A gripping movie is always liable to warp your sense of time, so it makes sense that the five-day lineup at the 12th annual BlackStar’s Film Festival provided a disorientingly good time.
Deeply conscious of the current moment — while glancing back, forward, and even out of this world — the festival’s span of movies, discussions, and events felt like a grounding escape. And in its first year on South Broad after a decade in West Philly, it continued to grow, exceeding 2022’s turnout of 12,000 people, according to festival organizers.
“To be a Philadelphia resident and witness it at its infancy, and to see how it continues to grow and build … it’s really incredible,” Michele Pierson, BlackStar’s development manager, told Billy Penn.
Like many on BlackStar’s staff and in their networks, Pierson can recall the early days. She remembers stumbling across a flier for the festival around 2013, and starting a relationship with the organization as an attendee and volunteer.
This year was her first on staff. “It still feels like it’s like at the beginning and there’s just so much more space for it to grow,” she said.
These kinds of stories, from longtime volunteers and volunteers turned staffers, abound at BlackStar because of the organization’s intention to cultivate community through its work.
But as a first-timer, this reporter can vouch that the good vibes also extends to newbies. Though not able to hit anywhere near close to all the screenings and celebrations, the bits of BSFF ‘23 that fit in the schedule were a joy.
Over 90 films from 31 countries were shown during the festival, between groupings of short films and feature length screenings.
Eight films won jury awards at the festival:
- Best Experimental Film: Before I Let Go (dir. Cameron A Granger)
- Honorable Mention: Quiet As It’s Kept (dir. Ja’Tovia Gary)
- Honorable Mention: Quiet As It’s Kept (dir. Ja’Tovia Gary)
- Best Feature Documentary: Fire Through Dry Grass (dirs. Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides)
- Best Feature Narrative: Girl (dir. Adura Onashile)
- Best Short Documentary: Bone Black: Midwives vs. the South (dir. Imani Nikyah Dennison)
- Honorable Mention: A Bear Named Jesus (dir. Terril Calder)
- Best Short Narrative: Sèt Lam (dir. Vincent Fontano)
- Honorable Mention: The Truth About Alvert, the Last Dodo (dir. Nathan Clement)
Of the awarded films, I only caught “Girl” — a captivating depiction of a tight knit relationship roiled by a child’s curious spirit and her mother’s abiding fears about her safety — and “Quiet as it’s Kept,” an aphoristic, fragmented 26-minute experimental piece in conversation with Toni Morrison’s reflections on The Bluest Eye, her first novel — a title that’s been targeted in public school book bannings nationwide.
I saw nine other films, with some highlights being:
- “Keeping Time” (dir. Darol Olu Kae) — A short documentary revolving around jazz drummer Mekela Sessions’s efforts to sustain the legacy of the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, linking generations in the L.A. Jazz scene.
- “Money, Freedom, A Story of the CFA Franc” (dir. Katy Léna Ndiaye) — A feature length documentary that connects the colonial origins of Francophone Africa’s longtime Bank of France-coordinated currency to its colonial present. A timely film to watch while scanning the web for updates on the coup in Niger and other anti-French developments in the Sahel.
- “Conversations with Ruth de Souza” (dir. Juliana Vincente) — A documentary celebrating the life of a pathbreaking Afro Brazilian actor, who lived a fascinating life across the Americas.
Through the “The Alexander Ball,” “Ampe: Leap into the Sky, Black Girl,” “Scenes of Extraction (Sahnehaye Estekhraj),” “Dau:añcut // Moving Along Image,” I imbibed scenes and important conversations from Australia, Ghana, Iran, Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, and Ukraine.
Moving to unsettle and make folks feel right at home, each screening began with BlackStar’s land acknowledgment, one that differs by noting the limits of just acknowledgment and pointing towards the disordering event of decolonization as a horizon for future action.
The acknowledgment is an entirely fitting preamble — voiced by many members of the BlackStar family — for a festival chock full of radical reflections on the past, present, and future, as presented by filmmakers “of the global majority.”
One movie, Set Hernandez’s “unseen,” left a particular mark.
The film is a feature length documentary about Pedro, an undocumented, blind, social worker as he navigates life — higher education, harsh ceilings on opportunity due to his immigration status, and mental health struggles — over the course of six years.
Hernandez, undocumented and an advocate for undocumented people in their own right, met Pedro at an internship program for immigrants in 2015. That moment sparked years of filming, some setbacks in production, and ultimately, produced a great movie experience.
Large swathes of the film are shot out of focus, from whole scenes to just part of the frame, resembling the kind of blurriness that necessitates glasses for some. It’s not to imitate or depict the experience of blind or low vision people, per Henandez, but an approach meant to elevate other senses.
“Through Pedro, I learned about this experience of watching films with audio descriptions,” Hernandez told Billy Penn. “With that in mind, we also recognized that we want to reach people who are sighted, not just blind and low vision audiences.”
“unseen” offers poetic snapshots of Pedro’s quotidian, extraordinary, and existential moments, with the aim of exploring the intersection of disability, undocumented status, and mental health. The end result is a rousing film that’s unafraid to grapple with the ambivalence, anger, and acceptance that Pedro processes through the highs and lows of his particularly interesting journey.
Both Pedro and Set were in Philly for the first time for BSFF, and gushed about their time here on the festival’s final day.
“The few days that I’ve been in Philadelphia, I fell in love with it,” Pedro told Billy Penn. There’s also plenty to love about how BlackStar ensured folks like Pedro could enjoy the festival without vision.
“More films and shorts have that accessibility component, and it’s not only done as just crossing an item from a checklist, but actually being intentional about it,” he said.
The vibes, put simply, were immaculate. It’s fair to say BSFF has been the easiest site for person-on-the-street interviews in this reporter’s experience.
Filmmakers mingled with academics and critics, panelists traversed a range of issues on The Daily Jawn Stage and picked up the discussion with attendees off-stage as well, and more than once I found myself talking with fellow attendees about a piece we just saw.
More conversations in that vein took place at the parties kicking off and bookending the festival, like the First Friday event at the Barnes Foundation.
Local singer, songwriter, and musician Black Buttafly serenaded hundreds seated and filing through the museum with everything from classic soul hits to Coltrane covers to original tunes. Art, a killing band, plus quality eats and drinks … it’s hard to imagine a better start to the weekend.
Xenia Matthews, BlackStar’s communications coordinator, chalked much of the camaraderie on display throughout the festival up to the fact that disparate groups could all make it to South Broad in a fairly feasible manner.
Matthews, is another classic BlackStar story. She was part of the org’s mentorship program while making her film “OURIKA!”, screened the film at last year’s fest, had the work selected for Sundance, and now she’s on staff.
She noted the importance of affordability for artists in a particularly costly industry.
“I met so many filmmakers [at Sundance], primarily filmmakers of color, who were like, ‘I spent so much money to be here I don’t even know if I can pay my rent when I get back,’” Matthews told Billy Penn. The festival won’t break the bank in that way, she said, and offers filmmakers of color a chance to show their work in a space specifically curated with them in mind.
“When I tell people about [BlackStar], they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for a space like that all my life,’” she added.
Adjani Salmon, who’s film “Mai Jeroum” screened at this year’s fest explained that sense of togetherness well, telling Billy Penn the festival is “one of the few festivals that feels like a family, that feels like a community event.”
Salmon added a salient point, felt across the spectrum of attendees: “I try to come back when I can, just to celebrate with kinfolk.”