MAORI Karmael Holmes didn't set out to create a film festival. She had booked some dates at West Philly's International House simply to screen some good movies about the African experience. But there were so many worthy entries to choose from, she couldn't bear to pare them down.
"I'm pretty pragmatic, but I do dream big," said Holmes, a graduate of Temple University's Master of Fine Arts program and, by day, the associate director of the Leeway Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on women and the transgendered.
Thus was born the BlackStar Film Festival, the first event of its kind in the city. The four-day event running Thursday through Sunday focuses on films about the African diaspora, or how those with African roots have traveled, settled and left their mark all over the world. Films, both documentaries and narrative features, range in origin from Brooklyn, N.Y., to South Africa to Brazil. The festival includes 40 films from four continents.
Apart from the music documentaries, such as a preview of "The Res Documentary," about the Philly soul-rocker Res, or "FunkJazz Kafé: Diary of a Decade (The Story of a Movement)," about the Atlanta music scene, there is a free music-videos program, including entries from jazz singers, Mexican hip-hoppers and Philly emcee Ethel Cee.
This is not Holmes' first attempt at film curation. She worked on the Black Lily Film & Music Festival, as well as the monthly Kinowatt screening series that seeks to put the voices of marginalized communities on-screen.
Holmes believes that Philadelphia's other festivals have done a poor job of representing the diaspora, even though it's an important part of the cultural conversation. "People are thirsty and hungry for an opportunity where people can see films in one space about people from African descent," said Yaba Blay, an Africana-studies scholar and a member of BlackStar's advisory board.
Holmes said that even BlackStar's name was inspired by the diaspora, particularly Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line, a steamship company that connected African communities around the world in the early part of the 20th century. Holmes said that even though Garvey's idea ultimately failed, the principle behind his company — the unification of black identity — inspires her.
"It's a shame a city this big doesn't have black film represented and celebrated on an annual basis," said local filmmaker and film presenter Mike D., whose "Leaked: Last Night at the Five Spot," about the legendary Old City club, screens at 2:30 p.m. Friday at International House. "BlackStar gives me hope."
Mike D. hosts the monthly Reel Black series, focusing on black filmmakers, but he never attempted a festival because he didn't know if the content was there. Holmes, he said, proved him wrong. Festivals like BlackStar are critical for filmmakers, said Mike D., because they unite a creative community and allow filmmakers to connect and collaborate. They also allow for a wide cross-section of work to be shown the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen.
Most of the BlackStar movies won't show up at a theater near you because there's little studio support behind them — simply because studios don't really know what to do with them, Holmes said, citing filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, who will screen an excerpt of her Sundance Film Festival award-winner, "Middle of Nowhere," and lead a discussion about her work on Saturday. "The films aren't black films, they're just people who happen to have brown skin," Holmes said. "Mainstream Hollywood doesn't know what to do with those stories." Not every film made by black people is a Tyler Perry movie, Holmes said, adding that there's nothing wrong with Perry movies, but there should be more examples of black work on-screen. Also, for Holmes and her co-workers, the issue of presenting black work extends beyond the African-American community to the whole world.
"When we talk about people and places and cultures, we talk about them in vacuum. But we need to see ourselves as part of a global community. We get this sense of isolation, but many of the issues we face in the United States are issues our brothers and sisters are facing throughout the world," Blay said. "It helps unite us emotionally and psychically, spiritually."