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.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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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.

 

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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.

The Brooklyn Film Festival’s 21st Season is Upon Us: Get Ready for Love, Loss, Triumph and Controversy

The Brooklyn Film Festival is back with a vengeance – an artistic, thought-provoking reprisal – in the form of documentaries, features, narrative and animated shorts meant to strike a nerve, inform and leave audiences with a welcomed or unwelcomed – shock to the system. The film festival kicked off its 21st season at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn with a treasure trove of documentaries produced by The New York Times and a mix of animated and experimental films from the Brooklyn Film Festival. The 10-day festival is comprised of approximately 125 features and shorts from 30 countries spread over all continents, except Antarctica. The lineup includes 19 world premieres, 21 from the USA – 37 east coast debuts and 30 first-time screenings in New York City. The festival will present in total 36 short narrative films, 16 short documentary films, 25 animated films and 20 experimental films. There is bound to be a film for all tastes in this roster of diverse presentations from around the globe.

I’m a film buff and constantly seek out new and exciting films – especially independent films that will stake a claim on my brain and will leave me deep in thought for days. Two films that have ambushed my psyche so far: “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” and “The Story of Esraa.” As the title suggests, “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” is about one of the members of an extremist, white nationalist group. At first, I scoffed at this documentary, but as I was watched the film’s subject, Eli Mosley, a rising white supremacist leader, whose deep-rooted white male inadequacies was becoming the focus of his drive to spew hate and present himself as an American hero – was quickly challenged in the film. Bravo! To filmmakers, Emma Cott and Andrew Michael Ellis for letting the narrative take shape and expose Eli Mosley and his group’s false, albeit dangerous beliefs, and shed light on to an unfortunate rising movement.

Lieutenant of the Alt-Right, Credit THE NEW YORK TIMES

Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The second film that left a lasting impression on me is: “The Story of Esraa” – a young 20-something woman who challenges Egypt’s system by attempting to live her life free of her country’s constraints on family, religion, and personal freedoms as she embarks to rent an apartment with her like-minded friends, only to find obstacles and disappointment. This film will resonate with everyone who’s struggled to find their identity and establish themselves on own their own terms. I felt sorrow and hope for this woman, and as I chatted with one of the filmmakers, Mona El-Naggar, Mark Meatto, and Yousur Al-Hlou, I learned about Esraa’s story further. It made me question the freedoms and choices I currently have in the U.S., but for how long? With this administration at the helm chipping away at our Democratic freedoms daily, who’s to say, we can’t find ourselves like Esraa one day?

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Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The accompanying films on opening night were fantastic as well. The animated short from Italian director Fausto Montanari, “Weird” about girls being different and perceived as odd is a painstaking glimpse of society’s judgmental lens on how we see each other and ourselves. “Deportation Deadline’s” subject matter, by directors Brent McDonald, John Woo, and Jonah M. Kessel is straight from our current news cycle, as many families are continuously torn apart by ICE agents with deportation orders enforced by the Trump administration. The relevancy is strikingly accurate and telling of the injustices currently happening to undocumented immigrants in our country.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) theme this year is: “Bad times make great art.” And I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store for the duration of this provocative festival that has been staging international and competitive films and independent production of films and drawing worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema. BFF promotes artistic excellence and creative freedom without censure, and has done so since 1998. To see an encore of The New York Times produced documentaries and the Brooklyn Film Festival’s stellar films, click here for ticket info, venues, dates and times. Viva la Cinema!