As you’re aware, tomorrow is the opening night of the first Philadelphia BlackStar Film Festival, which will screen 40 films from 4 continents. Bold As Love Magazine caught up with founder and curator Maori Karmael Holmes and got the inside scoop on her background and why she’s so excited about bringing a black film festival to the city of brotherly love. Read on.
In college I wanted to be a photographer and somehow ended up in the school of communications at Howard intending to be a filmmaker. At that time, their film program was in flux so I ended up as a history major thinking I’d be a journalist, but I always had this visual interest.
Outside of school, I also started working in the music industry for Sony. I found out I was really good at producing events, the marketing and event promotions aspect. I working on Howard’s Homecoming, the YardFest, and other events, so I found myself in this event production scene.
After graduation, I worked as a journalist at the Washington City Paper as a journalist. But I still wanted to do film because that’s where I felt I could bring everything all of these skills—producing, writing, visual art—and put it together in one space. I went to grad school for film at Temple, which is what brought me to Philadelphia.
So you went to film school, made a film and did the film festival circuit.
Yeah, I made a documentary that enabled me to travel the film festival circuit, and that gave me a base, a community of folks I know in the film industry. My film, Scene Not Heard, was about women and hip hop, so I was particularly going to women’s film festivals and hip hop film festivals. I wanted to bring that experience back with me to Philly. I thought, Oh my gosh, Philly needs something like that. So I started playing around with names and concepts for the festival. Then it occurred to me that Black Lily had ended, I had interviewed them, they had been a part of my film, if they just let me use their name, this was exactly what we were going for, in terms of the name, the branding and the audience. If they let me use it, then the festival would be a success.
Not only did they let me use it, but they were really interested. The Jazzyfatnastees, who founded Black Lily, one of them was working in film. They really wanted to do the festival. So it became a film and music festival.
And that’s how the Black Lily Music & Film Festival got started?
Yes, and it was a really wonderful experience. The music series ran for 6 years, but we only did the festival for two. The crash happened in 2008, so we weren’t able to get funding to launch a full festival, so the next two years we did film series. It was great for me, to be able to continue to practice as a curator. We were also able to continue our workshops for girls in music and film.
And so Black Lily lead into BlackStar?
Actually, after Black Lily disbanded, I’d been doing a social change film series called Kinowatt. I originally wanted to do an African film festival then I switched it to a diaspora focus because some films were coming to me that I couldn’t program in Kinowatt.
I actually thought I was only going to do about 4 films at International House. But as I was researching, I realized how much stuff had not been shown in Philly, or no one [in our community] had seen them because of the festivals they’d been in had been in or the screenings or festivals. So I realized there was an opportunity here.
Which brings me to my next question: How is it possible that there’s been no black film festival in Philly? The city certainly has a vibrant cultural scene.
I don’t know if there has never been one. I just haven’t been able to find history of one. There’s definitely not been one in the 11 years I’ve been living here.
Let’s talk about the lineup. What’s most exciting to you besides all of it?
I’m really excited to screen Restless City. When AFFRM brought it to Philly, it was another case of a poorly attended screening. See, our market is a little weird. Our AMC theaters [with whom AFFRM partnered] are not in the city, they’re both in the suburbs. I feel like the people in my scene didn’t see the film. There were 4 people at the screening I went to. There are suburbs that are more accessible, but those two weren’t. So it’s great to bring the film back
Speaking of AFFRM, Ava DuVernay is coming to talk.
Yes! Ava screened her first film at Black Lily. We’re going to do a conversation with her, funded by the Leeway Foundation, where I work and am a grantee. And she’ll screen an exclusive 20-minute excerpt from Middle of Nowhere!
Other films you’re excited about?
Soul Food Junkies. That’ll be its Philadelphia premiere and Byron will be here, too. We’ve also got US premieres for United States of Hoodoo and Adopted ID, which is about transracial adoption. In fact, I’m so happy that we have an impressive number of filmmakers—16 of the 40 films—who will be present for their screenings.
Where do you want this to go from here?
I would love for this to become an institution. I think the city needs it and I would love if we were doing this every year or every other year, whenever it becomes sustainable. This year, I curated it myself, but next year it’ll be a submissions model so we can really be accessible. I DO know that I want don’t want it to become too big. I really like an intimate festival, so I don’t know if I’d want it to be more than four days. There’s something nice about that. But I’d obviously I’d like to raise more money to bring more people, so we could have more conversations. I’d love to get tighter, deeper, in terms of educational components, classes, labs, workshops, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, there are year-round things that happens in the city. Like with Louis [Massiah] at Scribe. We also have a new community access media, so there’s stuff that happens. But this kind of annual celebration or gathering is what we’ve been missing.
Interviewed edited for clarity.