Film Independent’s Project Involve 2020 Showcase Raises The Creativity Bar With Thought-Provoking Films

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Jonah Beres as Sam in Balloon, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

We are living in unprecedented times. That’s a given. A global pandemic claiming more than 2 million lives and counting, a monumental Black Lives Matter Movement calling for the dismantlement of systemic racism rooted in American foundations. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos (ultimately for the greater good) there is beauty waiting to be discovered through the magical storytelling lens of filmmakers. Stories about communities underrepresented on the screen that need to be seen. This year, Film Independent unveiled 6 short films from their 27th Project Involve program poised to make a lasting impression on audiences. 4 of these films are laced with bittersweet, funny, and controversial themes expressing emotions validating our universal experiences we share as humans.

Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield, and edited by Bowei Yue, follows 14 year-old Sam (Jonah Beres) in the middle of an active-shooter drill, led by the talented Paul Scheer (Officer Hart). Sam, a quiet teen, is the target of harassment after a video of him crying goes viral after being punched by school bully, Jason (Carson Severson). Jason is dead set on seizing any opportunity to get a rise out of Sam and his other victims. Sam’s friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle), tries to console Sam and urges him to fight back, while not wanting to be labeled as weak by the other boys. When Sam discovers he has super powers to defend himself from his aggressors, he’s at a crossroads: fight back or continue enduring the brutal torments. The film reveals an all too familiar toxic masculinity in American culture and what’s at stake for children and young adults to survive in school. It’s relevant and timely and worth watching.

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Lara Cengiz as Kati in Bambirak, Photo Courtesy of Film Independent

The film Bambirak by director Zamarin Wahdat, about an 8 year-old Afghan girl (Kati) and her single father (Faruk), adapting to a new country they’ve sought asylum in is poignant and speaks to the collective solid bond fathers and daughters have. The story begins with Kati (Lara Cengiz) hiding in her dad’s delivery truck. Once he discovers her while making deliveries, Faruck (Kailas Mahadevan) becomes desperate to drop Kati at the grandmother’s home, although she’s nowhere to be found. Faruk enlists Kati to be his assistant. Everything seems to go smoothly until a racist turn-of-events challenge the father-daughter duo. Tensions flare, accusations are made, and with minimal dialogue, the father-daughter team accept the trade-off of being in a new country. Wonderfully acted and scripted, Bambirak is a gem of a short film.

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Buck, the narrative short by director Elegance Bratton and co-director Jovan James follows Lynn (Malik Shakur), a young gay black man dealing with his depression in a self-destructive manner that has the potential to lead to tragedy. The film starts off with Lynn’s mother pressing him about his meds. Determined to seek happiness with a visit to his white male lover, Richard (Gabe Peyton), the encounter proves to be disappointing. Lynn realizes there is another gay couple waiting for him to partake in a sexual party. Reluctant and declining to participate, Lynn decides to leave even though he’s taken a hit of Meth, is barely conscious, and is rescued by fellow black gay man whose life is on borrowed time. With the 25 million Americans suffering from depression to date, we don’t see nearly enough films examining and exploring individual experiences with this disease and Buck does a great job of portraying someone who battles mental illness, with empathy, not pity.

 

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Saint from La Gloria film, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

La Gloria a film by Mary Evangelista explores the aftermath of an attempted suicide by a young gay Latina (Gloria). And she how copes with lovesickness and sorrow with the help of her grandmother’s optimism and dream-channeling to achieve hope and peace. While the rest of her family glosses over her suicide attempt and go about their everyday lives. Gloria (Chris Gris) and her grandmother’s bond is authentic and compelling. It offers a sweet glimpse into relationships between younger and older generations. And we are here for it!

Film Independent’s 2020 Project Involve Showcase, a carefully curated program of short films spotlighting some of the program’s most exciting new filmmakers. Project Involve (PI for short) fosters the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry, and is celebrating 27 years of working toward a more inclusive entertainment landscape. The program serves as a valuable incubator for diverse talent and has cultivated the careers of more than 820 filmmakers. Notable alumni include Linda Yvette Chavez & Marvin Lemus (Gentefied); Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians); Jomo Fray (Selah and the Spades); LaToya Morgan (Into the Badlands); Justin Simien (Dear White People); Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Kim Yutani (Director of Programming, Sundance) and many more. To learn more about Film Independent and Project Involve, click here.

Review: ‘Ovid and the Art of Love’ – Resoundingly Mirrors Modern Times

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Corbin Bleu as Ovid, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Esmé von Hoffman’s latest film to hit the streaming platforms, Ovid and the Art of Love, couldn’t have come at a better time amidst a global pandemic and the ensuing chaos the current administration is wittingly encouraging in our nation. Its social and political commentary will resonate with audiences. As millions of Americans affected with the repercussions of the novel coronavirus (over 76K+ deaths domestically, an unemployment surge of 14.7%, a statistic unseen since the Great Depression) continues to wreak havoc in our daily lives.

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John Savage as Augustus, Kimberly Cruchon Brooks as Livia, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Parallels of our stark reality compounded by the film’s theme are spot on. Writer/Director Esmé von Hoffman’s version of the old tale of beloved poet, Ovid, otherwise known as Publius Ovidius Naso, who was exiled by Roman emperor, Augustus in 8 AD, “allegedly” because of his exotic and provocative books of poetry. Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical,” “Dancing with the Stars”) is charming as he breathes life into modern-day Ovid, and finds his purpose in the urban streets of Detroit. He’s summoned by Augustus, the inept and hypocritical emperor, played by the talented John Savage, (“Deer Hunter”) to pursue a career in law but his interests lie elsewhere: poetry. Determined to follow his passion, Ovid attempts to read his poems at open mic clubs, failing at first and ridiculed by patrons, later finds his rhythm in verse and love as he follows a woman he thought would fulfill his life. As Ovid’s poetry career and romantic conquests flourish, the citizens of Rome, A.K.A. Detroit, are in an upheaval; jobs are lacking, health insurance is scarce, and people are protesting inadequate leadership. Ring a bell? It’s 2020 on screen, minus the fancy togas, and elegant headpieces.

 

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Director Esmé von Hoffman, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Ovid and The Art Love is a tale as old as humanity – depicting average citizens standing up to power with truths and freedom of expression to affect change and the dire consequences that result, in this case, Ovid, regarded as the canonical poet of Latin literature, is exiled and sent to Romania, but his beautiful poetry and popularity lives on. In 2017, Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmona formerly Sulmo in Italy, acquitted the poet of any wrongdoing, Florence followed suit.

Check out this wonderful adaptation of Ovid and the Art of Love by director, Esmé von Hoffman, when it’s released on May 19th by Level 33 Entertainment via major streaming and VOD platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, XFinity, Dish, Sling, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube and many more.

 

 

Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

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Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

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Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

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Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.

 

 

Review: ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ – Moving, Inspirational, and Triumphantly Valiant

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Anne Innis Dagg, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

To say Anne Innis Dagg was a trailblazer is an understatement. Making her mark before Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees and Dian Fossey gorillas in mountains, Dagg ventured on a solo trip to Africa and became the first female scientist/researcher to study giraffes in 1956. Giraffes have intrigued Dagg, a scientist/feminist/animal conservationist, since the age of three when her mother took her to a zoo. Twenty-years later, this life-altering, fateful encounter at the zoo; set in motion Anne’s quest to study giraffes in their natural habitat. Encouraged by her mother and then-boyfriend Ian Dagg, Anne began her research in the middle of the African bush when such endeavors by women were unheard of, yet Anne Innis Dagg pioneered the study of giraffes and discovered behavior never before documented. And, director Alison Reid, fascinated by Dagg’s life, embarked on bringing Anne Innis Dagg’s story to the screen after Listening to a CBC radio documentary, ‘Wild Journey’ on Dagg’s experiences.

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Director, Alison Reid, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Award-winning director Alison Reid (The Baby Formula) wrote, developed, and shot the documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Audiences will be thrilled she did. Besides bringing phenomenal historical context to the film, Reid does a beautiful job of capturing Dagg’s spirit and passion for giraffes. Reid chronicles Anne Innis Dagg’s life with rare footage from Dagg’s time in Africa by herself, the recreation of letters read between Anne, her mother, and boyfriend Ian Dagg. Anne’s unbelievable journey as a scientist, researcher, and feminist crusader fighting for her career against the patriarchy and male-dominated Canadian university staff. Her determination is admirable as she’s led the charge in challenging existing beliefs on female scholars.

Through Alison Reid’s lens and Anne Innis Dagg’s intact footage from over 60 years ago, we experience the highlights and low points of Anne Innis Dagg’s life. And complementing the film are the voices of Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Victor Garber (Argo, Alias) David Chinchilla (The Expanse) and Lindsay Leese (Bomb Girls). We witness a seamless real-life story unfold of an extraordinary woman following her passion with grace and perseverance. Dagg’s multiple books on giraffes laid the foundation for future wildlife conservationists to study Anne’s findings and pursue careers in the field. Her contributions to the study of giraffes led to a resurgence in her career, and at almost 87 years-old, Anne Innis Dagg, currently known as a “giraffologist”, is still advocating for her beloved animals.

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Anne Innis Dagg at age 23, Photo Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

First airing in Canada, Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber Inc. acquired the U.S. rights for The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Opening this past week in New York and slated to open February 21st in Los Angeles, with subsequent engagements nationwide, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a must see! Whether you love animals, science or fighting for women’s rights, this film is for you. To learn more, click here.

‘Hurdle’ Review: Palestinian Youth Combat Political Strife With Inspiring Creative Outlets

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film

The world is in political turmoil domestically and internationally as evidenced by the ongoing deadly protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Reaching its 50th year of Israeli military occupation, Palestinians have mastered the virtue of resiliency in fighting for their rights to exist and living with the oppression that brings social injustice; they’ve taken to the streets for half a century, and attempting to reclaim their land is nothing new. But what has emerged, and shed light on this age-old Middle Eastern conflict, is a fresh perspective by documentary filmmaker, editor, cinematographer, producer: Michael Rowley. In his film Hurdle, audiences can judge for themselves what Palestinians are fighting for.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Mohammed by Wall In Occupied Palestine

Hurdle begins with Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer examining a wall built to confine Palestinians to their “territory” by the Israeli military. Mohammed is clearly anxious and frustrated by his and his family’s current situation, but uses his photography business to enlist the youth in his community to find what’s beautiful and intriguing in the midst of all the violent attacks on their people. It’s gut-wrenching yet hopeful to see this community persevere and strive for a better life and brighter future.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Parkour Team Member Jumping

The film then follows Sami, a parkour instructor who teaches young men to jump and flip over rooftops and structures with measured form. Apart from the mental and physical demands the sport requires – it invokes the spirit of these young men to persevere, to attain the unattainable and overcome obstacles in currently occupied Palestine, even with all the violence and bloodshed simultaneously consuming their daily lives.

Rowley’s Hurdle film is candid. It shows daily Palestinian life: the celebrations, familial moments, triumphs and tribulations that connect us on human level. There are devastating violent attacks that can strike at a moment’s notice. On one side, we see people (Palestinians) fighting for their very existence, and on the other, Jews waving their flags rejoicing as they claim victory over their enemies. It’s an eye-opening experience to see basic freedoms we are all entitled to, squashed, but in succession, witness a movement of self-preservation and determination. Rowley documents the breathtaking landscapes and energy of Jerusalem with captivating cinematography and music. Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Film from the 2019 Tulsa American Film Festival, Hurdle is destined for more accolades and world-wide recognition. To learn more and check out future screenings of the Hurdle documentary, click here.

Review: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Edward Norton Resurges Dynamic Film Noir Storytelling

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20 years in the making and the film adaption of Motherless Brooklyn is finally here. Triple threat Ed Norton serves as writer, director, and star of this highly stylized film noir rendition of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. Unlike its printed predecessor, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s, whereas Lethem’s crime novel describes a 1990s Big Apple. Some resistance from the author could have been expected, but according to Lethem, when Norton asked for his input, he said: “Just run with it.

And Edward Norton did just that. For two decades the artist researched the New York City of the 1950s and its place in history with politics, race, community displacement and power struggles interwoven – the major components that make up this crime drama. Edward Norton plays Lionel Esrogg, a junior detective with Tourette’s syndrome that is determined to find the truth about his mentor’s (played by Bruce Willis) murder, all while uncovering unsavory truths about New York City’s powerful and disenfranchised. Joining Norton in this dramatic ensemble are acclaimed actors: Alec Baldwin, as the powerful, money-hungry and bigoted developer, Moses Randolph intent on bamboozling anyone and any institutions that get in his way of seeing his projects through (loosely based on actual New York developer, Robert Moses). Baldwin’s casting and interpretation of Randolph is quite apropos and authentic as his portrayal of Trump has been well received by the public and condemned by the president; and well, extremely timely.

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. L to R, Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose, a mixed-race lawyer and activist intertwined in this crime story is fantastic. Mbatha-Raw and Norton have great chemistry on-screen and there’s a beautiful connection their characters convey with an unspoken recognition of the struggle each has endured within a less-than accepting society. Rounding out the cast with electrifying performances are Willem Dafoe as Paul, Moses Randolph’s more humane, and less corrupt brother and Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) as the trumpet man with keen situational awareness.

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. L to R, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton

Edward Norton has a gift for portraying dimensional characters. He can go from 0 – 100 instantaneously, from self-deprecating to exuding complete confidence without hesitation; his Academy Award nominations for Primal Fear and American History X speaks to this. It’s a given. The audience will root for underdog, Lionel Essrog, to defeat the villains in Motherless Brooklyn but what is most compelling about Norton’s brilliant portrayal of Lionel’s disability is the way he outsmarts those who believe he’s no match for them with grace, humility and humor. And as the audience, we buy it.

The cinematography (Dick Pope) and set design (Kara Zeigon) conjures ups a romanticized nostalgia moviegoers crave. Manhattan and Brooklyn streets littered with 1950s Cadillacs and Chevys in an array of models and colors is a sight to behold. At first glance, you might think you’re in a tourist attraction in present day Cuba, but no, it’s the extraordinary production team that made this era come life with beautiful visuals. The film is lengthy but worth sitting through and witnessing wonderful storytelling. Motherless Brooklyn comes out tomorrow, November 1st. Click here for showtimes.

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.

Harlem Stage Debuts The Mystical World of Afrofuturism – Bewildering and Charming Experience

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Movie Poster Still From Film, “ROXË15”

Before attending the Order Out of Chaos, a night of Afrofuturistic short films, music performances and a ‘Mind Share’ panel discussion recently, I had a vague understanding of the term: Afrofuturism. The phrase: Afrofuturism, was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 in his essay: “Black to the Future.” Dery, a cultural critic, essayist and journalism professor, examines the intersection of sci-fi and African pride. According to Dery, “a community of people whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” The wildly successful Academy-Award winning pop culture movie: “Black Panther” is a testament to Dery’s hypothesis and focuses on black diaspora and technology – central themes in Afrofuturism.

On this night, Harlem Stage’s audience was treated to two experimental short films delving into the theories of Afrofuturism. The first: “ROXË15”, directed by Celia C. Peters, is a film about a virtual reality female programmer, living in a bleak futuristic New York City setting, searching for a better life through technology, reliving certain events she can’t escape from that prevent her from moving forward; it’s jarring and uncomfortable, but hints at the limitless possibilities technology has to shape our lives.

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Still From “Prototype” Film, From Left to Right, “Android 499” and Sol

The second short, “Prototype,” by writer-director, Christopher Ortega examines human emotions when a black female scientist tests out different android prototypes in her mother’s lab to determine if they can experience empathy. In her quest for substantiated results, she discovers family secrets about her mother and her own existence. It’s “Black Mirror” meets modern-day Telenovelas; and I’m here for it. Would love to see a full-length feature made and have the subject matter explored further.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, From L to R, Celia C. Peters, Craig T. Williams, Nona Hendryx, Craig Harris and Darian Dauchan

Post film screenings, director and moderator, Celia C. Peters led a discussion on the origins of Afrofuturism with fellow speakers: Nona Hendryx, acclaimed vocalist, record producer, songwriter of the hit song “Lady Marmalade” and former member of the group, Labelle, Craig T. Williams (filmmaker) of upcoming movie: “Hanging by a Thread,” Craig Harris (jazz-musician) and avant-garde composer, and Darian Dauchan, award-winning actor, writer, musician of the off-Broadway production of: The BroBot Johnson Experience. These talented artists discussed the past, present, and future of Afrofuturism. The role technology plays and one of the first innovators of the concept of Afrofuturism (before it was labeled a concept), Sun Ra – a jazz musician, who infused elements of space and jazz in his work. Sun Ra, in an NPR interview said: “In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things,” Known as recording pioneer, cosmic philosopher and poet, Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, Nona Hendryx

Following the panel discussion, the galactic sights and sounds of Nina Hendryx filled the auditorium – Hendryx is currently resident Artistic Director for Afrofuturism at Harlem Stage. With her band mate on the drums and the visual backdrop of colorful orbiting bodies, 74 year-old Hendryx confidently sashayed on stage and made her way to the audience wearing a black cat-suit and digital audio tutu with synthesizers; multifunctional fashion. Hendryx is a force. Younger musicians can take a cue from Hendryx’s sultry appeal and career longevity.

Closing the night was Darian Dauchan as his Brobot Johnson character. He raps. He beat boxes. He dances. Moving to simulated outerspace sounds, manifested on screen with shapes and figures, Brobot Johnson (dressed as a robot, complete with silver hair) got the audience pumped and made his performance interactive. It was strange, yet unexpectedly entertaining to watch as some of the loud, pulsating sounds lingered.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, Darian Dauchan as Brobot Johnson

For over 35 years, Harlem Stage has been one of the countries’ leading performing arts centers fostering and showcasing contemporary artists of color, bringing exciting and diverse performances daring to be provocative and engaging new audiences transcending cultural experiences. To check out more Afrofuturistic performances throughout the year and explore other phenomenal programs, 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.