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BlackStar Festival’s Maori Karmael Holmes talks Seen, a new magazine about filmmaking and visual culture

The magazine is focused on Black, Brown, and Indigenous filmmakers. “We need more space for work by folks of color to be lovingly critiqued by other folks of color,” Holmes said.

BlackStar Film Festival Founder Maori Karmael Holmes at her East Kensington home on Friday, December 4, 2020.  Holmes is the founder and artistic director of BlackStar Film Festival and launched a new magazine that focuses on Black, brown, and Indigenous filmmaking.
BlackStar Film Festival Founder Maori Karmael Holmes at her East Kensington home on Friday, December 4, 2020. Holmes is the founder and artistic director of BlackStar Film Festival and launched a new magazine that focuses on Black, brown, and Indigenous filmmaking.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As BlackStar Film Festival’s founder and artistic director, Maori Karmael Holmes has become one of Philadelphia’s most authoritative voices in the national conversation on contemporary filmmaking. This summer, she was named curator-at-large for film at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Now, Holmes is expanding her influence with Seen, a biannual journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.

The first issue of the high-end glossy publication was mailed to 250 print subscribers Nov. 30. She and her editorial team hope to sell 1,500 copies. Copies are also available digitally.

Seen’s inaugural, 192-page issue has over two dozen articles, including an interview with Radha Blank of Netflix’s The 40-Year-Old Version, a review of the documentary Time written by CUNY cinema professor Racquel Gates, and a peek into renowned painter Amy Sherald’s Jersey City Studio. Inquirer reporter Juliana Feliciano Reyes reviewed Mati Diop’s 2019 film Atlantics.

“We need more space for work by folks of color to be lovingly critiqued by other folks of color,” Holmes said. “[BlackStar] is one way in terms of people being able to see work and participate in panels and networking. Seen is documenting that work and creating an archive and providing a platform for examination and historizing.” She hired a handful of editors and a page designer for the new project and also collaborated with existing BlackStar staff.

Holmes was born in Los Angeles and now lives in Fishtown. She studied history at American University before earning a master’s degree in film at Temple. She also studied costume design at California Institute of the Arts. She worked as a writer for many years before founding BlackStar, writing for Philadelphia’s City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, among other publications.

She keeps old magazines stashed away in plastic file boxes in her closet. Amid worn copies of a 2001 issue of Blu and a 2008 issue of magazine with Questlove and Black Thought on the cover, is a mock-up of a wellness and fashion magazine she made in 1999. She named it MUD.

“I love that we live in such a digital age, but when I’m feeling nostalgic, I go through my box of stuff, and at a certain point, you don’t have copies of photos and letters,” Holmes, 42, said. “I’m really invested in trying to make sure that we have ephemera in that way.”

The Inquirer spoke with Holmes about Seen’s launch, the value of print products, and having a flexible relationship with time. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was putting together Seen’s first issue like?

It took a lot out of me. I was working on the festival almost full-time with four other people. So in addition to the festival, we launched the journal and a couple of other programs.

What I didn’t account for, though, is that having the staff didn’t mean that we should do more. We had been over-performing, punching far above our weight class. I wouldn’t call it difficult. I think we all enjoyed the work, but it was definitely more than we anticipated. When we started [in January], we thought we would do a quarterly journal and we realize now that it’s going to be semiannual to start with just because of the coordinating of writers, the edits, artwork, and thinking through social media plans.

How did you decide which stories to run?

I sat with Nehad Khader, who is also BlackStar’s program director and also the managing editor of the journal, and thought through many different broad themes. For instance, we knew we wanted to have some article about cinema in South Korea. We knew we wanted to have something that was looking at cinema in South Asia [and] Indigenous American film. We had a separate list of artists and writers that we wanted to hear from [like] Niela Orr and Dessane Lopez Cassell. We reached out to some more folks and talked to them about what they may like to write and we told them what we were thinking about. We further refined our ideas and found writers for them.

I think only one of the articles was pitched to us, which was Heitor Augusto’s article about queer Brazilian cinema. He reached out and it was such an obvious piece for us. We really hope people will submit moving forward, of course. We’re really just trying to reflect on the moment as much as we can. We always want to be in conversation with the past and the future.

Why was it important to you to offer a print version of Seen?

I’m really invested in print. I studied history in undergrad and I’m personally someone that’s all about the archive and having mementos. So I wanted to have a print journal. Of course, it would be expensive to produce and distribute so you have to charge a certain amount for it. [Print copies are $20, digital $5.] That said, I wanted the content to be widely available.

We’re doing a digital version so that people who aren’t invested in print or don’t want to spend or can’t spend as much money on the print issue will have access to the designed content. Much of the content will eventually be posted on the website, not all of it. I think half the articles will end up on our site. So there will be free access as well.

When did you first fall in love with film?

I’m not 100 percent sure because I [initially] took it for granted. My mom is really into film and theater and we were always going to cultural festivals. When I was in high school, she was dating a filmmaker and we would go to the movies like church — at least one film a week. My mom and I still talk about what we watched during the week, but growing up it was the Merchant Ivory films and all the magical realism films of the ’90s. I remember skipping school to see Just Another Girl on the IRT with my mom. I was always somehow engaged with independent film or art-house film in some way.

Have you learned anything new about yourself while launching Seen?

I don’t know that I would say it was new, but something that my mother and probably a lot of people’s mothers say to them is that I’m hardheaded. I’ve been overworking and over-performing for a really long time. COVID-19 has forced me to balance things out a little bit more.

Our initial intent was to get this journal out at the same time as the festival, which would have been in August. At some point I [realized] this was not possible and there’s no reason to force ourselves to do this. So I think it’s not so much teaching but affirming or reminding that we don’t have to do everything all at once. So when we pushed it back [to launch in the fall], I just had to let go of my expectations of time. I think the bigger thing is just accepting that everything happens in its own time.