Today through August 26, BlackStar Film Festival will hold its 9th edition entirely online, moving from its usual home in Philadelphia to a virtual model in response to COVID-19. The world’s top presentation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous filmmakers and video artists, BlackStar was founded in 2012 by the curator, writer, and filmmaker Maori Karmael Holmes.
Featuring over 80 films, the year’s lineup includes 24 works being shown for the first time ever and a list of artists representing 20 different countries. Viewers have the chance to watch the world premiere of works like Ashley O’Shay’s documentary Unapologetic on Chicago’s Movement for Black Lives, and Daughters Of by Shantrelle Patrice Lewis. Other films to look out for include Miss Juneteenth by Channing Godfrey Peoples, Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor, and William Greaves’s documentary Nationtime – Gary about the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
Whitewall spoke to Holmes to learn more about what to expect from this year’s festival, how BlackStar has evolved over the years, and what lead her to launch the first iteration.
WHITEWALL: Can you tell us what led up to your founding of BlackStar in 2012?
MAORI KARMAEL HOLMES: I started the festival in 2012 after perceiving a void in Philadelphia, first, for viewing groundbreaking, independent work that had an intersectional lens by Black filmmakers. Our first festival was originally intended to be a celebration of the African diaspora in multiple arts disciplines, but I started with film.
I quickly realized there were over 30 films by Black filmmakers that hadn’t screened in Philadelphia from that year and within a few months, it became a film festival. My friend Yaba Blay gave it the name to refer to Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah and so we began.
WW: How has BlackStar evolved since its first edition?
MKH: The first festival had 1,500 folks and was deemed the “Black Sundance” by Ebony.com. We realized it wasn’t going to be a one-time event. It was initially focused on filmmakers from the African diaspora and now includes Indigenous filmmakers and folks identifying as people of color broadly.
Over the years we’ve expanded to include exhibitions and a pitch contest as part of the festival and this year also have established a parent organization, BlackStar Projects, which produces the festival, year-round programming, and will be launching a journal of film and visual culture as well as other programs in 2021.
WW: Obviously, this year will be quite different than in previous years, given the shift to a virtual model. Were there any big challenges in doing this? Are there any advantages to holding the festival online?
MKH: The decision to go digital rather than postponing was really cemented by the amazing response to the virtual programming we’ve been presenting since the start of the pandemic. BlackStar already had a substantial international presence when it comes to the films we screen, but now we’re able to make the festival much more accessible to audiences around the world.
One challenge is that we don’t know how audiences will respond. The festival will cost more to produce in many ways, while we anticipate potential income plummeting because of our perception of folks’ willingness to pay for online content at certain levels. We are offering $5 day passes this year.
An advantage, however, is that we aren’t spending on travel so in that sense we save money, but we are paying for a streaming platform as well as for a streaming production company—neither of which were in our budget before.
WW: Tell us about this year’s edition of BlackStar Film Festival. Is there anything special we should look out for?
MKH: There will be 90 films across documentary and narrative features, shorts, and experimental works, along with some incredible conversations and panels featuring a lot of brilliant people.
We’re continuing our pitch competition, which we started last year. Filmmakers will pitch their projects, focused on short-form documentaries, in front of a virtual audience and panel of judges to receive feedback and have an opportunity to win a $25,000 co-production deal with WORLD Channel.
We’ll also be releasing a publication coinciding with the festival, Seen: A Journal Of Film and Visual Culture, which will feature critical essays and special commissions by an array of notable filmmakers, writers and thinkers.
WW: Will this year’s programming relate or respond to COVID-19 and the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice?
MKH: Our festival has been programming work in response to the ongoing struggle for Black freedom and liberation since our inception. Really, our existence as a festival is our response.
These are conversations we’ve been having from the beginning. These are experiences we’ve been sharing. We are not changing what we’re doing so much as looking to everyone else to catch up, to listen to these filmmakers, experience their work, and respond accordingly.
WW: What are you hoping festivalgoers will take away from this year’s experience?
MKH: One of the wonderful things about BlackStar is that year after year, it’s like a summer camp for artists. People meet, collaborations are born, and then you’ll see the work they’ve made together screening at the festival a couple of years later. The festival also feels like a family reunion at times—I like that and think that spirit is incredibly important this year, even though we won’t be coming together in person.
One of my favorite things to do when I was growing up was to go to festivals like the Malcolm X Festival or the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, or the African Street Festival in Brooklyn. I would always feel so affirmed and beautiful in those moments and could really see my future when looking at the generations of creatives gathered there. I always hope our festival inspires the same feelings and moments of reflection.