Nehad Khader on How the BlackStar Film Fest Cultivates a Cultural Conversation Across Borders

BlackStar Film Festival
Available Virtually, August 4th-8th

In spite of all they have to celebrate upon their tenth anniversary, one shouldn’t expect the BlackStar Film Fest to be looking back, especially when as much as the lineup may be a reflection of how far they’ve come, it is a greater signal of where they’re going.

“[The anniversary] was taken into account for the program for when we thought of what we’d do in person, says Nehad Khader, the festival director, of the Philadelphia-based festival that pivoted early last year to a hybrid model, enabling audiences form around the world to check out its selection virtually. “But as far as programming the films, that really was much more about the films themselves and the moment that we’re in than about BlackStar being 10 years old.”

In fact, while it continues to be a strange time to celebrate anything as the world continues to wrestle with the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be no greater testament to all that founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes and her team have built over the past decade than how they’ve met the moment at hand, now able to bring in as many audiences globally as filmmakers from the African diaspora and indigenous communities that they’ve long championed. A festival where films are treated with the same weight, no matter what their running time is, their country of origin or what mode of filmmaking they emerge from, BlackStar’s disregard for borders has connected issues of race across continents, highlighting the similar ways in which communities of color have been marginalized and find their power (often through expression in the very film you’re watching), and their ability to facilitate a cultural conversation has transcended the physical realm, somehow delivering the finest approximation of their in-person event of any film festival with their mix of provocative panels and thoughtful post-screening conversations just as heady at home with the shrewd addition of a morning show “The Daily Jawn,” a mix of filmmaker interviews and discussion that starts the day off right.

There is plenty to talk about out of this year’s festival, which will have in-person outdoor screenings nightly at Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in addition to its selection online where each film is available for a 24-hour window after its scheduled start time. Recent festival circuit hits such as the Chuko brothers’ “Eyimofe (This is My Desire),” Peter Nicks’ “Homeroom,” Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s “Writing With Fire” and Christopher Kahunahana’s “Waikiki,” all galvanizing stories about pushing back against how society is set up in different locales in a variety of ways, are bound to inspire new ideas about making change locally no matter where one is and the festival’s ongoing commitment to paying tribute to artists working in a variety of mediums with the selection of films such as “Uprooted: the Journey of Jazz Dance” and “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” are apt to spark joy. Beyond bringing a variety of films that have made their debuts elsewhere into this context, BlackStar is introducing a number of other works into the world, opening the festival with “Strength,” a documentary from Oaxaca in which director Jorge Diaz Sanchez sees a basketball team face more foes off the court than they do on and closing out with “Hallowed Ground,” “A Love Song for Latasha” director Sophia Nahli Allison’s addendum to the landmark civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” and too many shorts to name here in between (though we have some favorites).

While BlackStar may deserve congratulations for what they’ve achieved over time, the collective power of the experience they offer year in and year out with their brilliant curation is equally noteworthy and with the festival just getting underway, Khader graciously took the time to talk about how they come up with such a compelling lineup, the opportunities of connecting filmmakers across countries and cultures and how BlackStar has extended its engagement with audiences year-around.

In the introductory notes to the festival, it said you received double the submissions than the year previous. Was it surprising?

The number this year was really surprising. We actually thought we’d get a lot less submissions this year, and I just could not have imagined like how is it during a pandemic year, but my guess is people were taking advantage of quarantine, working on editing and I also think there’s been a greater desire for storytelling among filmmakers of color and this might be us seeing the funding initiatives of the past year that have increased, so I hope it continues this way. I hope more Black and Brown storytellers get to tell their stories and make their films.

It was a really difficult year to program. There were so many worthy stories, and at the end, I think we figured out our spot is 80 films because we like to be a filmmaker-centered festival and more than that, we drop the ball on taking care of our filmmakers and providing that level of support to all of them. We also want our audience to be able to enjoy all of the films and not to have to pick and choose if it’s possible. I know it’s a tough ask for people to watch 80 films in five days, but everything was exciting and at the end, making the final decisions came down to very small details. There’s a diversity of things to think about and a plethora of issues to consider when choosing the films. We definitely think about geographic spread, and about the types of stories that we want to tell. We were really interested in having a lot more indigenous voices this year, not just from the western hemisphere, but indigenous voices from outside of North America and [there] lot of stories about colonialism. We tried to pick a diversity of topics too. Within the black, brown and indigenous community, there are so many different identities and issues, so we wanted to honor all of those as well.

There’s always been a foundation in the diaspora, but it seems like you’ve expanded the ideas of what this festival can be. Have you felt like the festival has broadened its reach in recent years?

Yes, that has definitely been a concerted effort. Every year, I’m interested in more global, more global, more global. Part of that comes from the United States being the real cinema hegemon on the planet and considering also that black people live everywhere, so decentering the cinema in the United States is thinking about how white Hollywood is and what are the voices that exist outside of Hollywood. We want to take it a step further and think about how centered cinema is in the United States in general, and how beautiful it is for us to put into conversation filmmakers who are in Germany with filmmakers who are in Venezuela, with filmmakers who are Venezuelan and living in the United Kingdom. Think about that. There are so many experiences out there and so many aesthetics out there. Our U.S.-centric aesthetic school of thought is not the only one, so it’s really interesting for us to have those outside voices.

I’m constantly thinking about what’s outside of our borders and I think that has to do with just the internet and communication barriers being broken. Philadelphia is also a global city and from the very beginning, we’ve strived to be a global festival and we attempt to be better at that every year.

You’ve got so many great Philadelphia movies, specifically the films related to the Black Power organization MOVE with “The Inheritance” and “By Your Side,” which you’ve acknowledged with a panel “On a Move” with Mike and Debbie Africa and Ephraim Asili – did you know it was coming?

Yeah, even though Blackstar really is not just a national festival, but a global festival, we are in Philadelphia, so we get excited when we see films from the city and there’s a lot more than those two. There’s a film called “Dear Philadelphia” where actually the filmmaker is British, but he made a really gorgeous short documentary about Philadelphia that even Philadelphians will really enjoy, which I think is a really tough endeavor because Philadelphians are a tough crowd. [laughs] There is also terrific short film called “Testimony: 52nd Street and the Invisible Violence of UPenn” about the University of Pennsylvania and their presence in the city with taking over a street and UPenn police, and [another] short [“From Digital Divide to Digital Equity”] about internet access and Comcast, so the Philadelphia films are actually a really interesting spectrum. They’re really different from each other and I’m really excited to be welcoming folks from here into the festival as well.

After last year’s experience with a mostly virtual festival – there were a few drive-in screenings, did you learn anything that you could apply to staging this year’s fest?

Yeah, we learned so much last year, so this year we dove right in as far as the virtual program goes. [There were] different ways of creating spaces for filmmakers to meet each other virtually – that was a crowdpleaser last year, whether it was a little webinar or we would prerecord the Q & As. Those were the smaller spaces where filmmakers get to see each other’s work and chat with each other and with festival staff.

What was difficult to figure out this year was the in-person programs. We had an instinct a few months ago that the masklessness would not last, so I’m really glad because a lot of spaces in Philly were coming to us and telling us, “Do you want this theater for August?” And we were like, “No, this is really premature.” [laughs] I can’t imagine gathering people indoors still during a pandemic, so we were taking this very seriously, and we wanted to show everybody’s work in person, but it’s really difficult to make choices, [especially] based on the fact that everything is an outdoor evening screening. We’re partnering with Philadelphia Parks and Rec [and] you have to think about who your audience is and that people might be watching off the street, so you don’t want to play films or screen films outside that are going to be intense, no matter how great they are, so figuring out the in-person programming this year was the hardest thing we had to do because everything was changing so quickly and we placed a lot of restrictions on ourselves to make sure our staff and audience continue to be safe.

Because this has grown into a year-around organization, has that changed the festival?

Not so much the festival. I like to call it the crowning jewel, but one of the things that has changed is that we have “Seen,” this twice-annual film journal that is this beautiful piece of art that we produce in print and online that we’ve been dreaming about for years and now we have the version of it that we’ve actually been striving for. And what we’ve been able to do in terms of thinking about the festival as a year-long endeavor is that we’ve been able to put a lot of what happens in the festival into the journal. That was part of the idea behind “Seen” is how do we encapsulate a part of the conversation that happens at the festival into something that people can have after and before. We have other opportunities to amplify the work of the filmmakers and the filmmakers themselves beyond just the festival space, and that’s not just in the journal. We’ve been able to do the daily morning show during the festival and there’s a podcast, so [those] also get to be a space and it’s just about growing the relationships we build during the festival. Every year we have plenty of alumni who come back, but we also have new filmmakers from new countries and we just try to think about ways in our year-around programming to elevate their work even more.

I don’t want to make you pick between children, but is there anything you’re particularly excited about this year?

I’m excited about everything. The feature films and the shorts are just really, really beautiful and it’s hard to choose one to highlight. The in-person programming is really fun and exciting and there’s something for everybody. That’s the most important thing. There’s experimental work, there’s sci-fi work, there’s different languages, there’s documentaries, there are slow unfolding films, there are rapid films and every year I say this, but I would just encourage everybody to sit down with the program, read through everything and plan out your festival experience.