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The Pan African Film Festival March 12, 2012

Posted by homolog88 in Uncategorized.
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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


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.


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.


I Occupy the Rose Parade January 10, 2012

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When I heard there was a plan for Occupy supporters to march directly behind the official Rose Parade that had been worked out with the Rose Parade organizers and the City of Pasadena , I knew I wanted to participate. Because of previous travel, I had missed the mass demonstrations last fall sponsored by Occupy Oakland. This was an opportunity for me to show my support at the site of the town where I had grown up. And the fact that the organizers had negotiated the probably grudging acceptance of the march from the Powers That Be augured well for a non-violent event. I’d made my efforts to smash the capitalist state back in the 60s, and the escalating violence of the police response at that time convinced me that I was better off accepting my privileged position as part of the sated American middle class rather than trying to bring about the New Millenium for humanity.

Occupy the Rose Parade (OTRP) planned two public events, a forum and rally at the All Saint’s Church in downtown Pasadena on the afternoon of January 1 and a protest march after the parade on January 2. I attended both.

The forum was, by my lights, a slightly depressing affair. The speakers made the connections between Wall Street greed, corporate arrogance, the foreclosure crisis, and Republican intransigence. The discourse was reasonable, and there was even a bit of good political theater about the absurdity of granting personhood rights to corporations. (“I used to pay taxes,” one video interviewee confessed. “Then I declared myself to be a corporation and moved all my assets to a bank account in the Cayman Islands !”) But there were perhaps 200 people in the audience, which felt small for the space provided, and the atmosphere was suffused with the left wing/progressive/well-intentioned/lost cause vibe that makes these events seem sadly marginal. Fortunately, the protest march the next day, felt much more successful.

True to the City of Pasadena ’s deal with the devil, January 2, Rose Parade day, dawned warm and blue. I arrived at the municipal park which had been allocated by the City as a staging area at 8:30. The protestors were flowing in, and the three floats that had been prepared for the event were also being readied. The most elaborate of these floats was a corporate octopus of waving tentacles made out of recycled garbage bags.

Occupy octopus

There was also a huge hand-lettered replica of the first paragraph of the Constitution that begins “We the People.” A satirical twin reading “We the Corporations” detailed the rights and benefits that the corporations arrogate to themselves. Estimating crowd strength has always been difficult for me, but I would guess there were no more than 600 people at the staging area. But the atmosphere was upbeat, and there was a greater demographic represented amongst the marchers than there had been at the previous day’s forum. Furthermore, many of the handmade signs and costumes were witty and effective.

OTRP signs

At 9:30, we were summoned to march behind the final motorcade signaling the end of the official parade. We only walked ¼ of the parade route, ending our own itinerary at an area just west of City Hall. As we marched, our numbers swelled until the wave of protesting humanity surging down Colorado Avenue looked impressive.

OTRP apogee

Parade organizers over-estimated a crowd of 5,000; the police under-counted to 400—a ridiculous claim. I would say around 3,000 at the march apogee would be a fair number. We lost a good 4/5 of those people at the closing rally, but we put on a good showing for the march down the parade route. And there were still lots of people in the stands. Some gave us a thumbs-down; others were clearly welcoming. Most simply watched, bemused or amused. The Rose Parade is corn-fed Americana , as I wrote previously, so the masses watching the parade are not exactly ripe for radicalization, particularly the ones who could afford bleacher seats, but many thousands saw us in person, and we got some news coverage that evening and the following day.

All in all, the march was a success. Everything progressed peacefully, and we all felt the uplift of spirited protest as our signs and floats swirled down the parade route. The Billionaire’s Marching Band added some festive music to the occasion (“We’re In the Monday”), and even I, who am not much of a joiner when it comes to chants, could get behind the slogan, “The banks got bailed out; we got sold out.”

The post-march rally had a celebratory feel to it. The march’s principal organizer, Pete Thottam, was understandably euphoric. He acted as the Master of Ceremonies for a series of short political speeches, including one from the famous Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan, followed by some musical acts. The overkill police presence in riot gear standing between us and City Hall made some people nervous, but the organizers assured us that nothing bad was going to happen, and nothing did. The Powers That Be hoped that we would remain contained in our little bubble, and that our perverse squeaks of dissent would be drowned out by the roar of celebratory consumerism. Bashing our heads in would have been counter-productive.


As a participant, I know that many thousands of people witnessed the march because I saw them with my own eyes. Anything amplified beyond that was dependent on the media. To the extent that the OTRP march was a news event, it got covered. How it got covered by mainstream media – the only media that has any sort of deep reach into the populace – was a mixed bag but a revealing bag.

Of course TV stations covering the parade live immediately switched their programming. Oddly enough, just to insure that our message would be literally drowned out as we passed the media stands, Glenn Miller records blared at top volume, providing a weirdly upbeat soundtrack to the protest march.

As might be expected, the local print paper, The Pasadena Star News, provided the most extensive coverage of the march preparations and its advent. The day before, the paper published a lengthy article, a bit of a hit piece, on the Pete Thottam’s, the organizer’s, checkered past and ideological disagreements with the Occupy movements in L.A. and Pasadena. However, that same paper provided the most even-handed reporting of the event itself the following day. (http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/news/ci_19660978) As for the all-important TV news, the L.A. version of the CBS network provided some pretty fair coverage. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-zLhpedKj8&t=2m40s). I don’t know what channel 5, KTLA’s, ideological position is, but their coverage was somewhat hostile, saying in their evening program of the event that the protestors “tried to get their message across.”

And what of the scintilla of attention granted to the event by the powerful and prestigious Los Angeles Times?  Let’s examine how the coverage devalued the march by misrepresentation and context. Here are the first three paragraphs of their story.

Hundreds of Occupy the Rose Parade protesters marched down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Monday after the real event was over, lining up behind police squad cars, tow trucks and the last official float to carry their message of economic inequality.

The reaction from the crowd, which was dispersing, was mixed, with some boos, but most people watched quietly or with amusement.

A member of a small group called the Bible Believers, which marches every year at the end of the parade, yelled to the Occupiers: “You people are no more than communist revolutionaries who destroy our country.”

Videos of the march clearly show that there were many more than “hundreds” involved. Then, of course, we were characterized as a sideshow to the “real event.” The reaction from the crowd ranged from neutral to negative. (I personally witnessed many cheers and thumbs up.) And, finally, while “our” message of economic inequality was referred to in only the most generic terms, a full quote from the Bible Believers (“communist revolutionaries”) was given way more news space. And, as a bonus, we got implicitly branded as the same kind of fringe-y lunatics that always march at the end of the Rose Parade.

Nice work, Fourth Estaters!

Image Out–The Rochester Lesbian and Gay Film Festival October 10, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, ImageOut (Rochester LGBT), Uncategorized.
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My posse at the Image Out screening

It’s a good one, really one of the best I’ve attended. The prestigious LGBT film festivals—Frameline (San Francisco), Outfest (Los Angeles), New Fest (New York)—are associated with big cities, but ImageOut of Rochester, NY lasts 10 days and boasts the same line-up. Of course it doesn’t have the big names (Chaz Bono of Becoming Chaz showed up for the screening of his documentary at Frameline) nor do the programmers of other film festivals attend to see what they might solicit for their own, but the programming is top-notch, the community support, unparalleled, and the vibe is wonderfully hospitable. (The film festival put me up in the downtown Radisson for a couple of nights.) A 10-day festival is no joke to put on, and ImageOut does so with the help of over 100 volunteers. The excellence of the programming is due to the hard work and enthusiasm of its programming co-chair, Micahel Gamilla, a charming and seemingly tireless film buff. Other board members work hard at their functions AND hold down full-time jobs. The end result is an upbeat and well-run event, one that everyone seems delighted to be involved with. I got a fair amount of love and respect as a film maker, but the work I put into my short pales in comparison to the efforts of ImageOut’s principal movers. Over and over I said, “I’ve been to a lot of film festivals, and this is one of the better ones”—and it was nothing but the truth. And it surprises me that I have been to a lot of film festivals. How did this happen? I still don’t think of myself as a film maker.

I might have to revise this opinion given the success that “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” has met with. People at ImageOut loved the short. The woman photographing the event for the festival asked me to autograph her program—a first. In fact, I was taken aback. Having published two books, I’ve autographed before but never for a film.

The screening took place at 11:00 a.m. on an unseasonably warm and beautiful Saturday morning. I joked with my nephew Joe, his girlfriend and roommate that we might be the only four people who showed, but in fact there were around 50 who forewent an Indian summer day (all the more precious because of the long, frigid winter that is inexorably on its way) to sit in the large theater attached to the historic George Eastman (Kodak) mansion.  “TNB” screened first, and then I was called up for a Q&A session. The audience seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter (no Blacks in attendance as the main attraction to follow had  no racial content) and asked good questions about the historical context and its possible distribution. I was pleased. Michael Gamilla moderated, and he’s a witty guy. He said he liked to listen to the blues when he was doing his nails. I countered that I listened to the blues while combing my silken locks. “When they’re on the stand?” he asked. The photographer caught my laugh.

The laugh

The film that followed was an hour-length documentary called The Tents, about the New York fashion week shows that took place in Bryant Park for a period of about 20 years. The Tents was made with money and access to famous people—Diane von Furstenburg, Isaac Mizrahi, and Tommy Hilfiger—and also benefited from good cinematography and dynamic editing. But . . . it lost its story arc and ultimately, its audience. Too many digressions. It needed to be cut by at least 20 minutes. Joe and his roommate Christian left the theater before the end. And, as one of the film goers said to me afterwards, “The Tents needed to be shorter and yours needed to be longer.” “I can’t tell you how many guys have told me that,” I replied, going for the easy laugh.

Although I was only at the festival for its first 3 days, it was a packed 3 days. There were films I’d missed at Frameline that I wanted to see at Image Out. The festival put on a great opening night party—no music but excellent food (good priorities)—where I hobnobbed with real film makers (a gay couple screening their fourth feature film) and newbies (a straight couple flushed with the prospect of their first screening ever).

Film festivals reflect the character of their communities, and this seemed to be true of Rochester as well. Upstate New York—Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca, Rochester—are bastions of liberalism. I tend to associate small towns and cities with more conservative attitudes, but upstate New York has deep roots in the abolition movements (Frederick Douglass published The North Star from Rochester), women’s liberation (Seneca Falls), and Progressivism. Rochester’s lesbian and gay community is strong and visible. Their newspaper, The Empty Closet, is the longest continuously published print newspaper in America. ImageOut is the centerpiece of gay life in Rochester (there are only two gays bars in a town full of bars), and it holds pride of place. The gay and lesbian community loves and supports its film festival, and rightfully so. As the festival’s board chairman remarked, “Culturally, Rochester punches above its weight.”

The bike trip begins in DC September 24, 2011

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In front of the WWII Memorial

Before my trip to Rochester, I am going on a week-long bike ride along the C&O Canal route from DC to just outside Pittsburgh. I am participating in a supported bike ride of the Adventure Cycling Association, which is a pretty cushy way to go. Although I’ll be camping, my gear will be trucked from one campsite to the next and, best of all, all meals are provided by the Association. I love my adventures to be catered!