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The Pan African Film Festival March 12, 2012

Posted by homolog88 in Uncategorized.
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B-LIST

My last major film festival, the Pan African Film Festival, took place last month in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. The PAFF bills itself as the largest Black film festival in America, and it’s probably true. Now in its 20th year, the film festival screened 190 films this year, all twice, over 17 days. The festival took over 4 theaters of the local multiplex, and these ran screenings from noon to 11:00 p.m. Backed (although distantly) by the likes of Danny Glover and Forest Whittaker, the PAFF shows all the major Black indie films as well as screening a slew of narratives and documentaries from Africa and the Caribbean.

The PAFF models itself on the A-list festivals. It confers awards, both audience favorites and juried; hosts great parties; creates ballyhoo. red-carpet events for the opening and closing films; attracts actors and directors from all over the world; sponsors a fair sampling of professional workshops and panels; and carries ancillary events, such as a Black art market in the neighboring mall. Yet it is a B-list festival, the reason being that distributors do not frequent it. You may be a young director from South Africa arriving in the land of Hollywood with hopes ablaze, but you will not be signing any distribution deals.

Still, it’s plenty exciting to a country bumpkin like me. Black people know how to dress for the occasion, and the colors and costumes in the cinema’s lobby alone lit up the room. And the parties! Child, don’t get me started!

Closing night party

Oooo! It's Blair Underwood!

I had my director’s badge and could socialize, in fact did socialize, with a young South African man and an older Guadeloupian woman, both of whom won PAFF awards for their feature films. And to feed my starf*cking jollies, I sat one row away from Blair Underwood who was the male lead of the closing film!  Not his best expression, perhaps.

The setting for the PAFF was a soulless mall in the Crenshaw district, so, outside of the festival participants, there wasn’t much in the way of local color. The artists set up stalls in the mall’s open spaces. One of the empty retail spaces had been transformed into a “director’s lounge,” but rather nicely done with African fabrics, comfortable chairs, and a tableful of snacks, drinks and meal-time servings of food. It was there that I really socialized with other directors. My two picture-mates are from South Africa (the white guy) and Jamaica (the other guy), but we’re all wearing our badges proudly!

Directors 3

THE LESBIAN CORNER

As this was a Black film festival, the lesbian and gay presence was well nigh invisible. My doc was programmed with three other shorts, either made by or about Black lesbians. Fragrantly titled “Shorts Series 8,” our program screened on a Tuesday afternoon and a Thursday evening. I attended the Thursday evening show with my L.A. claque (I had to bribe them with food to attend), expecting a sparse crowd as we were playing against a red-carpet centerpiece film. To my surprise, the theater was about sold out. Two of the documentary shorts were made by locals, and their claques were much bigger than mine. Noisier too.

On a cinematic level, both documentaries were somewhat dreadful. This reflected, no doubt, the dearth of LGBT-themed entries. Black lesbians are a closed society, however, so even this amateurish glimpse into their world was interesting. And they had the unintended virtue of making my documentary appear – I was the last to screen – as if it were headed straight to PBS.

Predictably, I was the only white male in the numerous line-up below the screen for the Q&A session. Through happenstance, I was given the mike to be the first to answer a general question directed to all of us. This triggered my PC radar, and I quickly handed the mic to one of the Black women, remarking that I was an outlier in the group. In spite of all, people were very complimentary about my work.

THE TOUGH LIFE OF AN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like artists of any stripe, nobody goes into this game for the money. But, of course, lightening can strike, and the likes of Spike Lee and John Singleton can catapult to fame. To make a decent-looking feature-length film, you need at least a half million dollars, and that requires calling in a lot of favors from fellow artists or friends in the industry. But the results can be amazing. You will see wonderful efforts and achievements at a good film festival that will never make it to Netflix, much less the commercial screens.

Rubbing shoulders with other directors, I certainly ran into those who were excited to be at the Pan African Film Festival, but I was surprised at how beat-up some of the directors seemed, even after making an impressive showing.

Mariette Monpierre, for example, had brought her first feature-length film, Elza, to the festival. Shot on the island of Guadaloupe, this semi-autobiographical tale was technically beautiful with island-paradise visuals and an entertaining story. It wasn’t my favorite amongst the films I did manage to see, but it was certainly strong. At the PAFF awards festival, it won not one but three awards, including the Festival Choice Award.

Born in Guadeloupe and raised in Paris, Mariette Monpierre earned her Master’s degree in Media and Languages at the Sorbonne University and Smith College before taking up residence in New York City. There she made money filming commercials.

When I met Mariette in the director’s lounge later that day, I congratulated her on her multiple awards. “You must be walking on air,” I remarked. “Yes, it’s nice,” she responded, “but it took me seven years to make this film, and I’m in debt. I’ll have to find a regular job when I get back to New York, or I won’t stay afloat.” As I said above, the PAFF doesn’t attract distributors. Can she find distribution or funding for her next film project as a result of her success at the film festival? One would think so, but I’ve seen many a worthy film at festivals that never made it to distribution.

A classic case in point is the narrative feature, High Chicago, directed by the Canadian son of a West African immigrant, Alfons Adetuyi, from a script written by his brother. Here’s the short synopsis:

“A gritty yet beautifully accomplished drama, inspired by a true story set in 1975, of a husband, father and gambler with a dream of traveling to Africa to open a drive-in theater.”

I came out of the screening thrumming with excitement. The film was savory, filled with colorful characters, sharp dialog, a sexy protagonist, redolent of a bygone era—and it possessed great heart. But the script wasn’t written as a historical drama. The script was written in the 1970s. It just took forty years for the film to get made.

Alfons and I became buddies briefly because I was so enthusiastic about his film. As a native of Toronto, he was hoping to have its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, which is an A-list festival. He knows the festival director somewhat. Because A-list festivals prefer to boast that theirs is a World Premiere, Alfons held the film back from other film festivals in order to better his chances of acceptance. To his great disappointment, he didn’t make the cut. And so he doesn’t have distribution.

Now Mr. Adetuyi is an experienced director and producer. He knows the game, at least the way it’s been traditionally played. And here he is faced with a dilemma. Does he try to raise $400,000 to arrange for a week-long screening in New York and L.A. with expensive publicity in hopes that somebody will take notice? It’s a costly gamble. Of course the returns, if successful, would far outstrip the straight-to-DVD route that is certainly available. But if lightening doesn’t strike, then his production company is another half million in the hole with the same result: straight to DVD.

I, of course, have no such problems.

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