Banners for the 2023 BlackStar Film Festival cover downtown Philadelphia. Screenings and events are centered on the Avenue of the Arts for the first time this year. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

In May, Maori Karmael Holmes disembarked from a flight to Vancouver to some shockingly good news. The founder, chief executive, and artistic officer of BlackStar Projects learned she had won the Berresford Prize, an annual $50,000 award for people advancing art and improving the conditions artists navigate. 

“I cried, because I was really overwhelmed and kind of surprised,” Holmes told Billy Penn about the honor bestowed by United States Artists, a national nonprofit based in Chicago.

“I had been a panelist for [US Artists’] regular fellowship,” she explained. “I thought it was such a lovely thing to create a prize for curators and cultural workers, because there are usually just prizes for artists.”

The sizable award is matched by sizable changes for BlackStar Film Festival, the largest expression of Holmes’s work as part of the BlackStar Projects team.  

The 12th annual celebration of independent Black, brown, and Indigenous filmmakers continues to grow, embracing shifts seen and unforeseen. In a game-changing move, it’s now centered around South Broad Street’s theater strip, after more than a decade in University City. It has also been modified to handle a generational strike wave sweeping through the film industry. 

From Aug. 2-6, screenings of over 90 films representing 31 countries will be held at The Kimmel Center, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, and Lightbox Film Center, with an emphasis on filmmakers “from the global majority” (read: not “the West”), as indicated on bold banners surrounding City Hall. 

The move from Penn Live Arts to the Avenue of the Arts is a reinvention about which the BlackStar team is nervously excited.  

While encouraged by the opportunity to showcase works in some stunning venues — and the chance for people to experience some new festival highlights mentioned below — Holmes has already sat with the possibility that for some, the change might not be welcome. “It’s not as grassroots-feeling as it probably has been in the past,” she said. “So I’m prepared to get that feedback.”

Staying attuned to festival-goers’ responses has been part of the fuel that’s kept her dedicated to evolving the event’s over the past dozen years. “It has not been an easy road,” said Holmes, of the “duty” she feels to the project. 

“But so many people from the very first festival felt like it was a transformative experience for them in small and larger ways, and that has felt like something to keep sacred and to attend to,” she said. 

Transformation is the grounding intent of BlackStar Projects’ work, which includes a print publication, seminars and fellowships, a podcast, and more

“Diversity and representation are not guiding us, liberation is,” reads a portion of the nonprofit’s statement of values, which also notes the aim of contributing to “the fundamental base-building needed to build movements for social change.”

A set of movements deeply relevant to the industry, the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes, has hindered BlackStar’s fundraising to a degree, but the core of the mission is unshaken. 

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Solidarity with the WGA/SAG strikes 

To Holmes, the festival has been “created anew” on a yearly basis since COVID threw off the planning for BlackStar’s 2020 edition, including the ongoing incorporation of a virtual version of the festival. 

This year, there’s the WGA and SAG strikes. The labor actions haven’t affected the run of show —  BlackStar mostly screens indie films, which SAG rules allow actors to promote during strikes, and the Director’s Guild isn’t striking — but the organization’s finances. 

“It has impacted our fundraising because all of the companies that have generally been our partners, from streamers to agencies and other kinds of companies, are on pause, waiting,” said Holmes. “So they’re not spending money and their marketing dollars are not available.” 

Holmes isn’t overly concerned that this will impact turnout, as current advance sales are already higher than prior years. 

The BlackStar team doesn’t begrudge the actions, and are showing solidarity in ways large and small.

They’re postponing the application process for the Philadelphia Filmmaker Lab, a yearlong program mentoring fellows as they create short films, until the strikes end. They’ve “deconstructed” the festival’s talkshow, “The Daily Jawn,” into improvised conversations to avoid relying on writers. 

BlackStar’s mode of adapting to this strike-induced landscape reflects their view that many in the film industry feel labors of love “require” hierarchized labor theft that shortchanges the ideas and work of crew, low-level production staff, and writers and actors.

It’s a dynamic the team strives to avoid. “We try to create the world that we want to live in,” Nehad Khader, the director of BlackStar Film Festival, told Billy Penn, about the internal and front-facing ethos of the organization.

Internally, that means rethinking work culture, for instance by reaching decisions on programming collectively. Externally, this vision is manifested in the topics covered through BlackStar Projects’ public events. 

Side-eyeing ‘history’ and freedom dreaming, while emphasizing access

The team’s aim for how BlackStar ought to feel, as an intimate display of “joy, radical care, and thriving,” brings some buoyancy to the pressing social struggles depicted across the range of films being shown. 

“This year, we have this current running through the festival around land, indigeneity, and climate change,” said Khader. Films exploring indigeneity spanning from the U.S. to Myanmar to  Mongolia dot the festival’s schedule. 

Another core theme will be unpacked in a panel discussion on Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “critical fabulation”  — a staple of the art BlackStar highlights. 

Critical fabulation describes the method of deeply analyzing historical archives with a critical eye for its silences, ie., what was left out of commonly accepted historical records and narratives due to who had the power to curate and certify what constitutes history. 

Given certain silences, the aim of the method is to reconstitute, narratively, “as full a picture of the lives” as possible of people denied the power to make (recorded) history in their own time. The concept was born through considering the lives of enslaved Africans in the U.S., but has proven to inspire all kinds of artists in their historical research and representation.   

“We’ve seen filmmakers who have been featured at the festival create stories out of a need and the desire to fill in the gaps of history,” said Khader.  “So there’s been a lot of this past speculation and forward speculation in order to really create an archive where one doesn’t exist.”

Questions of access have a conceptual, artistic, and practical role at this year’s festival: Beyond the range of films addressing (dis)ability, indoor events are mask-only and a Disability Justice Panel will discuss director Set Hernandez’s “unseen,” a documentary about a blind, undocumented aspiring social worker that uses experimental cinematography and sound in an effort to create “cinema accessible for blind/low vision audiences.”

“We try to be very serious about accessibility, because that’s part of the liberation that we were talking about, building the world we want to see,” said Khader of the COVID safety measures that many similar gatherings have eschewed. 

That world, by the way, also involves yoga sessions each morning of the festival, plenty of dance parties, musical performances, and much more. 

BlackStar recommends

Though an impossible task, we asked Holmes and Khader to share some specific portions and aspects of the festival they’re looking forward to. With the obligatory caveat that all of it will be dope, they gave a few favorites.

Why Maori’s hyped 

  • The new “Daily Jawn” setup: “The stage will be in a more public space in a way that I think people will be able to kind of come in and enter the conversations — it’s going to be really wonderful.”
  • People stumbling upon BlackStar: “I’m very curious about how many people will encounter the festival by accident this year … who’s going to be walking by and come in the door that wasn’t expecting to do that, and then maybe come back the next day.”

Why Nehad’s hyped

  • The documentaries “Mafifa” and “Conversations with Ruth de Souza”: “Those are two really exciting films about Black women who lived in different eras, artists from different countries that are outside of our own context — and I’m really excited to share those.”

Setting the standard for accessible programming (in part, with a snazzy accessibility guide): “If we can be a small model for how accessibility can be achieved in all of the spaces that we enter into, art spaces or beyond, and in how we ourselves can continue to grow in that really important aspect — that is something that I think of as immediately attainable.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...