Urbanworld Film Festival 2019 Review: More Than A Platform for Filmmakers – A Community of Content Powerhouses and Artists Breaking Barriers

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

Urbanworld’s 23rd Film Festival has come to an end but the lasting impression their 78 official film selections made still lives on. Opening this year’s festival was Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine). Harriet tells the story of Araminta Ross, born into slavery in Dorchester, Maryland as 1 out of 11 siblings in her family. She became famous for freeing over 300 slaves in the south as a conductor in the Underground Railroad and integral leader of the Civil War. Lemmons does a fantastic job of portraying Tubman, played by Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (Color Purple on Broadway, Widows), as a crusader. This isn’t just another film about slavery depicting atrocities and pulling at your heartstrings. It’s the impossible tale of a true female warrior with incredible perseverance. When we first meet Araminta, she seems scared; she’s illiterate and a bit crass, having suffered a childhood assault, and possessing divine vision and clarity, she executes numerous and courageous efforts to lead her family and others to freedom. This is the 19th century Oscar-worthy biopic we’ve been all been waiting for – the heroine of our dreams makes her way to the big screen. Harriet comes out November 1st. Click here to learn more.

Other narrative features worth spotlighting are DC Noir, and the female-led cast, If Not Now, When?

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Photo: Urbanworld Film Festival, Actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe in DC Noir 

DC Noir is an anthology of 4 films based on writer/producer/director George Pelecanos’ (The Wire, Treme, The Deuce) critically acclaimed short stories. Each story is based in Washington D.C. and follows working class characters that in some way or other want to escape their circumstances, yet find themselves riddled with obstacles and propensity for crime. Pelecanos does a remarkable job of capturing the essence and culture of the urban communities he writes about and DC Noir is no exception. Long-time collaborating actor-turned-director, Gbenga Akinnage (The Wire, The Deuce, To Kill A Mocking Bird – currently on Broadway) directs and stars in one of the shorts. Pelecanos hires many of the same actors in his television series and now film series, to portray his three-demensional characters. During the panel discussion after the screening, I saw many familiar faces supporting Pelecanos and the cast and audience members emphasized his stellar efforts to characterize people from the places he writes about with authenticity. To learn more about DC Noir, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R, Meagan Good and Tamara Bass on set of If Not Now, When?

Next up: If Not Now, When? The predominantly black cast led by stars-turned directors, Meagan Good (Think Like A Man, Minority Report) and Tamara Bass (Krazy Actress Productions) bring a poignant film about high school friends and the ups-and-downs they’ve encountered 15 years later. The film is reminiscent of 90s film, Waiting to Exhale with Whitney Houston and Angela Basset, as it explores the complexities of female friendships and love interests. If Not Now, When? tackles addiction, love-loss, infidelity with grit and honesty. The characters aren’t always likeable and that’s okay, you still root for them. Good and Bass directed the movie by chance, after their original director dropped out. According to Good, “I feel like I’m cheating on acting by saying this, but I definitely love directing as much as acting, maybe a little bit more sometimes.” Good and Bass have been friends for over 21 years and took turns behind the camera. To learn more about, If Not Now, When? click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba Film Still

I’m always in search of documentaries that strike a nerve in me – good or bad- and leave me thinking about the subject matter for a while. This year’s Urbanworld Film Festival presented: Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba and Skin – two films that have taken up residency in my mind.

I’ve been to 7 of Cuba’s provinces. I was born there and left for the United States at the age of 4. It took my 28 years to finally return to my motherland. And I’ve always wanted to go to Oriente where my mom was from and where the movie Bakosó is based, but I’ve never quite made it there on my 4 trips to Cuba. Habaneros, or those from Havana have always thought people from Santiago were guarijos (hicks from the countryside) and spoke a weird dialect the rest of Cuba couldn’t understand. Wow, are these Habaneros wrong! After watching Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, directed by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and seeing the energy and vibrancy Santiagueros have, I completely understood what the people from the region of my native Cuba had to say and I want to visit Santiago more than ever. The film starts off with Isnay DJ Jigüe Rodriguez’s grandmother smoking a cigar and moving to African chants. African rhythms are a central theme in this documentary. DJ Jigüe takes us through the various parts of Santiago and introduces us to artists making due with homemade speakers and equipment. It’s Cuba after all – electronics and anything for that matter, are in short supply. He also shows us neighborhoods bursting with new dances and young people celebrating their local Bakosó superstars like: Ozkaro Delga2, Maykel El Padrino and El Inka making their music and receiving recognition for their upbeat and innovative contribution to Hip Hop. To learn more about Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Skin Film Still

The second documentary that made an impact on me was Skin, directed by Daniel Etim Effiong, starring and produced by Beverly Naya. Naya poses the question: Why do women and men bleach their skins and succumb to “supposed beauty standards” they feel they need to conform to? Naya is on a quest and travels to different regions in Africa and interviews public figures, cosmeticians, actresses, beauty entrepreneurs, local women and school children who feel compelled to feed into the beauty myth – that lighter is beautiful. Naya addresses her own insecurities growing up with her skin color and learning to accept her beauty and confidence as a grown up. Naya does a wonderful job of exploring this sensitive topic that is universal and warrants discussion amongst people of color within their communities. Skin color does not merit the worth of a person and Beverly Naya is an excellent advocate for championing this message. Please go see this movie and embrace how God made you – beautiful to the last cell of your body! To learn more about Skin, click here.

Launched in 1997 by founder Stacy Spikes, co-founder of MoviePass and former executive of October Films, for over two decades Urbanworld Film Festival is the premiere platform for emerging filmmakers and musical talent to showcase their work and partner with distributors such as HBO, BET and Warner Media for global exposure. Spikes believed people of color were underrepresented in film and there was a void to fill, and embarked on establishing, what is now known as the: Urbanworld Foundation Inc. Under the umbrella of the foundation is also Urbanworld Digital, which includes esteemed panelists in television and film holding invaluable conversations on how to get great content out there and what the process entails. Gabrielle Glore serves as Festival Director &Head of Programming. To learn more about the Urbanworld Film Festival, click here.

3rd Annual Festival of Cinema NYC: Hosted Brave, Brash, and Beautiful Films

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Photo: Courtesy of Festival of Cinema NYC

Festival of Cinema NYC has wrapped its 3rd season – and it was a season replete with films tackling trauma, love, and hope with authenticity. Cinema fanatics from not just Queens (host location), but all over the world were treated to more than 125 films, relentlessly holding audiences’ emotions hostage and settling up well-deserved ransoms at the end of each screening with sensational works of art.

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Photo: Courtesy of Red Dress. Red Straps film

This years’ roster of indie shorts held their own and commanded as much attention as their full-length narrative features and documentary counterparts. The films that merit mention: Red Dress, Red Straps, Keylight, and Coffee and a Donut – brief in presentation, robust with long-lasting, heart-felt and controversial themes that permeated well after their screenings. Red Dress. Red Straps by director Maryam Mohajer follows the story of a young girl in her grandparents’ home in the midst of Iran-Iraq war in 1985. She’s enamored by a pretty pop star’s red dress she sees on television all the while listening to her grandfather’s favorite radio program spouting “Death to America” chants. The child is nonetheless consumed with how the dress her grandmother is making for her will turn out during this upheaval in her life. The whimsical animation touching upon war, coupled with a child’s perception of the world she lives in is bittersweet and enchanting. Red Dress. No Straps was produced in the U.K. and won the Best Animation award from the 11th annual NYC Independent Film Festival. To learn more about Red Dress. Red Straps, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Keylight film

Keylight by director Simon Kay begins with former child star Sarah, (Samantha Strelitz) about to audition when she’s suddenly confronted with what seems like stage fright but turns out to be thoughts of a traumatic incident in her past she’s incapable of letting go. Sarah finds a way to channel this experience to bring forth her best stage performance – but via dark introspective means. Winning the Festival of Cinema NYC’s Best Cinematography Award, Keylight offers a fresh perspective on how people can address past trauma to release cathartic enlightening and rise above it. To learn more about Keylight, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Coffee and a Donut film

Finally, the last narrative short that resonated with me was Coffee and a Donut by director Cary Patrick Martin. The story is about a young Spanish-speaking immigrant (Memo), whom after hearing a patron request a coffee and a donut at a local diner, perpetually asks for the same order because it’s the only English phrase he’s learned. He suffers in silence as he watches others order mouth-watering pancakes and the like – until he meets a fellow Spanish-speaking customer (Rocio Mendez) that helps him learn English, but not without some hiccups. This short film has resonated with audiences as it explores the universal immigrant experience of adapting to a new country they now call home; it’s sweet, funny and empathetic; a film so vital in today’s current political climate, particularly with the current administration’s animosity towards immigrants. Actress Rocio Mendez received this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC Best Supporting Actress Award. To learn more about Coffee and a Donut, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Over 18: A Documentary About Porn film

Documentaries must be given their spotlight too. After all they focus on topics that are rarely covered in mainstream films. This year’s standouts: Over 18: A Documentary About Porn and The Queens. Over 18 by directors Jared Brock and Michelle Brock chronicle the life of Joseph, a 13 year-old boy recovering from a porn addiction since age 9. Shocking? Absolutely. As the film progresses and shares eye-opening data, the more disturbing it becomes. The filmmakers examine the correlation between the Internet and the easy accessibility children have to porn sites with inadequate, limited restrictions; the male porn stars and companies who’ve profited and continue to make money from pornography, the female stars exploited and left to pick up the pieces – post porn work, and most importantly, the devastating effects and consequences porn addiction can have on children and adults. The directors did a fantastic job of interviewing subjects to discuss their roles in porn culture – specifically content, distribution and consumption; and what ultimately needs to change to safeguard children’s accessibility. To learn more about Over 18: A Documentary About Porn, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of The Queens film

The Queens documentary introduces audiences to a whirlwind of female impersonators and female illusionists around the country vying for the coveted title of Miss Continental. The national pageant, founded by Jim Flint in 1980, is held annually in Chicago and has preliminary qualifying Miss Continental contests around the country and the world. Forget everything you’ve heard or know about traditional pageants. The true super stars are the contestants in this documentary. Filmmaker Mark Saxenmeyer follows contestants that have invested tens of thousands in becoming Miss Continental; the dance routines they create and practice; the lavish costumes and makeup they spend money on; the perseverance they posses is immeasurable. Saxenmeyer delves into the culture of female impersonators and what’s at stake for them to follow their dreams with grace and integrity. To learn more about The Queens, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Quest: The Truth Always Rises film. L to R, Dash Mihok as Tim and Greg Kasyan as Mills.

In a film festival, more often than not, there’s a film that makes you stop, reflect and ponder for a while what you just saw. For me, this film was: Quest: The Truth Always Rises. Quest, written and directed by Santiago Rizzo, is autobiographical. Rizzo’s character Mills is played by Greg Kasyan. Kasyan (Netflix’s “Daybreak”) portrays a troubled teen in Los Angeles from an abusive home that seems destined for doom with tremendous grit and vulnerability. The teen is a graffiti artist and is talented in his tagging pursuits and expresses interest in school, but lashes out, as he internalizes the consistent physical and verbal abuse his stepfather (Lou Diamond Phillips) bestows on him. There’s a teacher and football coach that takes notice of his behavior and attempts to befriend the youth, albeit with resistance, but ultimately changes his life. The educator played by Dash Mihok (Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) shows a display of compassion and lack of judgment so admirable and mirrors Rizzo’s true-life mentor, Tim Moellering. Mihok interprets the character with great stoicism and sincerity and the audience can’t help but root for both student and teacher. Receiving Best Feature Narrative at this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC, I can’t recommend this film enough. We need more stories like these to be told and raise awareness of troubled youth, the good these films can do to improve their lives and impact change. I impart Santiago Rizzo’s words from his emotional post-film Q&A: “Trust Your Struggle.” To learn more about Quest: The Truth Always Rises, click here.

Festival of Cinema NYC’s name was recently changed from Kew Gardens Film Festival to promote film submissions globally. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently acknowledged the tremendous strides the festival is making to promote filmmakers and their work, and the free programming film panels and workshops events they sponsored in New York City. To learn more about Festival of Cinema NYC, click here.

Rawness and Unconventionality Captured The Essence of The 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

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Opening Night, 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

This year’s Brooklyn Film Festival broke new ground with superb storytelling. And, we couldn’t get enough of it. According to the festival’s Executive Director, Marco Ursino, “BFF featured the largest presence of female directors within a single festival edition to date. I’m also proud to say that four out of our six festival programmers are women and the festival is run mostly by women.” What a refreshing and revitalizing statement from a male festival organizer. Time will tell if other male festival directors will follow suit with domestic and international film festivals in the future. Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) roster of films included 133 features and shorts from over 30 countries spread over six continents. The lineup included 37 world premieres, 29 east coast debuts and 34 first-time screenings in NY.  In addition to the 13 narrative features and 10 documentary features, the festival presented 39 short narrative films, 23 short documentaries, 28 animated films and 20 experimental projects.

Documentaries at their core are meant to raise awareness and provide a candid journalistic perspective on subjects completely devoid of mainstream coverage. The documentaries that rose to the occasion in this year’s festival are: Clean Hands and RocKabul.

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The Lopez Children At La Chureca, Photo: Courtesy of Clean Hands Press Site

Clean Hands, directed by Michael Dominic, follows a family in Nicaragua over the span of seven years (2011-2018) living in extreme poverty and relying on a garbage dump, La Chureca (Central America’s largest garbage dump) for food and everyday necessities. When we first meet the 4 children in the Lopez family, they are aged 6 – 10, unable to read and write and depend on each other for companionship and engage in sibling rivalry. They are unaware of a better life, unlike their parents. When they receive an opportunity from a foundation to move into a new home on the condition that the kids go to school, the family seems destined for a bright future until other underlying problems set in. Dominic’s storytelling is raw, and depicts his subjects as they are. The director captures moments that are heart-wrenching in its portrayal of this family and lets audiences experience the highs and lows with them. In the end: you’re rooting for the Lopez family instead of pitying them.

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L to R: Qais (Guitarist), Pedram (Drums), Yousef (Vocals), Qasem (Bass), Lemar (Vocals/Guitar) Photo: Courtesy of Rockabul Press Site

In RocKabul, Australian director/journalist, Travis Beard goes on a journey with the first metal band in Afghanistan: District Unknown. What’s so interesting and compelling about this movie is the universal love for music these subjects exhibit. Whether you love metal or not, you will be immediately drawn in by these subject’s relentless pursuit of their passion for music – a passion that is frowned upon by the conservative and extremist government of Afghanistan. Beard, having lived in Kabul for seven years, and a metal musician as well, injects himself in the documentary as an advocate and mentor for the group. District Uknown’s story is bittersweet as Beard chronicles the band’s discovery of rock music, playing an international festival in India, and capturing Kabul’s underground party scene. The band members face insurmountable threats by the Afghani system and ultimately must make a decision on the future of the band.

Two narrative features that boldly address unconventional themes in their films and were awarded Certificates of Achievement by the Brooklyn Film Festival this year are: #LIKE for Best Producer Award and Only Good Things for Best Original Score Award. Both directed by female filmmakers. These films are true standouts in their own right.

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Actress Sarah Rich As Rosie, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

In #LIKE, director Sarah Pirozek begins the story with the aftermath of suicide brought on by cyberbullying and the family members left to pick up the pieces, one year later. In this instance, it’s Rosie’s point-of-view, a teen from Woodstock New York confronted with the harsh reality that the anonymous man whom bullied her younger sister into committing suicide is back on the prowl trolling for new victims online. After getting nowhere with the local police and realizing their lack of interest to prosecute her sister’s assailant, Rosie decides to seek retribution. This is more than a vengeance-thriller film. Pirozek is smart to keep Rosie’s teenage perspective with every action and decision she makes – even if detrimental. We empathize with her situation and revel in the psychological exploration of captor vs. captee.

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Cast of Only Good Things, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Only Good Things (Solo cose Belle) by director Kristian Gianfreda is delightful all around. The premise: a popular 16-year old teen starts to question her loyalties and character when a bizarre family moves into her small town of Rimini, Italy. Unwanted and stigmatized by town regulars and her own mother, father, who’s the mayor of the village; Benedetta can’t – in good conscience – follow the pack and mistreat her new neighbors that are quite odd, but familial and loving nonetheless. As Benedetta’s moral compass keeps getting tested, the surprise ending will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. No wonder this film won the festival’s Achievement of Certificate for Best Original Score Award for composer, Bevano Est.

Two shorts in the documentary and narrative categories that left me smiling and hopeful are One Leg In, One Leg Out and Dunya’s Day.

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One Leg In, One Leg Out, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

One Leg In, One Leg Out, won Best Documentary Short at the Brooklyn Film Festival this year. The film is about a transgender female (Iman) sex worker who dreams about becoming a social worker to help her fellow transgender community. Canadian Director Lisa Rideout follows Iman as she seeks out johns on the street and interacts with them on the phone. Iman is skilled at her job, but knows her profession has a limited shelf life. In pursuit of bigger things, she seeks information about a social work program and seriously considers the career change. Rideout aptly lets the audience get to know Iman with no preconceived notions. The film paints the transgender subject in a positive light – especially in the era we are living in, where LGTBQ rights are being stripped away by the U.S. government and attacks against the group have increased exponentially.

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Sara Balghonaim as Dunya, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Dunya’s Day, a narrative short by writer/director Raed Alsemari pokes fun at Dunya, a well-to-do Saudi Arabian woman who is in the midst of having her college graduation party and is abandoned by her help staff. Who doesn’t want to see entitled people struggle? I suspect just the entitled. Even through her desperate attempts to save her soiree, Dunya still wants to be perceived as “having it together” and a gracious host by her rival affluent friends. It’s comedic timing is spot on. Dunya’s Day is the winner of Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The Brooklyn Film Festival has been supporting competitive film events since 1998 to drive worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a purveyor of stellar cinema and independent filmmaking. This year the 22nd Brooklyn Film Festival collaborated with several South American film organizations: Proimagenes (Colombia), ChileDocs, IMCINE (Mexico), Universidad del Cine (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Festival Internacional del Cine Buenos Aires (FIDBA), Cinema Tropical and Proyector Film Series to increase Latin American film submissions. I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see what’s in store for 2020. To learn more about the Brooklyn Film Festival, click here.

 

 

 

Female Filmmakers Rule The Spotlight At The 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

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Photo: Mercedes Vizcaino

If you’ve had enough of the quintessential Hollywood hyped films that have been – and will continue to be – splashed all over TV stations and streaming services with overly saturated ads (after all it’s only the beginning of June), then check out the roster of films at the 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival to embrace global innovation and creativity. I’ve seen a few films thus far, in the narrative and documentary features and shorts, and experimental and animation categories, and wow! have they made an impact on me. And, we still have 6 more days of film festival-ing to revel in and see more fascinating films.

It all began with the presentation of The Gathering on BFF’s opening night and this year’s festival theme of empowering women to tell their stories and call out Hollywood for their inaction towards predatory powerful men. The Gathering, directed by Emily Elizabeth Thomas, showcases actresses dressed in character (the nun, elf queen, spy) all sharing personal accounts of sexual assaults within the film industry. The film and director’s message: “NYC…Brooklyn is a space for the other, the weird, the disruptors. And, that a better Hollywood is possible.” Following this powerful short film was the world premiere of Above The Shadows by Claudia Myers starring Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Jim Gaffigan, and Megan Fox.

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Olivia Thirlby and Alan Ritchson, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Above The Shadows is a supernatural action romance between a tabloid photographer (Holly) and a disgraced MMA fighter (Shayne). Holly has been invisible to her family and society for more than a decade. After discovering that one of her tabloid photos resulted in Shane’s downfall, she tracks him down to make things right and realizes he can see her and has the potential to restore her existence in the world. Director Claudia Myers brings a softer perspective to the sport of MMA and reverses the age-old boy-saves-girl paradigm with Thirlby as a believable heroine and savior of the day.

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Elephant in Africa’s Congo Basin Region, Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Film Festival

Regardless if you love elephants or whether you just love all animals, the documentary, Silent Forests, is worth seeing. Taking place in Africa’s Congo Basin region, the film follows Cameroon’s first female eco-guard conversationalist, a Congolese biologist studying elephant behavior, an anti-poaching sniffer dogs team leader led by a Czech conservationist all tackling the unbelievable corruption, lack of funding and weapons, as they deal with the huge crisis of the decreasing population of forest elephants. The film is eye-opening and sentimental in the depths these activists undertake to examine the problem head-on,  from poaching to conversation and vice-versa. Check out director Mariah Wilson’s documentary feature on June 4th at 10pm at the Wythe Hotel.

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Numa Perrier as Susan (Center), Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

A recent film that had me immersed in thought long after it ended was: Una Great Movie by Director Jennifer Sharp. The story begins with an African-American woman (Susan) traveling back to Mexico to rekindle a romance with a former lover; then it cleverly switches to the film’s screenwriter second-guessing her characters and their actions in the film and the all-too-familiar producers, “screen therapists,” agents, and movie insiders injecting their formulaic and over-used anchors to drive the film to “sell” and have a mass appeal. This film will speak volumes to all, but is especially poignant for any creative who has dreamt, tried-but-failed, or succeeded in making their vision come to life. It’s funny, full of heart, and entertaining for the entirety of its 96 minutes. Check it out and buy tickets to the world premiere on June 7th at the Wythe Hotel at 8pm.

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Mollie Cowen as Casey, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The documentary short, 3 Sleeps, by painter-turned-director, Christopher Holt is based on the true story of a 9-year-old girl (Casey) left to take care of her younger siblings for a whole weekend in a tough London neighborhood. After her mother leaves young Casey with little money to watch over herself and sisters, her youngest sister, aged 5, becomes ill. While Casey is forced to make the harrowing decision to either protect her mom or save her sister’s life, the audience is at standstill – grappling and sympathizing with Casey’s predicament. Fine acting by actresses Mollie Cowen, Keira Thompson, and Emily Haigh. 3 Sleeps has its U.S. premiere tonight at the Wythe Hotel at 6pm and encore on June 7th.

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Bernard in Bristled, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The animation short Bristled is a gem of a film that captures the idiosyncrasies of dating perceptions in the modern world. After countless failed blind dates, Bernard believes he may have found “the one,” only to find yet another fault in the person and is quickly consumed with his perceived “fault” she possesses, only to discover he’s not perfect either. The narration’s comedic dialogue and timing is superb. Bristled, by Scott Farrell has been selected by the Beverly Hills Film Festival, Chicago Comedy Film Festival, and Canadian International Comedy film Festival to name a few. Go see this quirky film on June 5th at the NY Media Center.

This year The Brooklyn Festival’s programmers are committed to advocating for filmmakers who are working in critical systems, taking risks and challenging themselves to tell stories that are breaking barriers. Please check out these amazing films and support these extraordinary and talented artists. To see Brooklyn Film Festival’s full schedule, click here. Plus, don’t miss my festival wrap-up piece next week. The Brooklyn film festival will be running through, June 9th.

Review: ‘What Is Democracy?’-Thought-Provoking And Essential

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What Is Democracy? Film Poster, Photo: Courtesy Of Zeitgeist Films

While half of the population is debating whether to see Netflix’s BirdBox, here’s an option you won’t regret: What Is Democracy? by filmmaker Astra Taylor. Not only will it get you thinking, as most documentaries set out to do, but long after it’s over the ideas will linger in your brain for the better good. The film forces the viewer to examine what this concept of democracy means to them personally, which makes the film that much more compelling and timely in our current chaotic political state. Taylor begins the film with a roundtable discussion in Greece with political theorists and activists discussing the origins of the democracy: the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek word dēmokratiā; the combined words dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century, notably Athens

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Cornel West, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

One of the most refreshing elements about What Is Democracy; is the diverse opinions Astra Taylor interjects throughout the film. We hear from Cornel West – a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University describing and citing historical moments with democracy and the African-American experience to first-hand accounts of factory workers forming a collective to work for themselves to a student activist coming face-to-face with gun violence during a peaceful protest to spending time with Silvia Federici, a researcher, activist, and educator and Emerita Professor at Hofstra University in Siena, Italy as she dissects the rise of capitalism, financial institutions and the inequality that emerged – illustrated by a medieval painting: The Allegory of Good and Bad Government; Siena is considered to be one of the first centers where banking originated.

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L to R, Silvia Federici and Astra Taylor in Siena, Italy, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The film weaves each subject’s viewpoint without the expectation to take a side; it presents ideas for analysis that beget a slew of questions for a democracy to be successful. Taylor is careful to let each subject tell their story organically and allows the audience to form their own opinions on the continued existence or demise of a democracy. Taylor is no stranger to filmmaking – her filmography includes Examined Life (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2008) and Zizek! (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2005). Her political and activism engagement is still prevalent. Her new book by Metropolitan Books: Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released in early 2019. What Is Democracy?: A Zeitgeist Films Release in association with Kino Lorber theatrical release begins January 16, 2019 at IFC Center in New York followed by theatrical engagements nationwide. To learn more about What Is Democracy?, click here.

Urbanworld’s 22nd Film Festival Wrap-up: Controversial, Thought-provoking, and Fearlessly Female

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Tiffany Haddsish and Kevin Hart

The Urbanworld Film Festival is the premiere global festival for emerging filmmakers, actors, and musicians to showcase their talent. The nation’s largest competitive multicultural film festival screened 76 selections, featured 4 original screenplay finalists and hosted digital, music, and spotlight events, which included narrative features, documentaries, shorts, animations and music videos this past weekend. Former Miramax executive and MoviePass co-founder, Stacy Spikes, recognized a void present in Hollywood during the 90s – there was a lack of African-American and culturally diverse films for audiences. And, in August of 1997 Urban Film Festival became the catalyst for change and the first internationally competitive black film festival in the U.S.

After perusing the festival’s schedule, I knew I was in store for some amazing films with well-known and not-so-well known talent that was going to leave a lasting impression. The results far exceeded my expectations. This year’s theme: badass and unapologetic. Actresses, female filmmakers, writers and producers brought unconventional and dynamic characters to the screen. On opening night the festival’s Spotlight Screening of Night School, starring funnyman Kevin Hart, comedienne and “actress-of-the-moment” Tiffany Haddish (Girl’s Trip, Keanu) attended the screening. Hart, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie, stars as Teddy Walker, a BBQ grill salesman living well above his means to impress and maintain his girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) happy. When unfortunate events ensue and Teddy ends up unemployed, he must face reality and go back to school to get his GED and land a better job, alongside a band of misfits and troublemakers. There are lots of laughs in Night School. Hart and Haddish’s comedic timing are impeccable. Although, there are a lot of far-fetched scenes that didn’t make sense, although the story moved at such a steady pace, you don’t mind it. After the screening, the audience was treated to a Q&A with producer, William Packer and director Malcolm D. Lee (Girl’s Trip, Best Man). Lee confessed that he almost passed on the film due to exhaustion from his previous film, the female-led comedy, Girl’s Trip. You’ll be glad he stuck around.

MrSoul

Photo: Courtesy of Urban Film Festival, Ellis Haizlip

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature this year was Mr. Soul! Billed as the first “black Tonight Show, the revolutionary program, SOUL! was hosted and executive produced by Ellis Haizlip. SOUL! launched as a local, New York broadcast during the Civil Rights Movement in 1968. In 1969 SOUL! began airing nationwide on PBS. Considered a beacon of hope and pioneer of black American entertainment and arts programming, director and niece of Ellis Haizlip, Melissa Haizlip, provides a fascinating history of the show with clips and interviews with unknown then, turned A-list stars, Al Green, Maya Angelou, Ashford and Simpson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier – to name a few. Radical poets, dancers, and experimental artists filled the broadcast airwaves of this groundbreaking show. Mr. Soul! is delightful, historic, and so timely and replete with parallels to the current political climate.

 

Widows

Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Viola Davis

Categorized under the Spotlight Screenings series, the film Widows, starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out); director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); packs a punch with the powerful ensemble of actors. I’ve seen just about every film and TV series actress, Viola Davis has been in, and she is incapable of any wrongdoing or missteps. As the film’s lead, she is tasked with forming an alliance with four women she has nothing in common, except each of their husbands’ past criminal activities, and a debt left behind by Davis’ husband (Liam Neeson). Davis is the mastermind behind a plan to eradicate her husband’s mess and reinvent a new future for her and her newfound friends. The twists and turns in this movie will have you one edge until the end. It’s incredibly refreshing to see Viola Davis and her female counterparts acting in roles typically reserved for male actors. Slated for release in mid October. Do not miss this film!

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

Awarded the Best Young Creator Award, short film Three in Stride follows the harrowing journey three African-American sisters (Rainn Sheppard, Tai Sheppard, and Brooke Sheppard) endure, from homelessness to becoming track and field stars in Brooklyn and possibly the Olympics. Director Sasha Whittle’s candid interviews with the sisters, their mother, and coaches will melt your heart and leave you rooting for these future sports stars.

The Hate U Give closed the Urbanworld Film Festival. The much-anticipated film, adapted from the book with the same name and written by young-adult novelist, Angie Thomas and #1 New York Times bestseller, is currently trending and all the rage. The lead young star, Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, Everything, Everything) is the breakout star of the year – by far. Stenberg (Starr) witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil at the hands of a white police officer. Starr resides in two worlds: an unsavory neighborhood with her family and friends and the private, predominately white high school she attends with her brother, and Caucasian boyfriend. Stenberg does an incredible job portraying this multi-dimensional character so seamlessly and genuinely. The rest of the casts’ performances are stellar. Regina Hall and Roger Hornsby as Starr’s parents are smart, stern, funny and practical, attributes rarely seen in a movie with a teen lead. Not surprised if this film is Oscar-bound. The audience enjoyed a Q&A with director, George Tillman Jr. (Fun-fact: Tillman’s film: Soul Food, closed Urbanworld’s first film festival in 1997), actors Amandla Stenberg (Starr), Algee Smith (Khalil) and moderator and filmmaker, Ava DuVernay. The audience’s reaction to this film was so powerful. Mine as well. It validates the term code-switching that so many cultures must participate in to assimilate into society – or really, just American culture. The constant police brutality communities of color endure and how activism will affect change.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Stenberg and Common

The 22nd Urbanworld Film Festival came to a close with bang. The abundance films addressing thought-provoking and risqué subject matter need to be told and distributed and will continue to set a precedent and inspire future filmmakers to share their stories. To check out Urbanworld’s Film Festival’s film schedule, click here.

2018’s Urbanworld Film Festival Promises to Deliver Groundbreaking Films In Every Genre

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Festival, (Center: Ava DuVernay)

Now in it’s 22nd season, The Urbanworld Film Festival’s is kicking off opening night with the premiere of Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. Closing the festival is the highly anticipated film The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr. During its 5-day run, the independent film festival will showcase documentaries, shorts, and features from filmmakers from around the world.

The Urbanworld Film Festival, founded in 1997 by Stacy Spikes, is one of the largest internationally competitive festivals of its kind. Each year, we curate a slate of films representing the broadest lens of diversity across stories, characters, themes, and cultures. We fight tirelessly to expand the definition of “urban” beyond ethnicity to include sensibility, culture, and proximity. We strive to be “the filmmakers festival” and “the people’s festival,” providing a point of intersection where creators and audiences meet to experience bold and diverse artistic works. Expect no less from Urbanworld on it’s 22nd birthday this September as this year’s program promises even more inclusivity from filmmakers all over the globe.

AMC movie theater will host opening night. The Urbanworld Film Festival is scheduled to run through September, for more info tickets, click here.