Black Film Festivals Showcasing the Diaspora Each year, more than 20 black film festivals across the country highlight cinematic achievement — many of them with a global focus. Two of the biggest are in New York and Los Angeles. Farai Chideya discusses the global popularity of these festivals with two leading organizers.
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Black Film Festivals Showcasing the Diaspora

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Black Film Festivals Showcasing the Diaspora

Black Film Festivals Showcasing the Diaspora

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Just ahead, he's the baddest man on the green. Golf star Tiger Woods seemed unstoppable these days. But some say his stellar record is hurting the sports. And our film series continues with a look inside Black Diaspora film festivals.

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This is NPR News.

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This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. from Burkina Faso, West Africa to Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles, African and Black Diaspora Film Festivals are popping up all year round, all over the world. Some just run for a day or two while others are strongly star-studded international affairs. Stop by one of these and you can catch more than a hundred flicks from all over the globe. The festivals are good places for black artists to showcase their movie-making skills. They are networking hotspots too, places to rub elbows, share fresh ideas and maybe even pull down a nice piece for your price.

As part of a month to month series on blacks in film, we are looking at African Diaspora film festivals. One estimate says there are more than 20 black film festivals each year in the United States alone, many of them with a global focus. One of the biggest is in New York, another in Los Angeles. Asantewa Olatunji is the program director for the Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts Festival. And Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, he's co-founder of Automaton which puts on the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York. Welcome to you both.

Mr. REINALDO BARROSO-SPECH (Co-founder, Automaton): Thank you.

Ms. ASANTEWA OLATUNJI (Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Asantewa let me start with you. You wrapped up your 16th Pan African Film and Arts Festival. When you started the festival you came in as a lawyer. Explain that.

Ms. OLATUNJI: Yes. I'm a lawyer by profession, but like most lawyers, you know, we all have scripts in our bottom draws or something. Any rate, in addition to being a lawyer, I've always been somewhat of a community activist. And I am actually one of the founders also of the Pan African Film Festival. And I had taken a vacation to Africa. I was working in a law office at the time. And I sent back an overview postcard of the city of Dakar - with the city. And when I got back, my secretary who also happened to have been black, told me, you should have been here when you sent that postcard back. This was not a black firm. And I said why? What happened? She says, everybody was saying, I thought she went to Africa. There are no cities in Africa.


Ms. OLATUNJI: Right. And so it just became obvious to me, I mean these were lawyers and you know, educated people. And they were under this complete misconception you know, the Tarzan images, the famine, you know, the wars et cetera. And they really had no conception of the Africa that I knew. So�

CHIDEYA: Let me ask, what was the first step that you took on a business level to really work on the festival here in Los Angeles? I mean before you even get started in something this big, you must have to put together a plan. How did you plan it?

Ms. OLATUNJI: Well it's amazing to me now because we knew so little about it. I mean our first thing was to go and speak to people who had film festivals. One of the � our big help was actually at the time, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival here. They gave us a lot of information on just how to get started, notes, forms, all sorts of things of that nature. We had gone to several film festivals prior to and we also � well, in my case, it was first thing was to file a 501-C3 non profit.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, when you think about all these things, I'm going to get Reinaldo into this. Reinaldo was it ever daunting to you, as an individual, to say I've got to balance my creative side with my business side and what do I need to know on the business side?

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: Yes it did. I mean from the very beginning. The thing is that it was so complicated that we kind of postponed it and we reached that level later. But yes, we understood that from the very beginning the film festival was a business and we needed to have business plan. That came out of visiting some other festivals in and out of the country and then we quickly understood that this is a business that we must put together and serve our own communities.

CHIDEYA: Well let's talk about some of the films. Both of your festivals are similar in that they are international. And Asantewa, the film "Return to Goree" won your competition for best documentary. Let's take a listen to that film, "Return to Goree."

(Soundbite of Film)

Unidentified Man #1: At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there's a railroad, made of human bones.

(Soundbite of drums)

Black ivory.

Unidentified Man #2: And I know it will be successful because quite a few things had happened to me since I've been here, spiritually.

Unidentified Man #3: This is real dramatic to me you know. It's just overwhelming to be able to experience something that I thought I never would have experience in.

CHIDEYA: So what are we listening to there?

Ms. OLATUNJI: You are listening to, well, one was Amiri Baraka and another group of African�Americans who were sought out by the great musician Youssou N'Dour from Senegal. And Mr. Andor felt the need to come to the United States to make that middle passage and explore for himself how culture has been transported from Africa to the United States and to gather up with him, those purveyors of culture, musicians, artists, poets and bring them back to Africa. And in this case it was Goree and they did a incredible concert on the Isle of Goree, which Goree as many of you listeners may know, is � was a transport island where captives were taken from Africa, boarded on ships and brought you know, through the middle passage into the Americas.

CHIDEYA: What do you hope to get in terms of an audience when you air a film like this? Who are you trying to reach?

Ms. OLATUNJI: Well we're trying to reach everyone. You know, specifically I mean black people of course, but everyone. A film like this actually works on many ways aside from being just an incredible you know, offering in terms of art and musicianship, culture. It's also a statement that dispels many of the myths that we often hear here in terms of the separations between continental born Africans and Africans born here in the United States.

As an African�American we are often told people in Africa don't care about you. Well films like this show another story.

CHIDEYA: Reinaldo you actually have a very, very international background, Cuban born, Haitian and Jamaican parents. Your wife and business partner Diara is French with roots in Mali. You are both operating this in New York City. How does who you are affect how you approach programming your festival?

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: Well I mean let me piggyback on what Asantewa was saying. Hi Asantewa how are you?

Ms. OLATUNJI: Hi Reinaldo.

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: "Return to Goree" is one of the films that our company has for distribution now. This is a film that when we saw for the first time, really touched us deeply at many levels. And then we were able to gather together the financial strength to buy it and bring it into the United States. That film tells you how we see the world with you and how deeply we want to go into this.

I am by � my training is that of a teacher. I mean I began teaching foreign languages many years ago and I realized very quickly that it was necessary for many of the students to associate the languages that we were studying in the classroom and the people who spoke those languages. Because in the case of French for example, it is very hard for many people, even today, to accept that people in Africa speak very good French. And many good poets and writers in the French language are not born in France. They are born in Martinique and Guadalupe, in Cote d' Ivoire, Ivory Coast and other places.

So that was one of the main goals we had in our festival. Through programming we have been able I think, to convey that message of diversity and richness in the world of the African Diaspora.

CHIDEYA: Before we move on any further, I want to make sure that anyone just tuning in is with us on this journey. You are listening to NEWS AND NOTES, NPR's NEWS AND NOTES. I am Farai Chideya. We were just hearing from Reinaldo Barroso-Spech. He is the co-founder of New York's African Diaspora Film Festival and we also have Asantewa Olatunji. She is the program director for the Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts Festival. Yes please.

Ms. OLATUNJI: Well actually just the Pan African Film Festival because we also do a festival in Atlanta.

CHIDEYA: So yes, so this is the film festival and then the arts festival is done as a branch of the same organization or?

Ms. OLATUNJI: Well in Atlanta, we are part of the National Black Arts Festival and it's actually a festival within a festival. The Pan African Film Festival is the guest of the Atlanta National Black Arts Festival. We do the programming of the films.

CHIDEYA: So Asantewa how easy is it to cross-promote your work with other organizations? Are they open? And then Reinaldo, I'll ask you the same thing. Cultural institutions.

Ms. OLATUNJI: It's not hard. I mean, if you take, for example our situation in Atlanta, we were actually sought out by the folks that put the Atlanta festival on and invited to come, because they understand. They try to do the same thing in terms of music and dance and other cultural forms. So they also wanted that international flavor with the films that they wanted to present.

CHIDEYA: Reinaldo, what about finding partners? Who do you consider your allies in this work?

Mr. REINALDO BARROSO-SPECH (Co-founder, New York's African Diaspora Film Festival): Well at this moment, the festival moves around the country and internationally as well. And we have host organizations in Jersey City, the Jersey City Museum. In Chicago, we work with (unintelligible) CinemaTech, and in Washington, D.C., with TransAfrica forum. Those are nationally host organizations that help us promoting and putting together an African Diaspora for a festival in those cities.

And internationally, we have been working for the past five years with people in Curacao, in the Caribbean, the Dutch Caribbean, and there with the collaboration of House of Culture, which is a grass-roots organization, and other groups, we have been able to be there for the past six years with the festival.

And I forgot to say that as we speak, the best of the African Diaspora, for the festival, is taking place at BAM here in New York, and today will be the last day. This is another event that, here in New York, we were able to approach the institution, and they said yes, and for the past seven years, we have the best of the African Diaspora for the festival during the month of February in BAM.

CHIDEYA: Well you know, speaking of your selections in your festival, I want to talk about a specific one called "A Winter Tale." Here's a clip from it.

(Soundbite of film, "A Winter's Tale")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) June 17, 2002.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) Don't go there.

Unidentified Man: (As character) 7:45 p.m.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) What does that have to do with anything?

Unidentified Man: (As character) Jullian(ph), Sibeka and Lloyd.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Look, him dead. Him buried. It is over, finished, done. I have to learn to live with it.

Unidentified Man: (As character) They shot him because he was selling drugs, mom.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) I don't want to hear this.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Selling drugs to kids in the park. Your golden (unintelligible) boy, turning our community into addicts. You can deny it all you want, but everyone knows it except you.

CHIDEYA: Now, that is set in the West Indian community in Toronto. Tell me a little bit more about the film, Reinaldo.

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: Well, the film opened our film festival here in New York City, and one of the things that hit me when I saw it for the first time, I have been several times in Toronto, in Montreal. I mean, I know those cities very well because both have festivals that we attend. But this is the first time that we were exposed to a film going deep into the African descent community, to be specific, the Afro-Caribbean community, and show some of the problems that we can see in other cities of the world.

And this is a film that very well backs up the idea that we have in the festival that we want to show the global black experience. There are many things that people of African descent go through all over the world, and it's� I mean, independently of the language, the colonizer at the beginning of their history and things like that. You realize that there are common things, and this is a film that deals with that, and not only that, this is a film that tries�

I mean, presents a group of men trying to go into themselves and reach out to their humanity and be better human beings against all odds in places like Toronto, where we usually have a very idyllic image of Canada, and a place like everybody's really happy here and nothing really bad happens.

CHIDEYA: Asantewa, is this meant to serve a purpose, like knitting together a global Diaspora, or is this meant to be entertainment, or is it meant to be business? How do you see this festival, PAFF? What's its vision and mission?

Ms. OLATUNJI: It's all of those things. I mean, obviously it's a business. It takes resources in order to get these films here and have them on a screen, present them on a screen and let people know that they are here. They have to be entertaining, because of course, you know, people don't want to come and see something that, you know, is not going to entertain or at least inform them, and it's informative.

One of the things when we started the Pan African Film Festival was to explore the differences, as well as the similarities, of people of African descent throughout the world.

At the time, we had very little opportunity to actually know each other. There's not a lot of media about people of African descent in other places. I mean, we know that there are people in, you know, black people in Brazil, of course there's black people in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, throughout North America, but to - there was very little information that was accessible to the majority of our people about each other.

CHIDEYA: I have to jump in. We have very little time. Reinaldo, do you think that your festival and your traveling series is making a difference in how people see the world?

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: I think so. I think we have made a difference in New York City, to begin with. And we have made a difference in all those cities because, as Asantewa well said, we are serving communities that - even though are linked - they didn't know much about each other.

And in the case of FESPACO the festival in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, I have been instrumental in taking to that festival, in more than one occasion, films about the Afro-Latino experience. Because I remember speaking with the director of the festival, and he told me we don't know about anything black people in Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking countries. And I said well, I can help you with that because I know the area, and I have connections in that area. And I remember when this past festival, we took to the festival a film about Maria Bethania, a very important Brazilian singer, and in the past we have taken films to that festival from Cuba, Jamaica, other places.

CHIDEYA: Okay, we have to wrap it up, but I have to say there's some amazing films out there. Reinaldo, Asantewa, thank you so much.

Mr. BARROSO-SPECH: Thank you.

Ms. OLATUNJI: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We're speaking with Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, cofounder of Art Mattan(ph), which puts on the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York. He's on the line from our studios in New York; and Asantewa Olatunji, program director for the Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts Festival. She's here with me at our NPR West studios.

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CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, Tiger is the king of the green. Could his success turn other players off the sport? NPR's Tony Cox and New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden talk it through.

And got a super headache that's getting on your last nerve? We look at the best ways for black women to cope with migraines.

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CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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