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Philadelphia may have canceled large public events through February, but that won’t affect one of its most significant happenings. This year, the BlackStar Film Festival is going virtual.
Called “the Black Sundance,” the annual fest features African diaspora and Indigenous filmmakers. It’s normally a four-day, in-person extravaganza with star-studded panels, scores of film screenings, an awards ceremony and a few parties. Last year saw almost 10,000 attendees.
Since the pandemic has made that impossible this year, the festival will take place entirely online, from Aug. 20 to 26. The schedule was released on Thursday — and it includes more than 80 films from 23 countries, including two dozen world premieres.
BlackStar artistic director and founder Maori Karmael Holmes told Billy Penn this year’s event almost didn’t happen.
“I was feeling really overwhelmed,” Holmes said. “I thought about not having the festival.”
Then she thought about the festival’s mission, it’s audience, the voices it elevates.
“I considered what it would be like for a first-time filmmaker and sometimes that’s the only film you make… And I started thinking about how BlackStar is a place that might be the only festival that that film gets into.”
And so, giving truth to the entertainment industry trope, organizers realized the show must go on.
They developed a strategy based partly on lessons taken from other digital festivals earlier this year. Films will screen through a CineSend portal on the BlackStar fest website at specific times, just like an in-person screening, “to keep some of that festival experience,” Holmes said.
Instead of four, jam-packed days of overlapping screenings and director’s talks, BlackStar’s virtual format will span seven days, and films and panels will run consecutively, so it’s actually possible to catch everything happening in one day.
There’s another big change, too. The cost.
Normally, individual film screenings cost upwards of $15, with festival passes coming in at $250. This year, attendees can purchase an all-inclusive pass for just $5 a day.
“We believe that people’s psychological capacity to spend online is different than they’d do in person,” Holmes said. “In the U.S. it’ll be very, very affordable. But also because this opens us up internationally, we wanted to make sure that if there are filmmakers based in other places, $5 could also be accessible in other places.”
Short narratives and documentaries will be screened the same way they typically are, in collections of thematically-related programs. There are also a handful of panel discussions planned, with more details forthcoming.
Standout films to look for include a documentary about Chicago’s Movement for Black Lives called “Unapologetic,” and Ghanain filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo’s “You Hide Me,” about the colonization of African Art in London’s British Museum. The short doc was made in the 1970s — but widely banned thereafter.
Some of the themes are lighter. “Right Near the Beach,” is a Jamaican-based feature-length murder mystery.
“Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom,” is a short documentary about Philly’s LGBTQ+ Ballroom scene, produced by the Inquirer’s Raishad Hardnett, Lauren M. Schneiderman and Cassie Owens and first published earlier this year.
Holmes said she’s excited about BlackStar Live!, a talk show-style opener that’ll recap the festival and talk to talent each morning.
“It fulfills a long dream of mine to sort of get my Oprah on, if you will,” she joked.
Her audience won’t just be local. Now in it’s 9th year, BlackStar has enjoyed the presence of international screenings and festival attendees since its inception, Holmes told Billy Penn.
Last year, they linked up with the British Film Institute for a live-chat about technology and the Black aesthetic. BlackStar will be collaborating with the institute again this year, a spokesperson said.
This year’s entirely-online format opens the festival’s films, filmmakers, panelists to its largest audience ever. BlackStar’s working with groups in London and Nairobi that will share the festival with their networks, Holmes said.
Head here for the full list of films and events.
At a global moment where political and social movements against racial injustice in America have sparked protests and uprisings worldwide, BlackStar’s ongoing mission to uplift and share the stories from the African diaspora and Indigenous communities “by indie means necessary,” persists.
“I think in some ways, the uprisings and the reaction to them around the country don’t really affect BlackStar,” Holmes said. “We’ve been talking about these issues, we’ve been having panels about them from the beginning.
“I think what we hopefully offer is some respite, not only sort of showing a lot of the tragedies that are inflicted upon our communities. But we also hope that people come to us to experience joy and, you know, hope.”