From December 21st to the 23rd, just days before Christmas, the Ashe Cultural Center will play host to the first annual Black Film Festival of New Orleans. Started by local media man Gian Smith, this new festival is billed as being a progressive event for filmmakers of color to showcase their works to the city. Below, you’ll find an interview I conducted with Gian Smith, where he explains the concept, his thoughts on other area festivals (which should be noted are not 100% shared by this writer) and what progressive cinema means to him.
Do visit the hyperlinks provided for more information on showtimes:
Bill Arceneaux: Do you feel that the New Orleans Film Festival (and any other regional film fest) does enough to represent, encourage, and include people of color and their stories?
Gian Smith: Wow! Right into it lol. Excellent question and I’m glad you asked. Complete transparency: I have my personal issues with NOFF, which I won’t get into because that’s not what you’re asking. That being said, my honest opinion is that they (specifically NOFF) does the best job they think they can do. And in my opinion, they do a great deal of good for black filmmakers in New Orleans. I won’t take from them that they’ve definitely put a lot of my peers in much better situations. But as progressive as they are and intend to be, in some ways they are still tone deaf. They think they are doing the best they can because they don’t understand how they could be doing better. I believe that comes from a lack of black and brown people making important decisions. Again… total transparency, I don’t know anyone personally who works for NOFF, and the only person I could identify by name is festival director Clint Bowie, so there may be people of color in key administrative positions at NOFF. But I doubt it because as a black New Orleans filmmaker I can’t imagine I wouldn’t know those people. So my best guess is they aren’t there. And a group of only white people deciding what’s best for black people has never worked out well for black people. But in their defense, that’s not what their programming is about and I definitely think they do a good job of serving their bottom line. So that being said, I don’t want it to seem that BFFNO was created out of spite for NOFF because that’s not the case.
As for other regional film festivals, I can’t say I’ve engaged much with them (nor them with me) to know, but I’ve also not seen a lot of my peers posting about other festivals featuring their work either so I think that speaks to a lack of representation.
And even though you didn’t ask about national film festivals I’ll respond. I don’t think film festivals programmed by mostly all white administrators have an appreciation for stories told by black filmmakers. I think that Hollywood is starting to catch on that these stories can be commodified, but I think, generally speaking, the industry still doesn’t like, understand, or appreciate stories by and about black people. Which is one of the reasons I sought to create this platform and my segue to your next question.
BA: How did The Black Film Festival of New Orleans come about?
GS: Conceptually: I thought to myself one day that it was absurd that a movie like Girls Trip, which was filmed in New Orleans and starred a lot of local talent (Tony Frederick and Jessica Johnson who are in films featured in our festival come to mind) didn’t have a New Orleans premiere. I don’t know whose job it is to think of that kind of thing but they dropped the ball… or maybe they didn’t… Girls Trip still did great at the box office so obviously their marketing department got more right than wrong. But I’m all the way New Orleans… and a hustler. And imagining the buzz around the city that all the local talent would have created for that premiere I saw an opportunity. So I told myself “Five years from now, if there is a movie with a majority black cast filmed in New Orleans, we will be doing their premiere.”
Mechanically: I have an organizational background with my spoken word poetry, open mic “Pass It On” and other events put on by my friend Ayo, Alphonse, and our departed friend Marc (now partnered with Brittany, Malik, Icon, and Jay as well) so I knew it was something I could do. But it’s actually coming to fruition thanks to a generous price cut given to me by Ashe Cultural center, and a timely donation by Making Connections New Orleans thanks to the diligent work of my friend, board member and creative partner Ayo Scott.
BA: What are the criteria for having a film selected for screening? What movies will be shown over the course of the festival weekend?
GS: Most of the films being screened were submitted thru Filmfreeway, a platform filmmakers use to apply to festivals like NOFF. Those films were judged on their merits, and the best of them will be screened at the festival. Because this is the inaugural festival, and a smaller one, screen time is a bit of an issue, therefore most of the films screened will be short films. But that still works out because often times black filmmakers are without resources to do larger productions at a masterful level and in our early filmmaker stages we’re left to tell movies through short-form content. Some of my favorites among the non-local films are Stuck, Showtime, and our opening night feature film Olympia.
The majority of the films in the “New Orleans” filmmaker block were hand selected by me without submission. These are friends and colleagues I know personally and admire their work. I definitely wanted to make a point of highlighting our local talent, and there are still quite a few black filmmakers in New Orleans that deserve to be screened but with whom I am not yet connected. Hopefully, this festival brings greater awareness all around and I can work to get those filmmakers in next year.
BA: “You don’t have to be Ava Duvernay or Spike Lee to be acknowledged and treated with the respect you and your film deserve at the BFFNO.” That’s a quote from the festival about page. It suggests a wink to those reading, that this fest won’t be biased towards those who’ve already made names for themselves. What kind of responsibility do you have as a gatekeeper of sorts, to ensure that a diverse array of talent gets their due?
GS: I think my greatest work on that front is yet to come. At this point, the only filmmakers I’m interacting with are the ones still seeking the status of the Duvernay’s and Lee’s. It’s easy to remain grounded when HBO isn’t knocking on your door. But I trust the compassion and empathy I inherited from my mother will continue to guide me throughout this process. And I believe I can adhere to my personal standards that I will put eyes on every submission that comes thru, and that every filmmaker that is selected will always have an open and direct line of communication with me. And more to the point of your question I know I will never forget my current place in the world of film (as a filmmaker) and will use my gift of discernment to know who’s serious about filmmaking and passionate about their films the way I am even if, like me, they have not yet matched that passion and effort with master level skill. That is to say, not every film you watch at my festival will be perfect. But they will all have been loved by their creator.
BA: I’m sure you’re quite proud of the filmmakers chosen to take part already, but are there any you’d wish to highlight here?
GS: I mentioned some of the films earlier that I enjoyed. I truly believe artists like Praheme da Praphet, Sandrel Young, Shawn Antoine, Jason Pierre, Jamie Walker, Mckenzie Chinn, and others will soon be making content you can get directly on your television or streaming platforms. But we have quite a few talented local filmmakers that deserve mention. Jonathan Jackson is a good friend and source of inspiration with his strict adherence to and appreciation for his title of filmmaker. Martin BATS Bradford is already well known as an actor, but he and partner Devin McCoy and the #Gumbomonster crew create their own content which we’ll be featuring. I really enjoyed the work of Rachel Grissom who is not a filmmaker of color but produced two shorts featuring local, black talent. Brian Harrison-Nelson, a bona fide Mardi Gras Indian chief with a great family heritage, offers a segment of his documentary about Mardi Gras Indian queens. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite filmmakers out of the bunch, Bobby Yan, who directed my film “The Adulterer” and Kenneth “Charleesummer” Brown who is a brilliant cinematographer and worked with me on a short of mine I directed which will be screened right before “The Adulterer.”
BA: Your online site is pbesoul.com, the PBE standing for Progressive Black Experience. What for you is a progressive black film?
GS: For me ‘Progressive’ isn’t the descriptor for the genre of films I make. That is to say, there is not a regressive black film that I’m in contrast to, at least I don’t believe in that. For me ‘Progressive’ is pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished as a black filmmaker. There is an opportunity to tell stories that have been bypassed and ignored. I want to make those films. And I want to do my part for the other people making those films. Black Film Festival of New Orleans embodies the ‘progressive black experience’ because we’re making our own lane where there wasn’t one. And by the time I’m done I hope that lane stretches farther than the eye can see…
Bill Arceneaux is the lead content writer for Big Easy Magazine. In addition to this, he has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his film reviews and other articles here.