s most significant showcases of indie films.
Dubbed “the Black Sundance” by Ebony magazine, the four-day celebration of films by men and women of color includes screenings of 12 features and more than 40 shorts — including half a dozen films by local directors — at International House in University City from Thursday, Aug. 3, through Sunday, Aug. 6.
Most screenings include a Q&A session with the filmmakers, who also will be on hand for a panel discussion, several receptions, and even a dance party at various venues in or near University City.
“I’m especially happy that this year we have so many world premieres,” said Holmes, who is director of public engagement at the Institute of Contemporary Art and has curated film programs at Painted Bride Art Center, Scribe Video Center, and Swarthmore College.
Six of the 12 features and more than a dozen shorts will be screened for the first time ever.
“And I’m proud that [Selma director] Ava DuVernay has found time to be with us this year.”
DuVernay, whose film 13th was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature, will appear Saturday night to receive the fest’s BlackStar Award.
‘It’s gratifying to see that we have a growing reputation in the industry,” Holmes said.
“I don’t want to sound corny but we got here because we led by intention and not because we’ve been chasing things simply because they are glittery or high profile.”
This year, the festival also includes a comprehensive youth program, a series of screenings of films by directors between the ages of 11 and 23.
Revisiting a revolutionary film
Among this year’s highlights will be a repertory screening of Wilmington 10 — USA 10,000, a 1979 documentary by Haitian-born activist-artist Haile Gerima.
Shot guerilla-style on a shoestring budget, Gerima’s controversial film reexamines the case of the Wilmington Ten, a group of nine men and one woman convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971 in Wilmington, N.C.
“It will be the first time we will show an actual film print” as opposed to a digital file, Holmes said.
Gerima, 71, who will be unable to attend the screening, said in a phone interview he’s excited that his film, which has never been distributed for the home-entertainment market, has piqued renewed interest.
“It was shown recently in Paris at a retrospective of my work,” said the director, who is best known for his 1993 feature Sankofa, a drama about a narcissistic model who is transported back in time to a plantation in the West Indies, where she has to live the life of an African slave.
“[Wilmington 10] was shown recently at a retrospective of my work in Paris,” he said. “And I think more than anything, people were impressed that the people who speak up in the film about the struggle African Americans have had in America weren’t professors or officials but ordinary people.”
Gerima’s film will screen at 1:15 p.m. Thursday.
Dramatic politics and sexy comedies
Other notable entries this year include Hello Cupid: Farrah, a feature-length spin-off of the popular web series Hello Cupid from Black & Sexy TV cofounders Dennis Dortch, Tina Cerin and Numa Perrier.
“Black & Sexy TV started out as a YouTube channel,” said Perrier, 36, who will attend the screening at 9:45 p.m. Friday.
“Now we’re a full subscription service with original programming, a a black-owned and black-operated network that tells black stories.”
The film stars Gabrielle Maiden (Sexless) as “a very passive, but eccentric virgin,” Perrier said, “who hasn’t learned really to stand up for herself and who doesn’t know what she wants from life.”
Nor, it seems, does the twentysomething heroine know if she wants to have sex with men or women.
Her life is turned upside down when she joins an online dating site.
“It’s a coming-of-age story,” Perrier said. “We follow her story as she goes from being a virgin to dating a variety of men and women, and as she gets a crash course on dating in the modern world.”
Philly filmmakers represented at BlackStar this year include M. Asli Dukan, writer-director of the short Resistance, the Battle of Philadelphia (Prologue), the first part of a web series set in West Philly starring local stage actor Jennifer Kidwell.
“I have been part taking part in activities for social justice and resistance to police violence for years and I’ve been thinking about who to make a film about” the topic, said Dukan, who grew up in Harlem. “I usually work in speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, and science-fiction. I came up with this story set in the future that asks what would police brutality might look like in the future.”
The short is one of six episodes that will follow the experiences of different characters in West Philly as they have confrontations with authority, Dukan said.
The film will screen as part of a shorts program at noon Saturday.
Not everything at BlackStar will be so heavy or so political.
On the comic side, there’s Tales From Shaolin: Pt 1 “Shakey Dog”, which will be shown as part of the same shorts program.
The first part of a planned series of shorts inspired by hip-hop superstars the Wu Tang Clan, the story is the brainchild of director Louis Moore, a Philly native, and writer J. Michael Neal, who grew up in Camden.
“All the films will pay homage to the Wu Tang Clan, and each will be based on different members” of the group, said Moore.
The first part is inspired by Wu Tang’s Ghostface Killah.
“We take the lyrics to their songs and reinterpret them through little stories,” said Moore, who learned the craft at Los Angeles Film School.
The film, he said, “is a comedy about a drug heist gone horribly wrong. … Ghostface takes along a young accomplice and things take a comic turn a that will be totally unexpected to both Ghostface and the audience.”
The BlackStar Film Festival
Thursday, Aug. 3 through Sunday Aug. 6 in University City. Most screenings will be at International House, 38th and Chestnut Streets.
Tickets: All-access pass: $150. Single tickets: $12; $8 students and seniors.