BlackStar Film Festival

Often magic is lost when we learn its secrets. Magic, we come to realize, manipulates our senses to appear as if it’s defying the laws of physics. But when we discover this manipulation, we are likely to become cynics—magic loses its luster. Yet the magic that permeates the atmosphere of the BlackStar Film Festival has never faded for me, even after I joined the staff and fully appreciated the effort that goes into producing it. In spite of the time crunches and financial constraints associated with organizing a festival, and the fact that I no longer attend as an audience member, BlackStar will always enchant me. Each year the festival is adorned with a unique, vibrant aesthetic, making it a work of art in its own right, while also delivering the newest in independent Black cinema.

To say that BlackStar celebrates Black cinema does not capture the full intention behind the festival. “An exploration of Black identity in the US is relevant to so many other people,” explains Maori Holmes, founder and producing artistic director of BlackStar. The two of us enjoy a sunny April afternoon outdoors in Rittenhouse Square where we meet to discuss details of the 2016 festival. “[The Black experience] is unique in that it has a specific set of circumstances, but it’s not unique in the way that global capitalism and oppression work.”

Portrait of Maori Holmes, founder and producing artistic director of BlackStar Film Festival; photo by Zakee Kuduro.

This radically inclusive vision that grounds BlackStar imagines a collective community for People of Color. To illustrate what a framework like this one means in practical terms, consider the theme of BlackStar 2016: migration. The obvious connection is the centennial of the Great Migration, a movement of Black Americans from the rural South to urban spaces in the North and West. Less obvious, however, is that festival staff are also thinking of ways to incorporate conversations about contemporary displacement and migrations across the global south—in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and across Africa in festival programming. This dynamism and global focus makes BlackStar complex and unforgettable.

“We’re engaged in politics and aesthetics that ask: what is a Black film? What are its elements? Whose voices are being heard?” Holmes clarifies. “It’s easy for us to accept the boundaries that have been set upon us as Black people in this country because the images of us are very stereotyped, we buy into those stereotypes and we say that this is our space… who gets defined as Black and who gets to have these conversations, I want to shake that up. I want people to be unbounded.” BlackStar, therefore, is a space in which filmmakers and audiences engage in the most important artistic, political, historical, and social conversations of the moment.

One way that Holmes cultivates such discussions at BlackStar is through her masterful curation. The short films, for example, are thematically presented so that they are in conversation with one another; and the films transcend national, gender, and geographic boundaries. Constructed this way, the festival speaks to the richness of the African diaspora. It is a festival that promotes community vitality by fostering a space for storytellers of color.

BlackStar Film Festival 2015 programming; photo by Jati Lindsay


BlackStar Film Festival 2015 audience members; photo by Gralin Hughes.

For these thoughtful intentions that pervade the annual convening, BlackStar has been lauded by returning filmmakers, journalists, and audiences. In June, BlackStar will be awarded the Philadelphia Folklore Project’s (PFP) Ella King Torrey Award for Visionary Work in Community and Culture. A film festival may not immediately appear related to folk arts. But according to PFP, folk arts are rooted in community traditions; they endure because they name the experiences of many people. The BlackStar Festival—as a gathering, as a production, and as a cinematic celebration—does precisely that. Even the aesthetics of BlackStar do not exist in a vacuum; they come out of the cultural production of African and Black heritage festivals across the US, which Holmes attended devotedly. “Seeing ourselves affirmed in this way was beautiful and made me feel so proud,” she recalls. “Those traditions shaped me; the festivals are fundamental to my aesthetic understanding.”

PFP’s Visionary Work in Community and Culture Award recognizes artists and projects that widen the way for storytelling by People of Color; cultivate a rich exchange of ideas and ideals; and host a space for telling one’s own stories. BlackStar embodies each of these in quite a radical way. At one point, Holmes tells me that art should be grounded in a space of survival so that it does not mimic power, because art is vital as a tool of resistance. So there is a philosophy to BlackStar, which supports its thoughtful evolution as a breathing project that resists stagnation without making it reactive. My chat with Holmes makes me think that maybe what I experience as magic is actually woven into the festival’s philosophical fabric. To bring our entire conversation back into a contextual framework, Holmes astutely quotes from Julie Dash’s classic film Daughters of the Dust—a film infused with magical realism—“We are the children of those who chose to survive.”

Portrait of Nehad Khader; photo by Rashid Zakat.

Nehad Khader is a writer, an editor, and aspiring image-maker. She is curator of the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival, with a deep passion for film and video art by People of Color, globally. Trained in Palestinian and Black literature, Nehad’s interest in images revolves around more than aesthetics; she is interested in how images inform one another. She is fascinated with the anatomy of art, and given the chance to speak to her favorite creators, she will likely ask about process and inspiration.

Read another article written by Nehad Khader in Works in Progress entitled Tatreez: Palestinian Women’s Needlework in Philadelphia from 2009.